Today, an author I have deeply admired for a decade challenged a few of us to write, so I’m writing. On the edges, after toddler bedtime, as I must, if writing is to happen.
In retrospect, I’ve never really been much of a disciplinary thinker.
Flashback to elementary school: my 4th grade teacher asks me what my favorite subject is, and I can’t answer her question. Math. No, English. No, Math. Maybe science. Music, actually. Chorus.
Flashback to 11th grade. I’m taking AP US History, it’s somewhere between November and January, and we’re learning about Reconstruction. That abysmal moment in US History where we finally did the right thing, but wrongly, and former slaves could be found throughout our nation drifting somewhere between freedom on paper and chains in practice. In AP English, we’re reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s pure coincidence that the units coincide, but I start to put the pieces together, realizing that the narrative of Sethe and her tortured maternal heart is the story of so many of the slaves-turned-not-really-free in the pages of my history textbook.
Flashback to college, as I sit in an Architectural History seminar, completely transfixed as the professor describes the engineering of arches in gothic cathedrals. Artistic beauty meets mathematical genius at the top of each perfect archway, keystones and tympana garnished with stories that guide and rule the collective memories of the people who sit within the building’s protective walls.
When I entered a doctoral joint program that spanned the social sciences and humanities, the fit seemed natural, especially since I couldn’t choose between education and my love for studying how people think, learn, and grow; and English and my love for how people express, argue, and communicate. Why pick? It’s all connected.
It’s all connected. I love finding connections. I love making connections. Between people. Between ideas. It’s my thing.
That’s probably why I studied social connections for four years and wrote a really long book about it that no one will ever read. It’s probably why I ultimately wound up leading technology integration for public schools. What’s powerful about new technologies, and particularly today’s technologies? They connect. People. Ideas. Of course, I dig.
But today, and lately, and sometimes here and there, I struggle to live in the space between disciplines. At times like these, I challenge my own belief, conviction, regularly-argued-assertion, that it’s all connected. Because if it’s all connected, we lose our categories, and it becomes difficult for us to make sense of the world. The human brain loves to create buckets, to organize. But beyond being an evolutionary impulse, we need categories and disciplines in order to think deeply about things. Sometimes we need fewer connections; sometimes, we need boundaries. Limits. Things we are ignoring so that we can focus on this, only this, and not on all of the things “this” connects to.
What are you talking about, Liz?
Let’s back up. Last year, a team of colleagues and I formed a “STEAM Team,” a group of community members (parents, students, teachers, administrators) dedicated to researching, defining, and exploring “STEAM” options for our district. We started by attempting to define “STEAM” education. What did we mean when we said “STEAM?” We read some articles. STEM v STEAM. STEM as a passing trend. Some stuff on design thinking. We discussed the people involved and resources needed to design impactful interdisciplinary learning. We engaged in challenge tasks at every meeting, sometimes building robotic arms out of straws, clips, and string, sometimes creating audiobooks with sound effects. We have crafted recommendations to bring such engaging experiences to our students across all grades, and we have had a lot of fun exploring and uncovering what lies in the space between disciplines.
Then today, a visit to our high school from an author whose most known and popular young adult novel, Speak, is the only book that has somehow made an appearance in every stage of my 10-year career in education. From curriculum development to teaching 9th grade English to tutoring English language learners to leading libraries, this book has followed me. When Laurie Halse Anderson visited today to speak with our high school students, I was just as giddy as the teens. And, I was reminded of the disciplinary roots in English literature that once consumed my attention and passion.
I was taken back to my English classroom, where we – my 9th graders and I – dug in.
We didn’t think about math (well, we sort of did when we surveyed the school and analyzed our findings).
We didn’t think about history (ok well that’s a lie, most of my ELA classes were half history).
We definitely thought about art and music as a way of giving voice to pain, as Melinda does in the text.
We thought about technology a lot, because we decided to make documentaries on ancient desktops with nowhere near enough storage, using camcorders from 1995.
But mostly, we thought and talked and wrote about texts and language and reading and revising and composing. We developed theories about the text and its messages and themes. We talked about consent, censorship, silence, trauma, gender politics, and adolescence. We learned how to defend our ideas with evidence from multiple texts, how to frame quotes within a sentence, how to identify patterns in imagery, language, and dialogue. We redefined what it meant to “write” when we tossed out the classic literary analysis essay and created documentaries about things that were hard to “speak up” about. We dug in.
“Digging in” is what disciplinary thinking allows us to do, and something I don’t feel like I get to do as often lately, as I focus on connecting disciplines, on building technology meaningfully into the work of all disciplines. STEAM n’stuff.
I love living in the space between disciplines, because it allows me to see, discover, and attempt to articulate the myriad connections between science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics… and also civics, literacy, politics, sociology, psychology. However, we cannot draw those connections without first developing the categories around which generations of thinkers have thought deeply. We must first categorize and focus in order to later discover the space between, and within that chasm, create new “disciplines.”