I must begin with a confession: I am an English person. Truly, there is little that I love more in life than a new book or fresh sheet of stationery. So when I was hired to teach writing to grades 5-8 at a STEM magnet school, I spent a long time considering what it meant to incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—subjects that I feel less comfortable with—into my curriculum. This experience led me to consider another crucial fact: for some students, writing is that uncomfortable subject. My quest to include STEM in my writing curriculum could serve multiple purposes, then: it would help those students feel more comfortable, and could create a seamlessness between my class and other subjects.
The more I focused on this cross-subject incorporation, the more I realized that teaching writing is, in itself, a medium for teaching any number of things. Almost every discipline, career path, or topic that I could think of not only includes elements of writing, but can also be written about—sometimes in new and surprising ways. I once believed that disciplines like engineering or math were incompatible with a writing class, but it was easier than I thought to include these topics in my new curriculum. What’s more, I realized that expanding my curriculum to include the STEM focus that made my school special meant that I could help students to make deeper connections to the topics they care about. It also gave me the chance to open up my curriculum to outside content taught by my new colleagues—people that I truly enjoy learning with and from.
Soon, I was pestering students to discover what they had done in science or social studies on that day—to learn what they had connected with and enjoyed that I could incorporate into future assignments. I asked my fellow teachers what “big topics” students would be studying so that I could help make connections through writing. I wasn’t giving up my writing classroom to other subjects; I was growing my toolbox of teaching strategies by learning to teach different material. Even more, I was engaging a wider array of students in my lessons.
As a relatively new teacher, I rely on established routines to help me manage the chaos of a 5th-8th grade room. However, as students get used to those established routines, they also enjoy the variety that cross-curricular writing builds in. Students come in wondering what they’ll be writing about that day. Their first question is usually, “What’s the warm-up?” followed closely by, “Are we having SSW [Sustained Silent Writing] time today?” Students who once groaned when writing time was announced were now asking for even more time to work on their projects. What’s more, students started to dive into longer writing projects on their own. Now, rather than half-heartedly responding to prompts, some students were starting stories on Monday that they continued throughout the week. One-paragraph responses became two-page stories. My email inbox quickly filled up with documents to read and respond to that I hadn’t even assigned. I attribute much of this excitement to the intentional use of various subjects in my prompts. Students know that I am careful to include a variety of disciplines in our lessons, so their particular interests will be represented sooner or later.
While it can be daunting at first, there are a number of easy ways to include multiple disciplines in your writing curriculum. The reward is definitely worth it: seeing a student who excels in math class applying that same excitement to their writing project is always a welcome sight. Below are a number of ideas that have been successful in my middle school writing classroom, divided by subject.
Science: How to Blow Up a Balloon
I got the idea for this lesson from a novel, although I can’t for the life of me remember which one. I was so inspired that I decided to give it a try, and now it’s one of my favorite lessons! To begin the lesson, I ask students to write a series of instructions for “How to Blow Up a Balloon” that I, their fearless leader and fellow balloon enthusiast, will follow. Then, I ask for volunteers to read their instructions and I follow them…exactly. If a student says to “blow into the balloon,” I’ll hold the balloon about an inch from my mouth and dramatically blow with my cheeks puffed out. Kids burst out with laughter and quickly realize that their writing needs to be detailed and specific in order to achieve the goal. We refine our steps until I am able to successfully blow up and tie a balloon, and the student with the “winning set” of instructions autographs the balloon for posterity.
We discuss how and when to write with this level of extreme detail. Students brainstorm situations that require exacting prose (lab reports, instruction manuals) and situations that don’t (poems, novels). Then, students practice writing with extreme detail by creating their own “how to” guides. Students are able to pick the topic for their guide, and they never disappoint. I receive guides for “How to Binge Watch Netflix,” “How to Score the Perfect Jump Shot,” and “How to Annoy Your Siblings.” I also receive detailed instructions for folding origami, making a slingshot, and creating an “elephant toothpaste” chemical reaction. No matter what topic students choose, their detailed, scientific prose is impressive.
As an extension for those who finish writing and illustrating their guides early, students can research the most efficient way to blow up a balloon. Soon, they are modifying their original set of instructions to include straws, baking soda and Bunsen burners. I take the opportunity to remind students that the writing process relies on revision and celebrate their willingness to refine their guides with new information. Students excitedly relate their findings to their classmates and compare notes on balloon experimentation. It seems that I’ve created a league of scientists in my writing classroom.
Technology: Heroes and Villains
There is a wide variety of helpful educational technology out there. (I particularly enjoy using Storybird in my writing classroom.) However, I have found that students are also able to engage with technology as a subject for their writing. I like to begin this lesson by having students create a comprehensive list of all of the technology they encounter in a typical school day. I know that my students’ lives are inundated with tech, so they usually come up with a lengthy list. To help guide students, I’ll occasionally add suggestions, like light bulbs and electric cars. Once we have a good list going, I know students are ready for the next step.
We discuss personification and its role in science fiction. With older students, I like to read Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”to help facilitate this discussion. Younger students might appreciate a clip or two from Brave Little Toaster as an example to work from, although the movie includes objects that wouldn’t be considered strictly technological.
Finally, I ask students to reconsider the list that they made. What technology would they consider to be “good” or “bad”? What would they choose to be a “hero” or “villain” in their life? What human traits do they associate with items on the list? (Students might answer this question by saying that a light bulb is “hopeful,” a vacuum cleaner is a “neat freak,” or, my personal favorite, a clothes dryer is “full of hot air.”)
I give students the opportunity to choose a technological character, and then we dive into writing time. The only parameters that I give students are that they must include a personified tech character, and that character must be either the hero or villain of their story. The rest is up to them.
I have had wonderful stories that, happily, resist the “technology takes over the world” trope. For example, a student once wrote about an iPhone 7 who feels self-conscious when the iPhone 8 starts to bully her for being “outdated” (don’t worry—the day is saved by a friendly Update). Another student wrote about a night light that bravely slayed the “shadow monster” while the humans slept. Without fail, my students are exceptionally creative, and I enjoy seeing kids interact with technology in a new way.
Engineering: The Impossible Paper Project
Students enter the classroom to find a curious paper creation on my stool at the front of the room. As they grab their notebooks and head to their seats, some students take the opportunity to check out the cut and folded cardstock. Curiosity grows in the room.
Without giving too many instructions, I pass out a piece of copy paper to each student and tell them that they are to recreate the object at the front of the room. They can look at the paper from any angle, but they can’t touch it. Students quickly start to fold and cut their paper, and they just as quickly get frustrated. The task seems impossible, until, inevitably, one student shouts with glee: They’ve got it!
Other students ask for help, and soon there is a team of engineers walking around, helping to explain the paper project. Once everyone has succeeded, we take a few minutes to journal about the experience. What did students feel at the beginning, middle, and end of the task? How did they feel when they saw others “getting it”? How did they feel when they finally asked for help? How does this relate to the work of real engineers? What else is impossible?
It’s this final question that sparks the best discussion. Soon, students are discussing the impossibility of everything from flying to fitting in. Then, I challenge them to find a solution that is both detailed and plausible. I ask students to create a character that overcomes impossibility. I ask students to use their own frustration to make the character real. Soon, we will have Sustained Silent Writing time for students to begin their stories.
Mathematics: Grammar Math
There are many parallels between the world of algebra and the world of grammar. When students struggle to understand complex grammar concepts, it can be helpful to simplify subjects, predicates, phrases and clauses into algebraic formulas. Students who feel comfortable in the world of math might begin to feel more comfortable when they see that sentences can be written in familiar language. For example, S + P = C (Subject + Predicate = Complete Sentence). Having students write this formula on the top of their page can be crucial to helping students remember what’s required when they write.
This concept of “grammar math” can be expanded to more complex sentence structures, as well. I use a set of manipulatives that I found on TeachersPayTeachers in order to help students experiment with different equations. Students work together to solve the question: what successfully creates a sentence, and how do they punctuate it?
Manipulative pieces include simple subjects and predicates, as well as independent and dependent clauses, participle phrases, and different types of punctuation. Students begin in partners with some time for experimentation. I encourage them to make silly sentences with the pieces and give groups the chance to share. Then, things get technical. Students are asked to make sentences using different pieces (I color-code the pieces for students who are still mastering vocabulary) and then grapple with the results. Soon, students become investigators: what happens when two dependent clauses are put together? What about a dependent clause and participle phrase? Where does the comma go when a participle phrase is added onto an independent clause? What works? What doesn’t? Why?
It works for students of virtually every level. Emerging writers can use simple subjects and predicates to explore fragments. Advanced writers can work to add participial phrases in different places. All students can create new pieces to add to the manipulative set, and they love to see their suggestions pop up in class examples.
I’ll use these manipulatives as a stand-alone lesson, but also for times when students have grammar questions. For example, a student recently asked me if there’s a comma before the word “and” in every sentence. We tried a few configurations and figured out that he didn’t need a comma in the sentence he had written, but that he needed to add one in to a series he’d written in another sentence. In the end, being able to experiment and find the answer was more valuable for that student than just getting it from me.
Environmental Studies: 100 Words About a Pebble
One of my favorite adjective lessons centers around the natural world. I begin by collecting (or having students collect) items from the world around us—pebbles, leaves, sticks, etc. Each student needs at least one item to examine, ideally small enough to hold in their hand.
Students then number their paper from 1-100. I challenge them to write 100 adjectives that describe their object. This seems impossible at first, until I remind students that synonyms can count as separate words (for example, “delicate,” “fragile,” and “breakable” could all count). This exercise really stretches kids’ vocabularies, and it is also an exercise in patience. I push them to continue as far as they can on their own, then provide dictionaries or thesauruses to help get them to the finish line.
Once students have their lists, I give each kid a blank piece of copy paper. Their first job is to sketch their object. Students who chose leaves might also choose to do a crayon rubbing. The goal is to represent their object visually as accurately as possible—this is the basis for their poem.
We discuss environmental stewardship and the ways in which their item might change or be lost without proper care. To encourage conservation in others, students write a poem using their favorite adjectives from the list. I don’t give too many strict requirements, although occasionally an example is required. If I find that kids are stuck or struggling, it’s time to break out the Romantics. After all, there is no greater celebration of nature! We listen to bird sounds and create our own music with adjectives. Kids might enjoy sharing their poems in a “nature slam” in the school forest (or another natural space) once they’re completed.
Stepping outside of my “ELA only” comfort zone has helped me to become a more confident teacher. Sometimes I make a fool of myself as I attempt to help students solve a math problem or craft an analysis of a topographic map, but I love that students are asking for my help with new topics. Plus, it’s all fuel for new lessons—watching my 8th graders grapple with those topographic maps this past week has led me to begin crafting a lesson where students write a story based on a map of a fictional world. I’m lucky enough to see students during each of their middle school years—from 5th to 8th grade. I can’t wait to see the growth that occurs for my students as each year passes, as both writers and STEM students. By the end of their four years with me, I hope that my students see that writing and STEM are, in many ways, more alike than different—and that loving one means you might also soon love the other. After all, I’m living proof that even the staunchest ELA person can become a STEM person, too.
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