Multi-disciplinary news

Here’s a great example of how a news article we might read in the morning at TLC Middle School can be used as a springboard to learn in a truly multi-disciplinary way.

Let’s look at this recent NPR feature about grapes, which caught my attention both with the picture and the clever headline:

npr grapes

At TLC Middle School, here’s how we might discuss this article.

First, we would all read the NPR article (go ahead and read it — it’s not long).

The article describes how one part of plants work:

Plants have two types of pipes in their stems: the xylem and the phloem. The xylem pumps water to the leaves from the roots, while the phloem sends food from the leaves back down to the roots.

After we read that, I’m pretty sure we could find an image of xylem and phloem from an online biology text…  Yep — that was easy — I just typed in “xlyem phloem” to Google:

xylem search

This is a crucial element of TLC — we will empower students to learn on their own.  There’s no need to ask a teacher for some basics that are widely available.  The key is teaching students how to be effective online researchers. We also want students to know when it’s time to ask for help from a teacher, and when it’s time to visit the library, which we’ll do on a regular basis at TLC.

The NPR article goes on to describe the ancient Greek practice of “girdling” — here’s a picture from the NPR article:


The text reads “Put a ‘girdle’ on that vine.  By scraping off a small section of the grapevine’s trunk, a farmer in California hopes to fatten up the fruit growing at the top.”

There’s also a link in the NPR article to Theophrastus, an early Greek horticulturalist.  According to that link (which takes us to a page at Ohio State University),

Theophrastus had a tremendous amount of knowledge, accumulated for him by students and staff of the Lyceum. His knowledge of foreign plants was likewise outstanding. Alexander the Great, while carrying on his military expeditions as far as the Indus River in India, sent him many plants.

If we had not yet talked, as a class, about Alexander the Great and some of the Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, this would be a good opportunity to begin that discussion.

TLC students would surely ask “what’s the Lyceum?” (because we’re curious about the world that way) and they would learn that it was the school Aristotle set up, and that Theophrastus took over when Aristotle had to flee Athens.

By the way, Plato’s school was called “The Academy,” which is why we have schools around here called “Durham Academy” and “Cary Academy.” This discussion might spark some interest in what else the ancient Greeks knew about…

Many middle school students are already fans of ancient Greece thanks to the Percy Jackson series of books, so this NPR piece about grapes could lead us to have a future discussion about ancient Greek history.

In such a discussion, we’d look at Alexander the Great’s conquests, which had the effect of spreading Greek culture all over his empire (pictured below). Why did Alexander know so much about Greek culture?  Well he was from Macedonia, which is just north of Greece, and his private tutor in his teen years was none other than the famous philosopher Aristotle (the guy who opened the Lyceum).

ATG empire

Alexander the Great’s empire

So now we’re not only learning about science, we’re also learning a bit about Greek history.  And we’re also learning new vocabulary words, such as horticulture.


Part of the reason for reading articles from NPR and the Wall Street Journal and the BBC is to help students build their vocabulary in an authentic context.

We might also have a discussion about the bio-ethics of  using plant hormones.  According to the NPR article, it sounds pretty benign (some students might have to look up benign)…

To pump up the fruit even further, farmers turn to a more common trick: hormone therapy.

Just as sex hormones are used to fatten up beef cattle, a plant hormone called gibberellic acid can beef up berries.

Grapes are so distantly related to humans that their hormones don’t raise concerns about how they might affect us, Fidelibus says.

But these hormones have a big impact on growing fruit. Farmers can even control the shape of the berries. Gibberellic acid makes the grapes long and cylindrical, while other chemicals can give them a rounder physique.

California classifies plant hormones as pesticides, but Fidelibus says that’s just a legal definition. “It’s not at all toxic to people,” he tells The Salt. “Gibberellic acid is widely used in agriculture, and seeds make it naturally. So people would be eating it anyway.”

But I can imagine some people being quite upset about having their grapes treated with Gibberellic acid, even though this man named Fidelibus says it’s safe. The teacher’s role at TLC is to put such a discussion in context, and to help students connect that discussion to the larger discussion about GMO foods.

The Wikipedia article on genetically modified food, for example, notes that

While there is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk to human health than conventional food, critics have objected to GM foods on several grounds, including safety issues, ecological concerns, and economic concerns …

Again, if students got into the idea of GMO food, we would not stop with a Wikipedia article — we would visit the various libraries in the area and would find experts around the world who could help us make sense of the debate around GMO food.

The point is that at TLC, a simple article about grapes could lead to discussions about science, history, and even bio-ethics.  It also serves as a vocabulary lesson (did you look up benign yet?)

At the end of our discussion, students will take time to reflect and write about what they found most interesting in our discussion — some students might focus on the science while others focus on the GMO aspect.  Another student might use the article as a springboard to learn more about ancient Greek scientists. Whatever they choose to write about (or make a podcast about, on occasion), they will all improve their communication skills as they learn about the world and make all sorts of connections.

And that’s the whole point of reading the “multi-disciplinary news” at TLC Middle School.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Multi-disciplinary news

  1. bllbrwn423 says:

    Thanks, Steve, for this inspiring example of the new “school” up there. When we started a new high school over in CA, we were aiming for just these kinds of learning energy. You are off to a fabulous start. Mix equal parts news article, natural curiosity and adult guidance, then stir. What a simple, sustaining recipe! You are also teaching me creative ways to use a blog; thank you for that.

  2. bllbrwn423 says:

    Reblogged this on maroonballoon and commented:
    This inspiring example of learning also shows me creative ways to shape blog posts.

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