This page contains an account of a highly successful interdisciplinary project at Frankfurt International School. The project was conceived and coordinated by Darren Trebel, upper school art teacher, whose description of it to parents in the school's newsletter is repeated below:
By far the most successful of the interdisciplinary projects developed in connection with Art has been the eighth grade Structures project, which incorporates skills learned in Math, Science, Humanities, German and French. This project has grown over the years to push the limit of what is considered truly interdisciplinary.
In art classes in the fall of 1995, I asked some eighth graders how they interpreted the idea of structure. Most of their responses indicated that they were thinking in very literal terms and that, to them, this notion implied houses and buildings and such. So I figured this would be a good place to start in art classes and incorporated the idea of planning and building a model of an actual house. Graph paper, glue sticks, modelling knives, wooden dials, rulers and lightweight card - we had it all in stock. So far, so good. I approached the other eighth grade team members and asked them if we could expand upon that. The ideas since then have been building.
In Maths the students were to learn ratios and geometrical formulas for determining square areas and circumferences of squares, circles, ellipses and irregular polygons. Why not have them determine the square area of the rooms of their proposed structure? Good. And find the lengths of all the interior and exterior walls? Yes. And perhaps we could have them determine costs of these structures based on the measurements and calculations they make? Great! But how?
Well, we live in Germany, and the students are taking German. So why not have them spend a few lessons in German classes calling around to local construction supply companies and contractors to get the prices themselves? Improve their vocabulary and their increase their conversational skills. Excellent! Now we can determine a cost sheet for each student's structure. But what do they use for money? What currency could be found that was actually worth something' to an eighth grader? This was, perhaps, the most difficult aspect of the project to solve. How do you really motivate an eight grader? Good question.
Having been a kid once, I remembered that I loved playing Monopoly. The markers. the colourful money and the sense that you were somehow involved in a titanic struggle to control a financial empire were all so compelling to me (I suppose that wore off when I went into teaching for a living). So I hit upon the idea of introducing the kids to a Monopoly-like set of bank notes which they could earn' by doing homework and extra credit work in their research workbooks, which I require them to keep throughout the year. I printed up twelve different denominations of bills, from l's to 500.000's, on different colours of paper, each of which featured a oval portrait of one of their teachers or administrators on the front. Then I announced the plan to reward student work with these tokens which they could, in turn, use to pay for their houses. I closed my eyes and hoped against hope that they would accept them. In teaching, sometimes you take such chances.
They were an instant and outrageous success! The students absolutely loved them and I had so many sketchbooks coming in for extra credit review that I had to take about two hours after every school day just to go through them and make the appropriate 'cash' rewards. The incentive was there for them to do extra work and the problem of a payment method for their houses was solved.
Now in Humanities the students are studying scale and learning to read contour maps, which appeared to compliment our use of scale and measurement in Art and Math. Great! Why not have them find or better yet) bid upon and purchase an actual piece of land somewhere where they could build their proposed house. The students were also scheduled to examine the earth's terrain and learn about erosion and other forces which affect the manner in which land is actually shaped. It seemed to fit right into what we were planning! We could enhance their studies here by requiring them to create small scale models of their purchased plot of land, made of layers of thick cardboard, illustrating the contour of the land and specifying exactly where their structure would be situated. This would force them to consider the importance of drainage, water supply, erosion and terrain all at once in relation to their house design. Now we were getting somewhere.
In addition, I heard from the French teachers that the students would be given a chance over the course of several lessons to compose an advertisement for their house (which is what they were actually designing) to be placed in a simulated French real estate magazine. which they would 'publish' together as a class. The point there was to get the students to describe their house in glowing terms, using a second language in a manner convincing enough to induce others to 'buy' their product. This would help build not only their vocabulary, but also their confidence in using and manipulating the structure of a language to their advantage.
Finally, in Science classes we hope to have students examining the very basics of structural integrity inherent in specific materials. They would devote a short unit of study to testing samples of woods, plasters, cement, stone and metals in order to discover how they were composed. how much weight they could bear and how resistant they could be to wear. This would compliment their understanding of building materials and help them comprehend the nature of what they were proposing to build with. With this knowledge, they would be able to make more informed choices for their buildings based upon what they really desired (marble floors, ten-meter high walls and glass ceilings everywhere) versus what was affordable and what would work.
Immediately following the holiday break, all the students finished their model construction, gathered their materials, computed the costs of their structures and lined up at my desk to 'pay' what they owed for their projects. All of them came through. All of them were accountable in the end for all of the information and materials they had undertaken to work with. It was astonishing. Were they fiscal wizards? Magicians of real estate development? Did I have over 130 young Donald Trumps sitting my classes. No. They were just FIS eighth graders who were well taught.
Clearly, what is happening here at FIS in the eighth grade is a truly interdisciplinary approach to teaching, perhaps an example of one of the most highly developed interdisciplinary projects ever attempted at this school. In January the eighth grade students hosted an opening ceremony for their Third Annual Ideal Structures Project exhibit in the foyer of the school auditorium. The quality and breadth of the work on display were testament to the high standards of learning and performance with which our students are measuring themselves. They were also a wonderful reminder of how a fully integrated curricular approach to learning can produce spectacular results. I think that. given the way this project has evolved over past several years we can look forward to some phenomenal results in the future!