Immersing First Graders in Interdisciplinary Learning

Spring 2007

By Lisa Wells

To early childhood teachers, curriculum is inherently interdisciplinary. However, to build a deeply interconnected and meaningful curriculum, early childhood teachers need to do more than connect the dots and cover different content areas with a theme. At Saint Anne's, interdisciplinary learning begins in the Reggio-inspired early childhood curriculum and the project-approach in lower school. In middle school, children reflect upon essential questions across disciplines. Interdisciplinary learning is infused in this setting, as a result of the school's emphasis on inquiry for both students and teachers as researchers. To really delve deeply into a topic, first grade teachers understand child development and employ a constructivist approach by asking questions, provoking inquiry, and finding answers (or more questions). In a first grade community where the umbrella theme for the year is "communication," teachers have successfully connected young learners to authentic inquiry through projects that span disciplines and allow children to develop not only skills, but also conceptual knowledge.

There are two areas to establish in a classroom before asking children to begin meaningful multidisciplinary research. First, teachers must establish a community with consensus on class guidelines and boundaries. This includes modeling expectations, giving permission to make mistakes, practicing skills, and implementing logical consequences when mistakes are made. School should be the safest place to take a risk and make mistakes. Once this tone is established, ownership continues with the physical set-up of classroom and community decision-making. With this framework in place, children are ready to shape their learning about communication.

First graders are developmentally ripe for exploration in multiple domains. As Chip Wood describes in Yardsticks' Children in the Classroom 4-14, six -year olds are characterized by the following traits:

  • School replaces home as the most significant environmental influence
  • Likes to "work"
  • Likes to explain things
  • Enthusiastic language
  • Learns best through discovery
  • Representative symbols are important

These beliefs underscore the need for a well-organized, hands-on first grade environment and curriculum. The classroom is where these children (and teachers!) will spend most of their waking hours — shouldn't it be orderly, beautiful and inviting? Teachers can begin this process and then scaffold the design and maintenance so that children shape the environment. Providing invitations and interesting things to explore cultivates children's innate desire to discover and explain.

As Sylvia Chard points out in her work on the 'Project Approach' (, classroom space should have:

  • Space with appropriate provision of areas for various kinds of work .
  • Furniture layout which is flexible, for group as well as individual work.
  • Display on walls, horizontal surfaces, for information, children's work products, work in
  • progress, objects of interest, notices, instructions, word lists, reminders, plans.
  • Resources in convenient access, availability, restrictions, storage.


Teachers convene regularly to share resources, reflect on room design and materials presented and to offer feedback to each other on how the environment serves as a "third teacher" for first grade.

Language is growing rapidly, and children will acquire new vocabulary and the ability to explain their thoughts when this is modeled, practiced, and encouraged. Representing symbols takes on a new significance — in rebus writing, sign language, and labels for carefully crafted displays of their work. As Susan Fraser points point in Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, "...knowledge, in addition to being self-constructed, is also co-constructed with others in the group." First graders are concrete operational learners who benefit from working together and teaching each other about their observations and connections. This emergence of cooperative work also provides opportunities for adults to proactively teach conflict resolution skills and strategies for working cooperatively.

When considering how and where to take projects in first grade, teachers reflect on the Sylvia Chard's questions on a given topic:

  • How can we build on what children already know?
  • How will this help children to make better sense of the world they live in?
  • How will this help children to understand one another better?
  • How can we enable children to understand the value of literacy and numeracy in real life contexts?
  • In what ways can we offer children ideas for dramatic play/representation?
  • How can we encourage children to seek sources of information outside school?
  • How will we facilitate communication with parents and include them to the extent they are comfortable?

With an understanding of where a first grader is as a learner and the belief that first graders are active constructors of their learning, teachers' thoughts turn to priming the environment for interdisciplinary learning. The physical environment needs to set the tone for inquiry, exploration, organization, and beauty. As Daniel Pink describes in A Whole New Mind, the future will be guided by those who developed their skill to conceptualize — with strong abilities to design, tell a story, think holistically, play, and live. The design of a room indeed sets the stage for children to use rapidly growing language to tell the story of their learning across all domains. Materials, displays and interesting objects are set up with space and permission to explore. Children are capable of making connections, asking questions, and displaying their creations. Their inquiry needs to be play, not work, where they can make choices guided by their own interests or "nudged" by observant, empathetic adults who know the individual learners. When a classroom is designed for children to add the color, pattern, and meaning, their work suddenly becomes the focus, and they feel ownership in the process and product of learning. The synthesis of these concepts leads to a vibrant life inside a classroom — rich with interesting materials children connect to make meaning, discuss, and write about their new knowledge and questions.

With the environment set up and classroom guidelines established, the year begins with a subtle exploration of sign language where teachers use simple signs in daily life, such as "yes", "no," and in songs. It doesn't take long for children to mimic these signs and ask for more. A chart is started with " what would you like to sign ?" and new songs are introduced. Soon, reading aloud becomes interactive, with role-playing and drama allowing the children to actively practice sign language and then teach it to their families and peers. Discussions turn to other forms of communication, through literature, large and small group discussions, and individual interviews with children to document their thoughts and inquiries. Discussion of communication also involves reading and writing about feelings — naming various emotions, reading fictional literature that promotes informal and formal role-playing, incorporating sign language, songs and new vocabulary into music. Young poets also wrote about what emotions feel, smell, and look like. Children participated in an African play called Kwa Doma Doma as a culminating activity which incorporated music, sign language, drama and song to apply their understanding of feelings and emotions. In these activities, adults and teachers model and practice social skills and conflict resolutions, weaving the social curriculum seamlessly into the academic curriculum. Later, all of these projects are synthesized into a slideshow that doubles as a way to introduce first graders to the technology lab and computer usage with a partner. The slideshow plays in the classroom and for visitors and is published in a class book for reflection as the year continues.

In a conversation months earlier with a school parent, who also happens to be a photographer for National Geographic, we discussed ways photography helps document significant life events and provides a venue for reflection. She suggested that photojournalism might be a good project for first grade's communication study, much in the same way she uses photography with inner city middle-schoolers to document their lives. I let the thought linger for a while and thought more about how photography does allow us to document the ebb and flow of life. Throughout the fall, this parent and I continued our conversations about photography in first grade, and my teaching partner and I watched and listened to the children to get a sense of how photography was — or could be — a vital communication tool and part of their lives.

As mid-year approached, the concept of communication expanded beyond sign language, written and oral communication. Teachers considered other methods of communication, and then turned the question to the first graders. In this age of technology, the discussion of film and digital photography arose quickly. Many children had seen or used digital cameras and seemed eager to do more. Earlier musings about photography in first grade materialized into project planning with first grade teachers and two parents who are professional photographers. It was clear to us that capitalizing on the talents and commitment of these parents would allow us to engage in a deeper interdisciplinary study of photography and communication.

Children began conversations about photography and how it conveys meaning. Visitors and professional photographers provoke our conversations by asking questions such as:

  • What is photography?
  • How does it help people communicate?
  • What emotions are evoked when you look at photos? What is the job of a photojournalist?"

This real-life, high-touch method of communication yielded much excitement and energy as children feel responsible for their learning and capable of gaining skills and knowledge.

The existing framework, along with the level of comfort and safety requisite to inquiry, allows children to extend their learning and apply theories to a new realm of communication. Again, families were recruited to help document what children know, questions they have, and what they want to learn about photography. Teachers, children and professional photographers read nonfiction literature and samples of photojournalism to the class. Children looked at photos with their families and wrote about what the photos meant to them and what connections they had to photos. Throughout this process, we heard children using the language and vocabulary of photographers — details, overall, portrait, shoot, zoom, image, feels evoked were words that became a part of daily life. A "Photo Camp," modeled after National Geographic's Photo Camp, was held for children to assume the role of a photojournalist who documents a day in the life of school through portrait, details, and overall photographs of school. In the end, first graders use professional 35mm cameras to take 2,500 photos. A photojournalist joins us again to demonstrate the editing of all the photos down to a 250-photo slide show that chronicles the story of school life and evokes strong emotions about our work and school. This stage of research allows children to look at communication as way to gain perspective on lives of others, explore people/places different from their own experience, and to deepen the concept of communication for each learner.

The synthesis of this interdisciplinary learning is revealed in first grade's leadership in a division-wide meeting that includes the community of lower school peers, teachers, and parents. In this setting, over 150 people greeted each other, sang and signed (language) familiar songs, and children presented what we had constructed and learned before presenting a DVD of their photography research. To watch six and seven year-olds speak with confidence, knowledge, and grace is validation of the hours of planning and constructing. Learning exceeds the expectations of many adults. These children are strong and capable learners who can extend learning and conceptualize complex ideas when they are nurtured and provoked. We see it every day in the interactions they have with peers, teachers, and the classroom environment Not only are these children acquiring life long skills of oral and nonverbal communication, but also the ability toconnect to other human beings through an heightened awareness of emotions. Many also develop a strong desire to use photography as a way to capture the joyful and rich small moments in life. Indeed, this interdisciplinary study is a child-centered, right- brained approach to learning — where concepts of patterns and opportunities to learn were synthesized to tell a story through oral and nonverbal communication and photojournalism. This is an example of an interdisciplinary study that goes far beyond acquiring content knowledge to create life-long learning skills and passion for exploration, design, and meaning. Moreover, it is something the children will carry with them for years to come because it was something they helped construct and to carry them across domains and disciplines.


Fraser, Susan & Carole Gestwick. Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom. Albany, NY: Delmar.

Pink, Daniel. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. NewYork: Riverhead Books.

Wood, Chip, (1997). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14, a Resource for Parents and Teachers. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children

Lisa Wells

Lisa Wells has taught early childhood in independent schools for 14 years. She currently teaches first grade at St. Anne's Day School (Maryland) where she also studies independent school leadership at Johns Hopkins University. She is grateful for the collaboration with colleagues and parents, and for the thoughtful connection between mission and curriculum at St. Anne's. Lisa finds motivation and joy watching her first graders, and her own two children, construct meaning through multidisciplinary instruction.