Interdisciplinary Education: Not in the Heavens

by Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky
Director of Interdisciplinary Learning and Educational Outreach
Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School

As educators, we know well the benefits of interdisciplinary education. To name just a few:

  • It fosters higher-order critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  • It can be more "authentic" by more closely approximating the types of problems students encounter in everyday life.
  • Students gain a richer appreciation of each discipline by exploring the ways in which each interacts with others.
  • Students who might not otherwise naturally thrive in one area of study can gain increased confidence in that area. For example, a struggling Talmud student can experience a higher sense of competency when recognizing that her mathematical talents position her to better understand a key Talmudic passage.
  • It can help to soften the bipolar experience with which many Jewish Day School students characterize their experience shifting between Judaic and General Studies classes.
  • Classes that are co-taught can serve as a model of mutual respect and partnership that can remain with students for a lifetime.

Beyond the benefits to students, interdisciplinary collaboration also benefits us as teachers:

  • It fosters collaboration across departments, building bridges that facilitate faculty cohesion.
  • Particularly at times such as winter, when many of us may feel exhausted, out-of-the-box planning with teachers outside of our departments can get our juices flowing and provide an invaluable injection of energy.
  • By gaining content knowledge of new disciplines, we grow in our overall understanding and teaching ability.

Yet these benefits notwithstanding, we know that interdisciplinary education is often difficult to implement, particularly in older secondary grades, in which our classes tend to be separated into "departmental" classes. Our countless professional obligations often leave us little time to co-plan or extend beyond our traditional curricula. In addition, financially strapped as they are, many Jewish day schools are unable to allocate significant additional funding to support cross-disciplinary collaboration. The extraordinary scheduling complexity of dual curriculum schools often makes it exceedingly difficult for teachers of different disciplines to be present in the same classroom at the same time. As a result, many educators are left trying to squeeze interdisciplinary learning "through the cracks."

These limitations notwithstanding, I'd like to mention a sampling of the programs we have run over the past year at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. These are in addition to our annual Theme Day, in which a cross-disciplinary group of faculty members collaborate to enable students to tackle an important, complex subject. (For instance, last year students analyzed the First Amendment, the year prior our responsibilities to the environment). After detailing these efforts, I will propose some concrete everyday suggestions for introducing more interdisciplinary learning into our classrooms.

Beowulf, Free Choice and the High Holidays

Last year, students studying Beowulf wondered, if Grendel's (the epic's villain) mother is evil, can Grendel really be held fully responsible as the epic's antagonist? After the English teacher and I discussed the class conversation, we decided to introduce a one-time interdisciplinary lesson to address the question. I stepped into the English class and facilitated a lesson designed to address the moral question from an interdisciplinary perspective. Students were asked to consider a case of a criminal who is raised to disregard the law, and ultimately commmits murder: should the individual be held fully responsible for his actions? Students came up to the front of the room, engaged in a "Chalk Talk" exercise in which they voted for their position by writing on the whiteboard, explained their positions in writing, and then responded to their peers in the same fashion. This led to an oral discussion regarding the notion of free choice in Judaism, and personal student reflections spurred by Rav Dessler's concept of the "choice point," in which R. Dessler posits that realistically, each individual experiences a different set of free will choices, depending on the habits previously ingrained in that individual. The timing of the class, which fell out around the time of Elul and the High Holidays, could not have been better. Indeed, the class was so successful that it has now in effect become an annual part of the teacher's course curriculum.

Genesis and the Age of the Universe: A Student-Led School-Wide Program

Over the last few weeks, our Tanach classes have begun exploring the creation story at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit. Naturally, this raises many questions for students about how to reconcile the biblical account of creation with modern scientific theory. In anticipation of these questions, the Tanach and Science department chairs and I met, and designed the following program. First, student leaders led peers in text-based discussion groups exploring classical Jewish approaches to reconciling the Torah and modern scientific approaches to creation and evolution. (The student leaders had prepared the sources by learning the materials with me in small groups.) Sources included citations from a broad array of sources, including midrashim, Abravanel, Rav Hirsch, Rav Kook, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and much more. Next, students participated in a panel discussion, featuring a mix of Judaic Studies and science educators. Students raised questions ranging from the Torah view on the age of the universe, to the precise meaning of evolution, to the existence of life on other planets. Following the program, students remarked how powerful it was to hear Judaic and General Studies teachers share highly complementary, mutually reinforcing responses in response to questions.

Interdisciplinary Illuminated Haggadah

In many of our art classes this year, each student will portray a portion of the Haggadah through one of a variety of media. These will be culled into a full illustrated Haggadah to be distributed to students, families, and school supporters in time for Passover. Each student is being paired with a Judaic Studies teacher, and is responsible to study the chosen portion of the Haggadah in depth, ultimately incorporating that learning into the artwork. We are also hopeful that in coordination with our technology department, students will be able to create an electronic version of the Haggadah. In much the same style as automated museum technology, the electronic Haggadah would enable one to click on each piece of art to hear a pre-recorded artistic, Torah-based interpretation of the artwork.

The Cities of Israel - An Interdisciplinary Unit and Schoolwide Fair

Each year for Yom Haatzmaut, as an outgrowth of the learning in their Ivrit classes, our 10th-grade students run an Israel Fair for the entire high school. The fair is a culmination of classroom learning in the weeks leading up to Yom Haatzmaut. This past year, students chose an Israeli city to research. They were responsible to create trifolds detailing key facts about the city, as well as create a three-dimensional virtual representation of some aspect of the city. This year, we added not only the tech component, but also required students to work closely with teachers to incorporate content from Tanach, Talmud and/or later Jewish history into their projects; the scoring rubric incorporated this research as an essential measure of student learning. Students so thoroughly enjoyed researching and creating their projects that on the morning of Yom Haatzmaut they spontaneously decided to arrange all twenty-two cities they had researched in the rough geographic outline of the State of Israel, and offer all students in the school a “tour” of ancient and modern-day Israel.

Reflecting on these programs, below are six quick suggestions relevant for administrators and teachers alike, worth considering as we seek to create these interdisciplinary spaces:

  • Stand-Alone Lessons - Not all interdisciplinary collaboration needs to take place across an entire unit. As detailed above, the Beowulf lesson has developed into an annual stand-alone lesson.
  • Build it into the curriculum - The Beowulf lesson was successful enough that we decided to make it a permanent part of the curriculum. This way, we have no need to reinvent the wheel each year.
  • Build on existing programs - The Israel Fair was an already-successful program to which we added interdisciplinary elements. Building upon the successes of our Ivrit department was much easier and more effective than developing an interdisciplinary learning program from scratch.
  • Spread the wealth - Faculty from a wide variety of departments were actively involved in these programs. Yet not every teacher from every department was required to be involved in any one program, helping to ensure that they did not feel overextended. The wide span of collaborators also generated positive energy across a significant percentage of our faculty, reinforcing the collegial culture.
  • Know the Curriculum - Simply sharing basic knowledge about what each discipline is teaching in the classroom, whether by using curriculum maps or simply engaging in one-on-one conversation, can help to foster greater interdisciplinary collaboration. After hearing about the planned Haggadah project, for example, it was natural for me to offer to partner with the art teacher.
  • Talk in the teachers room - Often, lack of joint planning time is rightly viewed as an impediment to interdisciplinary planning. Yet countless informal conversations take place in the faculty room. Imagine if spontaneous collaboration were to emerge from two educators simply conversing about what one another is teaching in the classroom. Not all valuable conversations among colleagues need to come at scheduled meetings. Sometimes an informal conversation can go a long way toward breaking down silos and supporting faculty collaboration.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult and often elusive, but, as the Torah itself, is not in the heavens. With a blend of passion and practical planning, we can offer students a rich array of learning experiences that might have previously felt beyond our reach.

Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky serves as Director of Interdisciplinary Learning and Educational Outreach at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. He was awarded the inaugural Kohelet Prize in interdisciplinary education for the course on Jewish & Western philosophy and the humanities he co-taught at Kohelet Yeshiva.