Teacher and student voices in cross-subject learning: Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Monet’s Orangerie Waterlilies

For too long the boundaries between subjects have seemed like those ruler-straight colonial-era borders, pencilled across maps in distant chancelleries, answering to longitudinal and latitudinal abstracts, with little regard for topographical realities. Recently I have been exploring opportunities with colleagues to see how a collaborative approach might support student learning, through mobilising pedagogical skills and content-knowledge from different subject areas, and applying these to specific challenges.

In recent weeks, the thoughts of anyone in secondary education have surely been with those colleagues guiding their GCSE English students through a new and daunting assessment model. Naturally, my English-teaching colleagues responded to this challenge with their characteristic professionalism and dedication. But to broaden and deepen the revision support for GCSE English we felt a cross-subject approach was helpful, especially when working with texts that required a significant contextual understanding. We chose for our collaborative pilot R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, putting an English and History teacher together in front of Year 11 GCSE revision class. This play was particularly well suited as it is so precisely located in time and space (Saint-Quentin, France, Monday 18 –Thursday 21 March 1918) that it enabled close linking of dramatic and factual events.

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We opted for a dialogic approach in which the English teacher chose four or five key themes and asked specific questions to the History teacher stimulated by quotations from the text. This conversation soon became more organic, with a fluid interweaving of text and context, evolving into a more polyphonic exchange as the pupils brought their own questions to the conversation. The students’ questioning rapidly adjusted to this conversational flow, focusing on the relationship between textual detail and context.

Our observation was that having two teachers in the room from different subjects prompted the students to formulate their questions in a way that enabled both teachers to contribute to the answer. The pupil questions provided an interrogatory latticework that enabled the teachers to mesh knowledge from both disciplines, not only fuelling the exchange between, but also helping to create a genuinely cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Immediate student feedback was very positive, followed by further questions after the end of the session, which prompted the teachers to record a second version of the conversation, re-shaped by the student questions that had arisen. The intention was that student understanding of the relationship between the text and the historical background should become a securely joisted structure, underpinned with a solid contextual foundation.

Our second  experiment  took a different form, but also had its origins in the year 1918, barely eight months after the dramas of Raleigh, Osborne, Stanhope and Trotter in their dugout at Saint-Quentin.

Colleagues teaching French, Art History and History had been looking for an opportunity to engage in joint extension work with Sixth Form students. Given the growing popularity of Humanities and Liberal Arts degrees (partly in imitation of the US model and of the Scottish four-year degree) we felt that extension work should respond to this trend towards interdisciplinarity.

Our explicit purpose was to illustrate the interrelationship of subject knowledge, and we chose Claude Monet’s Waterlilies project of 1918-1926, which hangs in the Orangerie Museum, near the Louvre in Paris. We explored the project’s genesis in the intense and turbulent friendship of Monet and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (unjustly caricatured in so many GCSE History resources as little more than a revanchist cliché at the 1919 Paris peace conferences). Indeed the story began with a letter penned by Monet to Clemenceau on the morrow of the armistice, 12 November 1918, offering a series of huge decorative panels as his commemoration of the national sacrifice.

We followed the project through the crises of the artist’s ill-health and failing eyesight, linking it to the story of French Impressionism, and Monet’s fifty year journey from excluded rebel to officially approved interpreter of a nation’s sacrifice.  We explored contrasts between the aesthetics of memorialisation as seen in Monet’s Orangerie Waterlilies, and more conventional expressions, such as those at Notre Dame de Lorette and at Verdun. During the session, Year 12 and 13 French students provided a chronological framework for the story by translating extracts from the letters of Monet, Clemenceau and the ophthalmic surgeon Dr Charles Coutela – the project’s undoubted saviour.

Monet waterlillies

Our aim was to explore the interrelationship of knowledge across disciplines, and how through the structured  teacher collaboration we could generate a more textured and multi-perspectival learning experience in which students were encouraged to draw together the threads of concept, fact, text (in English and French) and image.

All subjects should embrace the opportunity to combine the knowledge of teachers across subject areas to create a more profound, immersive and bridged understanding of civilisation and its component disciplines. The opportunities are limitless, but it would surely be wonderful to have Sixth Form scientists and historians jointly exploring the intellectual ferment of Restoration England, or historians, theologians and physicists linking faith, artistic patronage and engineering in the cathedral-building campaigns of Northern Europe in the High Middle Ages? Like the master masons at Notre Dame or York Minster, we should be tearing down solid walls and throwing up soaring vaults and arches to bridge subject disciplines and support ambitious collaboration. If we are courageous enough to do it, the light will flood in.

Notre Dame from the Seine, 22.7.14.