What a course! Macrame, Clams Casino, sea chanteys


There is no other way to describe the seafood Christmas dinner prepared by the juniors and seniors taking the Oceanic Studies elective at McLean High School. From the be-it-ever-so-humble tuna casserole and clam chowder to the more regal Clams Casino, Lobster Thermidor, and Shrimp Newburg, the students had learned their culinary lessons well. King Neptune never had it so good.

And the lesson went far beyond the home economics unit the students were completing. Macrame art employing themes from old sailing knots adorned the walls and hung from the ceiling. Readings of old sea chanteys as well as those composed by students were heard, while multimedia slide shows on coastal ecological issues were flashed in a simulated underwater environment.

The McLean interdisciplinary oceanic studies program has been in existence for seven years. The effort and enthusiasm of the students and teachers who prepared the banquet offered practical proof of just how productive the learning chemistry can be when an interdisciplinary setting is established.

Conversations with teachers, students, and administrators involved in the program led to the following recommendations as essential ingredients for any school seeking to establish a multidiscipline elective:

* The school must have the attitude that the subject being studied is important. Oceanic studies did this for McLean, but it could very well be other subjects for other schools.

* A mental blueprint must exist in two or three of the teachers' minds. What is the program supposed to accomplish?

* The support of the administration must be very strong, especially the building administrators.

(At McLean this is clearly the case. Principal William Ladson makes sure the superintendent and school board are kept informed of the program. Vice-principal George Layne intends to teach a two-week unit on global oceanic geography of the oceans. Mr Layne points out that many administrators want to get their feet back into the classroom in some way or other and that an interdisciplinary approach packaged in separate units makes possible a ''limited engagement'' teaching experience for an administrator -- no matter how busy his schedule.)

* A clear idea of which teachers are needed to run the program.

At the outset many, many, meetings after school are required. The commitment can't be halfhearted. In McLean's case, more than 25 teachers had taken oceanic education courses at the University of Virginia. This pool of interest provided the critical mass which allowed the development of this interdisciplinary elective.

* A coordinator who receives at least one period of release time a day, thereby having part of his teaching workload assigned to the program.

* Students willing to take electives; a school curriculum and scheduling that fosters electives.

Steve McAfee has taught high school science for 11 years. A self-styled traditional biology teacher four out of five periods a day, he is the coordinator of the oceanic studies course at McLean. Twenty percent of his salaried teaching day now puts him in contact with people outside his discipline , something he feels is the greatest personal asset of the program.

''The interaction with the students, the sheer diversity of the subject matter and how it is presented, has me learning about things in other fields I never knew about,'' he says.

''The greatest challenge is trying to put all the pieces of the course together in a logical order. I explain it in terms of an organic-artistic way of looking forward to what is going to happen during the year,'' Mr. McAfee says.

Then he laughs a bit. ''Oceanic studies certainly aren't as rigidly organized as my regular science classes. It just can't be when you have English teachers, art teachers, social studies teachers, home economics teachers, and science teachers all teaching and learning about the oceans in separate units. We have to learn from each other if the course is going to be successful.''

Material must be judged according to how much time it will take to present, what kind of independent study is required, how to get the right teachers together (including the mundane but critical scheduling), and then how to evaluate student achievement.

Those involved in the program say that one condition every teacher must agree to is that no one unit, no one course, and no one teacher is more important than any other. McAfee adds, ''I had to learn this about my own science unit as well.''

This facet becomes evident when assigning grades for the year-long elective. Each teacher necessarily places high value on what he or she teaches. Part of the group dynamic process of an interdisciplinary course is resolving just such grading issues.

One example of how curriculum had to be sorted at McLean was in comparing the value of four novels taught by four English teachers in the literature-of-the-seas unit with the four disciplines covered in the science unit: physics -- wave motion; earth science -- movement of the surface of the earth, or plate tectonics; chemistry; and biology.

Agreement had to be reached on how much time would be spent on each unit, just how much homework would be assigned. The staff constanly had to make sure that something of interest and value existed for each of the students who chose the elective, no matter how diverse his background or talents.

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