Collaborating to Make Complex Connections

With SMASH integrated learning, students explore a topic across multiple disciplines

by Robbyn Leventhal, Fifth Grade Teacher

For both students and teachers, the Lower School experience can be more productive and engaging with subject integration. So, as I started the year as a new 5th grade teacher at Catlin Gabel, alongside Keli Gump, I was excited by the opportunities to collaborate with specialists. And my challenge was this: How will we be able to integrate our classroom curriculum with all of the Lower School specialists?

The answer was SMASH Integration. Previously students in Lower School experienced one day a week where they moved through SASH (Science, Art, Shop, Homeroom) rotations; this year Music was added to the mix, and with that you get SMASH. The purpose of this new structure is to allow teams of teachers to work together to create a student-driven, inquiry-based curriculum that enables students to make complex connections within a topic and across multiple disciplines. And because we know that children are more engaged and learn more deeply when they have agency and ownership, we wanted experiential education to be a guiding principle at every stage.

I began by meeting weekly with four specialist teachers: Sheri Cocquio (science), Peter Musselman (music), Peggy Schauffler (art), and Ric Fry (woodshop). Together, we determined students’ needs and established learning goals to meet them. We then designed a series of two-three week rotations, with one specialist acting as the lead collaborator for each rotation. We chose as our overarching theme The Study of Indigenous Peoples, and created three arcs with themes and questions that could be studied across the entire Lower School:

Place: How does place help define the stories of the people who live there?
People: What creates peace? How can I create peace within myself?
Purpose: How do we make sure all stories are told and all voices are represented?

And with these arcs and questions, opportunities to integrate learning began to emerge. Working with Ric in woodshop, students approached the Place question with sub-questions, such as “How did/do Indigenous people create their homes in the places where they live(d)?” They chose and investigated different regions of United States to study, collected information about the biomes, and analyzed different shelters. Then it was time for the students to create shelters, using boxes and assorted materials from school. They created backgrounds and structures that incorporated what they learned about the area’s flora and fauna, housing, and building structures.

Our arc on People was a science-based collaboration with Sheri. After considering the questions about peace, students moved into thinking about the natural world, and where peace exists in that world. They learned about how the celestial bodies held cultural and scientific significance. Constellation legends were read, the life cycle of the star was studied, and students gained an understanding of the importance of celestial bodies to the First Nations. Moving through the design cycle, fifth graders created a peace-based project for someone who matters to them, with the guiding theme, “Peaceful Experience: A Way to Show Empathy.”

As we now move into the third arc in our integrated learning project, focused on Purpose, their eyes are being opened to ways that voices have been missing in our retelling of history, and they are interested in learning more about these voices and advocating for them. We can see them embody an essential aspect of the Catlin Gabel mission: inspired with a love of learning, they are becoming compassionate and curious citizens of the world.