Ridgefield Academy’s First Interdisciplinary Week

We tried something new last week.

Since the inception of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Ridgefield Academy faculty have had great discussions about interdisciplinary connections between classes – opportunities to connect different subjects by studying a single topic through multiple lenses. In smaller conversations, we began to wonder what would happen if we devoted a significant chunk of time to truly interdisciplinary work, a single-topic course taught through multiple subject areas in more time than the traditional school schedule allows for. The result was Ridgefield Academy’s first Interdisciplinary Week, held the week before spring break.

Through a very collaborative process that lasted the better part of two months, faculty had proposed four courses of study: the civil rights movement, culture, the space race, and New York City. Upper school students in grades seven and eight self-selected into one of the four courses and, together with their teachers, jumped into a week of learning that had more in common with the structure of a lower school week than a traditional upper school one. Extended periods of time; multiple ways of studying the same topic; a focus on assessments using different kinds of media; and no graded work were hallmarks of the week.

Here were the first courses for our first Interdisciplinary Week:

The Race to Space
In The Race to Space, we will try to study the history of space flight, from early 20th century film that predicted what it might be like to the current plans for travel to the Moon and Mars. We’ll watch films; read graphic novels; study history, math, and physics; and then make movies, create news, and build launchable models that predict the future of human space flight.

The Civil Rights Movement
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus.  She was neither the first, nor the last to reject segregation laws in the southern United States, but her decision that day launched a 381-day nonviolent protest that evolved into the Civil Rights Movement.  Using readings, research, photography, video, and primary source documents, we will unpack the Movement, focusing on the history of slavery in America, the Jim Crow South, school desegregation, voting rights, and the Movement’s most influential leaders.  We will also take a close looks at the music, poetry, and art of the time period, and we will be creating our own representations of the important themes we study.      

METROPOLIS- Explore the Greatest City in the World: New York City
We will explore the true meaning behind the motto of the United States of America- E Pluribus Unum (Latin for Out of many, one) by examining the most diverse city in the world- New York City.

Located on one of the world’s largest natural harbors, New York City has grown to be the largest city in the United States with almost 9 million people today. Just to put that in perspective, the entire state of Connecticut has a population of less than 4 million people. What drew so many people from around the world to help create this one city? What drew a record of nearly 60 million tourists to visit NYC last year- the same number of people who live in Italy today?

Our class is going to examine and celebrate many of the amazing things that NYC has achieved throughout its history. Today, the city has a significant impact upon commerce, finance, media, art, technology, food and music.

How would you like to:

    • Live the life of an Italian immigrant?
    • Become a Wall Street broker for a day?
    • Learn how to get to Sesame Street?
    • Be a graffiti artist?
    • Sing along with Jay Z and Lin Manuel Miranda?
    • Eat a real NY bagel?

We will do all that and more!

So join us to learn about NYC- not only a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” but “the greatest city in the world (the greatest city in the world”).

What’s in a Culture, anyway?
Ever wonder what we mean when we talk about ‘culture’ or ‘cultural influences?  How do we define culture: What does it look like?  What is its purpose? Throughout the week, we will work towards defining what culture means to us as we examine how it plays out in the following ways:

  • Family
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Food
  • Music
  • Art
  • Fashion
  • Movies and TV

Each day will bring new questions, challenges and adventures as students work both independently and cooperatively to conduct research, create art, watch movies, cook food, listen to music and contemplate and come to terms with how ‘traditional beliefs and values’ blend with current ‘popular’ norms to shape our cultural identity.   

During this week, I taught The Race to Space, a course that, for me, was an opportunity to return to childhood dreams of being an astronaut. We started the week by watching George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans La Lune, one of the first motion pictures made, and one that predicted what a trip to the moon might be like. Madame Desmons joined the class to talk to us about turn-of-the-century France and why that might have been a particular fascination of the time and place.

After watching the movie, we spent time over the next two days filming short films inspired by Méliès and space travel.

As the images above show, we also found time to take a field trip to the Danbury Municipal Airport, which provided an opportunity to talk about flight and the first steps that the United States’s first astronauts had to master. Each student had the chance to visit the air control tower at the airport, which is the Northeast’s biggest commercial airport, and also booked time in a real flight simulator used for pilot training.

Before a snow day took away our last day, we spent a lot of time examining the historical context of the space race, how the United States space program has evolved and what its future plans are, the impact of private companies on space travel and transportation, debating whether the Moon or Mars would make the best next step for future missions, and building our own rockets that predicted what future space travel might use.

We’re looking forward to regrouping after the break to wrap up the course (and to launch our rockets!).

I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to run a similar week and hope to bring it to more students in other grades.