Interdisciplinary Curriculum: A Union of Disciplines

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Lisa Kraiza and her collaborator, Doug Eiland, were part of a year-long interdisciplinary curriculum writing initiative at Oakland Schools focused on research writing.  Explore their interdisciplinary unit about the Civil War and the other completed units from the initiative.


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Lisa Kraiza & Doug Eiland, 8th grade teachers at Oak Park Prepratory Academy

The conversation went a little like this:

“Doug, would you like to write an ELA/Social Studies unit together?”

“Sure, what topic should we do?”

“You pick. I can make ELA work into anything.”

“How about the American Civil War?  The kids really seemed into the brother against brother concept of the event.”

“Great! I can work with that…”

Uh, wait a second, I later thought to myself, I only know the bare bones of the Civil War.  And so it began, the great American journey into cross-curricular unit writing. (I would like to thank my brother-in-arms, Douglass Eiland, for taking a risk and jumping feet first into this adventure.  Our students are lucky to have him as their social studies teacher and a role model.)

Doug and I had this conversation in September of 2013.  We piloted our finished unit in April of 2014.  We decided we wanted the outcome of this unit to be: students can see the connection between two disciplines when learning about a topic and understand the broader scope of the Civil War not as just a bunch of battles that happened a long time ago, but as a period in American history that still has repercussions for us today.  This looked great on paper, but there was one major problem.  I, the ELA teacher, barely knew a speck about the Civil War.  I needed to learn as much as I could so I could feel comfortable teaching my students during this cross-curricular unit.  I had to quickly immerse myself in this time period.  And oh boy, did I ever!

We decided that the essential question underpinning the unit would be: what does it take to survive civil war? Once we had gathered all the information and resources we thought students would need, the question became — what do we do with all this?  How would we remain in this cross-curricular mindset and capture the minds of the students?  The answer: student learning centers.  There is so much to learn and know about the Civil War that it could prove overwhelming for both us as teachers and for the students.  So our plan was to introduce the Civil War in a joint teaching session that involved student learning centers.  We broke the Civil War material down by type of media, resulting in seven different learning centers:

  • Trade Books
  • Photography
  • Poetry
  • Film
  • Trading Cards
  • Political Cartoons
  • Writing
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students learning collaboratively at a learning center

There was a task to complete at each center and students had a recording sheet (click here to see an example).  They would receive a grade in both social studies and ELA for their work.  At the end of the two-day session, students completed an exit ticket to reflect on their introduction to the Civil War.  It was thrilling to see students so engaged and curious.  We received many tickets with “a-has” and “this makes sense.”  After Doug and I high fived each other, we went into our classrooms to answer the students’ questions with our respective lessons.

So now what?  How would Doug and I come together to summatively assess what the students would learn in this unit?  The answer came in the form of a multimedia presentation on a Civil War personality.  Each student was assigned a person on day one of our unit.  These figures from the Civil War came from all walks of life, famous, infamous or long-forgotten.  We had a balance of Northerners, Southerners, military personnel, and folks on the home front.  Students were to present to their peers a study of how their person survived, or did not survive, the Civil War.

We allowed for joint research time, supported students in finding and using sources, and encouraged collaboration.  Students presented to both their ELA and social studies classes and again received double credit.  We had some amazing presentations!  Students became their Civil War personas.  They connected to the war on an emotional level and were able to see that that choices these historical figures made were not as simple as they had once believed.  We saw increased pride and motivation in our students to do a good job.  This wasn’t always the case with traditional “final” projects.  Lastly, students developed a clear vision of how social studies and ELA can live together in their minds.  There were many light bulb moments for our students.

croppedLisawithstudents copyThis experience showed me and Doug that it is imperative for disciplines to collaborate.  Neither of us could have gotten the quality of work the students produced had we done this separately.  For the first time, students were seeing exactly how the skills they learn in their individual classes apply to all classes.  They were developing skills–research skills, presentation skills– not just memorizing facts and figures.

And we learned that it is okay to have students see their teachers try new things.  It is okay to “share the spotlight” and lean on other educators to fill in gaps for us.  True collaboration is honoring what the other person brings to the table, and Doug and I feel that we 100% honor each other as professional educators.  Of course, there are many small items that we will change or revisit in this unit, but the overall meaning and intention of the unit was met with vigor and enthusiasm.

Let the Union prevail and in the words of the great Abraham Lincoln:

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”

LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.

A New School Year, A New Perspective

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
photo by Joe Gall

photo by Joe Gall

The 2014-2015 school year came in like a flood…literally.  My school’s entire first floor was flooded as the surrounding communities were during the great summer storm.  My room is located on the 2nd floor, but because the gutters were so overwhelmed, the windows leaked and my room flooded too.  Needless to say, I needed a new floor and was not able to get into my classroom for set up until Labor Day with the students coming the next day!  Talk about stress and anxiety about going back to work.  I was in a panic about my room, about my new kids, and even about my new principal.  Once I tired myself out from all the worry, I realized that as much as I wanted to be the “in control of all things Mrs. Kraiza,” that is not always possible. And that is okay.

I took a step back to remind myself that cultivating student relationships is just as important, if not more important than sitting at my desk lesson planning curriculum.  Here are some small, simple ways that I connect with my students all year long:

  • Hall duty: I greet my students at the door every day and every hour.
  • I have students sit at tables so I can easily wander the room and check in with them at various points in the lesson.
  • I do not spend first days of school going over rules and expectations;  we deal with each issue as it comes up by holding a class meeting and using students as models for what is expected.  Students also model what not to do as well!
  • We do icebreakers in class, such as line-up, two truths and a lie and anything else I can think of to get students talking and connecting with me and each other.  There are hundreds of icebreakers to be found on the web, especially on places like Pinterest.
  • When they write, I write.  When they share their writing, I share my writing.
  • I take pictures of the things we do in class and of the students.  I also take the occassional selfies with students too!  The good stuff, I post on my classroom website for kids to look at, as well as use them in video presentations to share with students, staff, and parents.
  • I ask students questions about their day, their likes, their weekend, their mood, and anything else that seems important to them.
  • I give hugs, high fives, and fist bumps.
  • I am not afraid to make myself look silly or old-fashioned for the sake of connecting with my students.  This is especially true when referring to cultural references and the newest “thing” the kids are into.

These relationship builders are everlasting, and the students remember the effort that I make to connect.  It makes being with the students in my classroom fun and lively.  This human connection makes both me and my students more committed to being at school.  I don’t think we can survive the year without this crucial component.

The floor of my classroom was finally put in, the furniture arranged, and the posters put up.  When the first day of school came and the kids entered my room, I saw that they looked to me, not the decorations in the room to set the tone for the year.  We are in it to win it, and I will continue to build upon those oh-so-important relationships.  Of course, I am frazzled playing catch up with planning, data teams, starting a classroom website, and a new sponsorship, etc. But I remind myself that I just need to let the new year flow over me as the rain waters flowed in and out of our building.  It will all come together, but my relationship with my students will always come first.

LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.

A Classroom of Poets

Notes from the Classroom

students crafting poems

I teach 8th grade at Oak Park Preparatory Academy, and this past semester I had the privilege of having InsideOut Literary Arts Project complete a residency in my classroom.  My writers-in-residence, Peter Markus and Mahogany Jones, came to two of my classes every Monday.  Our classes are single gender, so they came to one girl class and one boy class.  The focus was poetry writing.  Specifically, they wanted the students to think about how they would describe themselves through metaphors, similes, and personification.  Students had a really hard time letting go of their masks and getting real.  We were concerned that they wouldn’t produce great poems.  They fought us every step of the way–maybe because it can be uncomfortable to look inside yourself and see what is rattling around in there.  But eventually, the students started to let go and surprise us with powerful, insightful pieces.  We were often blown away by what they wrote.


poet Peter Markus works with a student

At the end of the residency, all the poetry was collected, sorted, and published in a book for the students called Words Ain’t No Walk in the Park.  Because my classes were small ones, students were able to have multiple pieces represented.  I even had a couple of my own poems put in the book!  We had a celebration to honor the work and have the students bask in their glory.  Special guests from InsideOut and the district came to honor the students.

This was one of the most meaningful teaching experiences I have ever had in my 14 years of teaching.  There was so much growth in the students and in me.  When I read through our book of poetry, it is like visiting an old friend.  And now, I discover something new each time I open the book and read my students’ words.  This project moved the students forward more that any other unit we engaged in this year.  The look of pure joy on their faces when they saw their name and words in print made the struggle worth it.  I know that this will carry them for a lifetime.  In fact, it is going to carry me too.

Excerpts from Words Ain’t No Walk in the Park:

Words Ain't No Walk in the Park

by Shawntelle Avery

Love is like a strawberry.
Love is sweet.
Love is a light that never burns out.
Love is a book with no pages.
Love is a pencil with no eraser.
Love is a kiss with no lips.
Love is like the night with no moon.
Love is like dancing.

I’m Lost
by Jason Leak

I’m always hidden
yet I am always
there.  Why can’t
you find me? It’s like
you just threw me
away. I thought
you loved me.
Am I not
special? I’m
right here in
front of you.
Find me.

Self-Portrait with Metaphors
by DeAndre Knott

My teeth are eggs cracking in a bowl of milk.
My legs are two bats hitting a home run.
My hands are snakes rattling in the grass.
My eyes are two meatballs waiting to be eaten.
My belly is a drum being played.
My ribs are a steel cage that will not open.
My heart is my heart.


LisaKraizaLisa Kraiza teachers eighth grade English Language Arts at Oak Park Preparatory Academy.  She is also a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.