ALAN v23n2 - Literature in an Interdisciplinary Unit

Volume 23, Number 2
Winter 1996

Literature in an Interdisciplinary Unit

David S. Burk

The day of our River Fair we were flooded. As seventh and eighth graders scurried around filling miniature locks with water, setting up displays of Great Miami River flora, and carrying model riverboats and bridges, water began rising up through the multipurpose room drain -- and kept rising. What could we do? We moved the whole fair, some sixty or more exhibits, to another part of the building. While we were moving, the "river talk" that had begun months before continued. Some speculated on the causes of our very own mini-flood. Others wondered about the composition of the water. "I wouldn't step in that stuff if I were you!" Still others reflected on the symbolic meaning of the flood: Was this our across-the-road neighbor, the Great Miami River, taking its revenge for all the students tramping along its banks and across its bridges in the preceding weeks? (Nothing so dramatic -- just a clogged drain out back of the building.) There is no end to the ways one can talk and think about a flood. Or a river.

Our River Unit was the first attempt at a large-scale interdisciplinary unit by a team of six teachers working with 150 middle school students. We feel the unit was successful. We also feel like rookies who have a lot to learn about designing, executing, and evaluating the success of interdisciplinary units. As the eighth-grade English and Reading teacher on the team, I have learned a bit about the role literature can play in interdisciplinary units. Also, I have read more than twenty adolescent river books and taught three. For those who, like my team and me, are just starting to explore interdisciplinary units, this article will provide an overview of the river unit that my team and I taught during the 1994-95 school year, a discussion of the role of literature in that unit, and a survey of some adolescent river novels.

The A-Team River Unit
The team I have worked with for the past three years consists of a science, a math, a home economics, and a social studies teacher, along with another English and Reading teacher besides myself. Our goal for the 1994-95 school year was to plan and execute a large-scale interdisciplinary unit. We teachers wanted to work more closely together, to model collaboration for our students. We wanted to help students see the interconnectedness of the various academic disciplines. We wanted to involve students in real-world problems and issues. And we wanted the teaching of research skills to be a team-wide undertaking.

The central activity of the unit was a two-part research project. First each student designed, researched, and wrote a paper on the aspect of the Great Miami River, the nearby Ohio River, or of rivers in general that interested them. Each student was assigned a teacher from the team as mentor to help narrow the topic, to find resources and outside-of-school contacts, and to help with writing the paper. Topics ranged widely: the 1927 Ohio and Miami Floods, pesticides in the river, drownings (with three girls making a much-admired trip to visit the county coroner at the morgue), river poems, the Delta Queen riverboat.

During the second part of the research project, students moved beyond written products -- creating displays, demonstrations, and performances (often combining their efforts in groups of two or three) to be shared at the aforementioned River Fair.

Long before the two-part research projects were begun, teachers in the various disciplines were introducing river terms and concepts. In social studies, students had explored the way ancient civilizations developed along rivers. In science, students learned about water quality and chemistry, river geology, and buoyancy. In home economics, they looked at the effects various laundry practices have on the environment and at ways of preparing fish. In English and Reading, in addition to the literature component discussed later, we got a head start on research skills.

The other component of the unit was a River Career Day. With help from our county career-education specialist, we invited professionals from the area whose work put them in contact with the Great Miami or Ohio River: an engineer from an architectural firm that designs bridges and dams, a meteorologist working for the State of Ohio on flood forecast and control, an environmental chemist monitoring water quality at industrial sites along the Ohio, entertainers from the Showboat Majestic, and several others. All the presenters had been forwarded the students' research questions; so most brought materials and designed their presentations to address them. Never have I witnessed a career day with such a strong feeling of collaboration among presenters and students. Much information picked up that day made its way into the research papers, student presentations, and subsequent class discussions.

The success of the River Unit motivated us to start planning similar units for the future. Next time, we want students to be more involved in the ground floor planning and to gain more independence and sophistication in designing their projects. We also want to apply a lighter touch -- we had some students who got genuinely tired of thinking about rivers.

Literature in the River Unit
Before I began learning to take part in interdisciplinary units, I was concerned they would rob language arts of its identity -- make it a lab course in which students carried out and wrote up research that had its intellectual roots in science or social studies class. Well, it's true that more pamphlets, encyclopedias, and almanacs were used in my class this year than ever before, and that most of the writing done in conjunction with the river unit was scientific or historical in nature. Only a handful of students chose topics involving river poetry or fiction.

However, literature took center stage late in the year when, after the projects were completed and the other classes had mostly finished talking about rivers, we read and discussed our third river novel, Linda Crew's Children of the River . Set in the late 1970s, it tells the story of Sundara Sovann, forced at the age of ten to flee her Cambodian homeland with her Aunt Soka's family, leaving behind her parents and siblings. Now a high school student in Oregon, Sundara faces pressure from her aunt and other refugees to conform to traditional Cambodian ways. At the same time, she faces pressures -- some subtle, some less so -- to conform to American teen culture. Two matters complicate her life even further. First, she feels responsible for the death of Soka's infant son, who died during the boat escape from Cambodia while Soka was incapacitated by seasickness. Secondly, Jonathon McKinnon, the most popular boy and best football player in Sundara's high school, becomes interested in her, and the two gradually fall in love.

I knew Children of the River , with its modern setting and themes of family versus peers and forbidden love, would spark good discussion. But I was especially gratified by our discussion of the novel's river symbolism. The title refers to the fact that Sundara and Jonathon are children of two vastly different rivers -- for Jonathon, the Columbia, which is controlled by humans for hydroelectric power, irrigation, flood control, and recreation; for Sundara, the "mighty Mekong, never bridged or dammed" (p. 99). The river as metaphor for life crops up several times throughout the book, becoming explicit when Sundara muses to Jonathon, "I wonder why American always think of life like a road. `Down the road of life,' they like to say." She continues, "We think of life more like a riverÉ. On a river it is not so simple as just choose which way to go. On a river we try to steer a good course, but all the time we getting swept along by a force greater than ourselves" (p. 146). Our discussion of this passage was long and flowing. We talked about the two competing views of life in the book; then we talked about our own lives; then we talked about Life. It was the kind of discussion of literature and life I was envisioning when I decided to be a teacher in the first place.

Reflecting later on what made that discussion go so well, I, of course, gave credit to an excellent novel and fine students (and took some credit for myself). But those factors have come together before without such satisfying results. I believe the prior knowledge built up through research projects, the career day, and the two river novels we read previously are what made the difference.

What have I learned about literature in an interdisciplinary unit? I learned that literature is a natural way to reinforce some of the lessons taught in science and social studies -- about how river geographies and natural histories differ, about how individuals and cultures affect and are affected by rivers. But literature does more than help review for the social studies test. Our experiences with Children of the River and the other two river novels opened up the poetic possibilities of rivers, as well as the mythic and spiritual -- important aspects that other content areas have difficulty accessing. And as I've said, our broad, rich, firsthand study of our local rivers provided important background that helped us explore these abstract possibilities more fully.

The River as a Topic
We had difficulty deciding on a topic for our first interdisciplinary unit. Our options seemed endless, and we had neither the firsthand experience nor the critical tools to sort through them. We might still be stuck if it hadn't been for Stephen Lafer and Stephen Tchudi's January 1994 article in English Journal, "The Familiar Made Curious: A Case of Hometown Interdisciplinary Studies." In this article, the authors narrate the progress of a two-week summer institute, the Truckee River Community Project, in which Reno, Nevada, area teachers, kindergarten through college, studied their local river from an interdisciplinary perspective. Lafer and Tchudi's reasons for choosing their river made sense to us:

We focused on the river specifically because it is a familiar part of the local landscape…. The Truckee River serves as a powerful metaphor for cultural and political issues important to the region…. Almost every issue and problem faced by our area… can, in one way or another, be traced to the river and its primal influence. (p. 15)

The topic's rightness of fit was confirmed by the excitement and creative thought present in our earliest discussions. It is firmly rooted in the local and the concrete, yet it is rich and flexible, with broad and varied applications. A much greater problem has been generating other topics that approach its richness.

River Novels
Language arts teachers might evaluate a potential interdisciplinary topic by discovering how many good books have been written about it. Using this approach, rivers make a great topic. The computerized catalogue at my local public library offers 771 entries under the keyword river. Three recent scholarly books on rivers in literature name over twenty abstract meanings for rivers in their tables of contents, including river as threshold (Seelye, p. 419) , as agent of judgment, as unifier, as companion (Herendeen, p. 376) , and as god (Colwell, p. 218) .

Here is just a sample of river books -- all but one fictional -- for adolescents. I'll refrain (but it's a struggle) from offering tasty morsels from adult literature such as naturalist Barry Holstun Lopez's mystical prose poem River Notes: The Dance of Herons . The river books that we chose are divided into the two most often-used river metaphors: river crossings and river journeys. But of course even within a single book a river has many meanings.

Rivers are often used to represent boundaries or goal lines; to "cross the river" is to undergo a transformation. So it is in Gary Paulsen's short (114-page) novel The Crossing . Manny Bustos, a fourteen-year-old orphan living on the streets of Juarez, Mexico, seeks to escape his squalid life on the brink of starvation, and to escape the street thugs who would sell him into prostitution, by crossing illegally into the United States. Meanwhile Marine Sergeant Robert Locke often crosses the Rio Grande in the other direction and for another form of escape: he seeks, in the noisy clubs and cheap Scotch of Juarez, to keep from his consciousness the voices of men he commanded in Viet Nam, men he watched die horribly while calling to him for help he could not give. His path crosses Manny's; eventually he learns of Manny's plan; and once again he hears a call for help he feels he cannot provide. "Crossings" provide the basic structure of the book: everything leads up to Manny's attempt to cross the Rio Grande; the last scene depicts Robert Locke's crossing from life to death; and in the course of the novel both characters cross from a world of danger, loss, and isolation into a world that includes the possibility of hope and human connection. The Crossing also has much to teach, for so short a book, about rivers as social and political boundaries. It includes a brief description of the effects on Juarez of the damming of the Rio Grande upstream in the United States. This was the first river novel my students and I read together, and it made a fine introduction. Our understanding of Manny's plight was greatly enlightened through excerpts from Patrick Oster's The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of a People , especially the true stories of Miguel Tostado -- the only survivor when a boxcar full of illegal immigrants suffocated while trying to cross into Texas (pp. 57-69), and Jose Rivas -- whose best way to earn even a meager living was to perform as a tragafuego, or firebreather, for stopped traffic in Mexico City, blowing mouthfuls of kerosene toward a burning torch.

In Lynne Reid Banks' One More River , high-school-aged Lesley Shelby is uprooted from her upper-middle-class life in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when her parents decide to emigrate to Israel and live on a kibbutz, or collective farm. While coping with severe culture shock, spare living conditions, and hard physical labor, Lesley must also confront competing definitions of what it means to be Jewish. Especially, she must come to terms with her attitude and the attitudes of those around her regarding Arabs, particularly the inhabitants of a small Arab village directly across the Jordan River from Lesley's kibbutz. At one point Lesley actually crosses the Jordan and becomes acquainted with an Arab boy. Banks makes the Jordan River an important symbol, just as Linda Crew does the Mekong in Children of the River . And like Children of the River as well as The Crossing , One More River is full of social and political issues along with personal issues close to the lives of most teens.

I'd like to make a brief mention of two other "crossing" books: Ann Gabhart's Bridge to Courage and Paige Dixon's May I Cross Your Golden River? The first is the story of Luke Dillon, a high-school student whose fear of heights, need for acceptance by both his father and his peers, and uncertain relationship with his pretty neighbor Shea Ashburn all get tested at once when he must venture out onto a high railroad trestle to save another boy. The second tells the story of eighteen-year-old Jordan Phillips from the discovery that he has Lou Gerhig's Disease through his struggles to come to terms with his weakening condition and approaching death. Neither book spends many words on actual rivers -- neither gives content-area teachers much to work with in terms of river facts. But they help suggest the metaphorical range of adolescent river fiction.

The other river novel my students and I read together besides The Crossing and Children of the River was Scott O'Dell's Streams to the River, River to the Sea , a version of the story of Sacajawea. A teenage Shoshone mother, Sacajawea, her husband, and her newborn son accompanied Lewis and Clark on their 1804-1806 journey of exploration up the Missouri from St. Louis, across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back again. River journeys, as Sundara observes in Children of the River , tend to represent the journey of life. They tend also to be journeys of self discovery. These symbolic possibilities are perhaps exploited better in other adolescent novels, but I chose Streams to the River, River to the Sea because it is such a classic American story, and so well written, and because it connects so directly with my school's eighth-grade social studies curriculum. As with other great American stories, variations of Sacajawea's story abound. We had fun comparing passages from Streams to the River, River to the Sea with passages from John Bakeless' The Journals of Lewis and Clark , thus gaining insight into O'Dell's fictionalizing techniques. The children's video The Song of Sacajawea , in which Sacajawea's ne'er-do-well husband Toussaint Charbonneau is depicted as cute, devoted and romantic, contrasts strongly with O'Dell's version and the one that emerges from the journals, and, therefore, sparked discussion.

Perhaps the river journey best known among adolescent readers is Brian Robeson's in Gary Paulsen's The River , sequel to the popular Hatchet. This time around, Brian must not only survive in the Canadian wilderness; he must return from it without help, bringing with him the comatose Derek Holtzer, a psychologist who has convinced Brian to return to the wilderness so that his successful survival habits can be studied and taught. Derek is incapacitated by a lightening bolt. Brian must transport him to civilization and medical help, and the only avenue available is -- you guessed it -- a river. The River deserves consideration because of Paulsen's popularity and the unique and well-developed character of Brian Robeson. For such a short book (132 pages), it also has much to teach about river geography. However, one really needs to have read Hatchet to understand it fully, and my students and I agree that The River is a bit of a letdown afterwards.

One can also learn much river geography, this time of the Grand Canyon segment of the Colorado River, from Will Hobbs' Downriver . Eight teenagers hijack a van and trailer loaded with whitewater-rafting equipment from an outdoor education school called Discovery Unlimited but more commonly known as "Hoods in the Woods." The eight teenagers use the equipment to run the Grand Canyon, without permission, without much experience, and without maps. All eight characters have problems or needs (which is why they are enrolled in Hoods in the Woods to begin with), but as they proceed on their adventure, each learns that he or she has strengths as well; all contribute to the success of the journey. Downriver's characters -- strong but reckless and troubled -- grab the attention of adolescent readers. The emphasis is on action, not necessarily on believability.

A nonfiction river journey, exciting, well-told, and full of interdisciplinary possibilities, is Joe Kane's Running the Amazon . The author and nine other adventurers start high in the Andes Mountains, facing deadly chutes and rapids in rafts. In the end, two members of the group paddle kayaks down the sea-like lower Amazon to its mouth. Filled with travel anecdotes, historical sketches, and geological and natural-history explanations, couched in flowing, vivid prose, Running the Amazon would make a strong contribution to a river unit. Be aware, however, that it is longer and more complex than the books mentioned so far. Adolescents may wish to skip the many passages detailing the personalities of the adventurers and narrating the complex group dynamics that evolve throughout the trip.

River Runners, by James Houston , tells of fifteen-year-old Andrew Stewart's first experiences as clerk in a fur-trading post in the Canadian Arctic, his friendship with a Naskapi boy, and the season they spend together establishing an outpost in a barren and dangerous region. In the same frosty survival tradition as Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Paulsen's Dogsong, River Runners gives a glimpse of a little-known Native Canadian culture and at a little-known type of river, a frozen sledding and hiking path most of the year. River symbolism surfaces in this quotation from Andrew's Naskapi friend Pashak: "Mium-scum said last night that white people like to race down long, straight, dangerous rivers and maybe break up everything. We true men prefer this slow and curving river. Is it not beautiful?" (p. 139).

In a novel from L. M. Boston's Green Knowe series, The River at Green Knowe , the river serves as a scene of enchantment as well as adventure. Three children -- the oldest is eleven -- spend the summer at the Green Knowe manor and explore the islands, locks, and shore buildings along the river that flows past it. In their travels they encounter a hermit, a herd of flying horses, and a tree-like giant named Terak. Actually more of an intermediate-level book -- a quick and easy read for most adolescents --The River at Green Knowe might serve as a useful counterpoint for works of nonfiction or realistic fiction.

As I said earlier, it is difficult for my colleagues and me to imagine another topic as ripe as rivers for exploitation in an interdisciplinary unit. Perhaps other topics will seem as rich in hindsight, after we've worked with them for a year. For our next unit, however, we decided not to substitute another geographical feature (we are surrounded by hills, fields, creeks, woods -- all of which might someday be "explored"). Instead, we opted for something equally tangible, equally hometown: our main topic for this year is malls. They haven't been around long enough to have the history, lore, or literature associated with them that rivers have. However, they mirror different aspects of our lives than do rivers. Incidentally, Richard Peck has written two mall novels, one of which, Secrets of the Shopping Mall , I'll be reading with my students this coming year. He has also commented at length on mall culture in his recent book, Love and Death at the Mall . Other than that, the genre offers little more than a couple "thrillers." Oh well, at least on Mall Day we won't get flooded.

(I would like to thank the A Team Teachers -- Jim Bierer, Science; Delores Denson, Math; Dennis Schlabach, English and Reading; Teresa Wyman, Social Studies; and Holly Vining, Home Economics -- along with the A Team students of 1994-95. All have been my teachers.)

Works Cited
Bakeless, John. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Mentor, 1964.

Boston, L. M. The River at Green Knowe. Harcourt Brace Jonanovich, 1959.

Crew, Linda. Children of the River. Dell, 1989.

Colwell, Frederic S. Rivermen: A Romantic Iconography of the River and the Source. McGill-Queen's UP, 1989.

Dixon, Paige. May I Cross Your Golden River? Atheneum, 1975.

Gabhart, Ann. Bridge to Courage. Avon, 1993.

Herendeen, Wyman H. From Landscape to Literature: The River and the Myth of Geography. Duquesne UP, 1986.

Hobbs, Will. Downriver. Bantam, 1991.

Houston, James. River Runners: A Tale of Hardship and Bravery. Puffin, 1979.

Kane, Joe. Running the Amazon. Vintage, 1989.

Lafer, Stephen and Stephen Tchudi. "The Familiar Made Curious: A Case For Hometown Interdisciplinary Studies." English Journal 83.1, 1994, pp. 14-20.

Lopez, Barry Holstun. River Notes: The Dance of Herons. Avon, 1979.

O'Dell, Scott. Streams to the River, River to the Sea. Fawcett Juniper, 1986.

Oster, Patrick. The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of People. Harper and Row, 1989.

Paulsen, Gary. The Crossing. Dell, 1987.

Paulsen, Gary. The River. Dell, 1991.

Peck, Richard. Love and Death at the Mall: Teaching and Writing for the Literate Young. Delacorte, 1994.

Peck, Richard. Secrets of the Shopping Mall. Dell, 1980.

Reid Banks, Lynne. One More River. Avon, 1973.

Seelye, John. Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.

The Song of Sacajawea. Videocassette. Writ. James Howard Kuntler. Rabbit Ears Productions, 1992. 30 min.

David S. Burk is in his eleventh year teaching seventh and eighth grade English and Reading at Ross Middle School. He is coordinator of the A Team, one of three interdisciplinary teams in their fourth year of existence at the school. He has published articles in English Journal and has taught secondary English methods courses at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.