Deep dive: Embedded English goes from radical idea to tested method

Many of the best teachers look for improved ways to reach their students and make their lessons more relevant to students’ lives and interests. One such teacher, Michael Payne, an English instructor and Humanities Department head at Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield, Ohio, has embraced the idea of ”embedding” some of his lessons into the curricula of other disciplines. He says the results are positive all around. We asked Michael to share details about his teaching philosophy and techniques:

Michael Payne
Michael Payne, an English instructor and Humanities Department head at Global Impact STEM Academy, highlights how he embedded English into other curricula.

Q: How long have you been teaching high school English? Was your training “traditional”?
A: I’ve been teaching high school English for four years. I suppose, yes, I received “traditional” training at Wright State University (near Dayton). When I look back on those years, I often think of how much suffering I caused a majority of my professors! (Ha-ha.) I was always rather frustrated with the topics and focuses of my master’s level courses: how to make tests, how to group students, how to organize a classroom, etc. These things, to me, seemed marginal — even trivial — when comparing them with the mere notion that I will be building/cultivating a relationship with 100-plus young humans every year; moreover, each year I will meet 100-plus new young humans while I’m watching the previous 100-plus grow, morph and change (physically, of course, but also mentally and emotionally) right in front of my eyes — so to speak.

You consider this, and where you put a trash can in the room seemed asinine. So, like I mentioned, I can only imagine how hard a time I gave a majority of my professors (other than one or two). I did have a couple of professors who apparently saw something in me and fostered my intensity and desire to be nearly the complete opposite of anything one would consider traditional.

I wanted to understand teaching theory, and I wanted to question everything that was happening in modern classrooms. None of it made sense to me. I knew it needed to be different, and I knew it was able to be different. The issue is, and will always be, fear: fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of being different, fear of change — and on and on it goes. Long story short, my training was overall traditional, but I had professors and mentors aiding me in my desire to find the most nontraditional approach.

payne in class
Payne with students on the first day of class

Q: Describe your teaching methods before you decided to change. What prompted you to alter your methods?
A: As a first-year teacher, I was certainly far from traditional. That said, I was as traditional as I could possibly be. Classes were project-based, we read some interesting (and often commonly “banned” novels), we connected our materials to other curricula and the like. However, I felt that the confines of that type of learning still made no sense. School (especially English because it is in my purview), should have zero boundaries (physical or metaphorical).

As years went on, I continued to adapt my classroom, getting further from an isolated (so to speak) approach to one that led to more interdisciplinary action. Eventually (Year 3), I discussed with Josh Jennings (Global Impact STEM Academy’s founding director) the notion of embedding English into other curricula. That is, I would no longer have a classroom, but instead, English would be a part of science, social studies and mathematics (we kept it to core curricula as opposed to also attempting art, physical education and the like). The prompting felt natural. I was heading in that direction already, so it seemed to be the most likely place to go.

Q: Describe your current teaching method. Did you use another teacher or a particular philosophy as a guide?
A: When I decided to start embedding English, it came from many places: my own notions that school should be free of boundaries, basic principles of (early 20th-century education reformer) John Dewey and researching other schools/teachers that have done something similar.

I wanted to be sure, before I ran off doing something considered to be this radical, that I could back up my beliefs and practices with grounded theory and effective practice. Once I was able to see how effective embedding a course could be, I approached other staff members to see how this might look.

There was a lot of front-loading that summer, with a good amount of contact between staff members. I wanted to be sure everyone else was open to team teaching/co-teaching, letting there be time for English lessons and the like. Though the notion was definitely met with some reticence, when the ball started rolling things had a way of falling into place.

A biology teacher might be working on lab notebooks and want students to use APA format while writing in passive voice — this was a perfect opportunity to have an English teacher in the room! Together, we worked to not only alleviate reluctance but also embrace the opportunity.

I feel that math embraced this the most, and I also believe the most was gained from the relationship. Mathematics tends to be (unfortunately) a traditionally cold and oftentimes sterile class. In no way do I believe that it should be, and in no way am I making a blanket statement. I’m simply acknowledging a common trend: Students are rarely excited for math class. With that in mind, I worked closely with the head of the math department to figure out how to breathe life into mathematics (at a high school level).

We chose a book to read as a class, had class discussions, created podcasts that asked bigger questions regarding philosophies (as oppose to only memorizing formulas), gave students more time to ask larger questions that are oftentimes overlooked (e.g., Why does 2 + 2 = 4?), and delved deeply into dialogues with students and one another (during class) to see that math is much more than numbers on a board.

Q: Can you give a few more examples of how you have embedded English into other classes?
A: In science, I consistently went over writing formats, research techniques, Latin roots, presentation methods/techniques.

In social studies, we shared multi-class discussions regarding the novel “Brave New World” and how fiction and history are interconnected. The discussions were incredible as they included three teachers and two classes at a time.

Data (all around, but especially in math) were collected and reaffirmed my hypothesis: removing boundaries from learning creates a deeper understanding of the intricate web that is separate curricula.

Q: You mentioned “data.” What kind of data did you gather on your embedded teaching efforts, and what did the data show?
A: The data gathered involved reporting back grades (formative and summative), as well as interviews with students. The findings resulted in an obvious increase in performance by students across the board (science, math, social studies). I presented this data at the Project: WRIGHT Symposium (an annual day of presentations on educational reform held at the Dayton Regional STEM School Training Center).

Editor’s note: Read our conversation with symposium organizer Jenn Reid here

A decent anecdote that explained the value was seeing student discussions regarding a mathematical concept. Students were asked to participate in a discussion (English standard) regarding functions (math standard). When I went over the comments, I noticed many students were also bringing in social studies (discussing current events) and how the notion of function related to science (cause and effect).

I was tickled to see students (on their own) making these cross-curricular connections with zero prompting. It was clear that, by using English as a sort of thread to web the classes together, connections were being made.

Q: What were the responses of students and their parents to the embedded instructional style?
A: I have several quotes from students that might help:

  • Student A: “It’s not just math, it’s not just social studies; it’s everything together. You see (English) in everything we’ve done. … It all just kind of links together.”
  • Student B: “We aren’t just learning (that) this is science, this is social studies and this is English. They’re not all separate. It makes learning a lot easier to know that English applies to every subject. It helps connect. These aren’t just separate things. By doing this, we’re learning that everything isn’t individual. We can learn things together, and that makes it easier to process the information that we’re getting.”
  • Student C: “We get different perspectives from different teachers. Seeing this helps me form my own opinion and explain ‘why.’… Cause and effect may be a (specific) term in English, but it exists in other classes with different terms.”
  • Student D: “This produces more quality. When we have a project in two or more classes, we get time in class to work, and I still have time outside of class to work. There’s just more time to do it.”
  • Student E: “I enjoy having the discussions together. … You come into our history class and discuss the similarities with the book with what we’re doing in class. I enjoy the interaction between the two different classes.”

Parent responses were quite different. During our open house, when I was handing out syllabi and explaining the course, many parents made faces similar to a face you might make when smelling a skunk. I was absolutely barraged by questions until I was able to slowly clarify and the classes started.

food prize contest
Payne and his students at the Ohio State World Food Prize Contest

Eventually parents understood that students still had four periods, but the fourth period would be utilized to delve into topics and create qualitative work instead of quantitative work.

When I was not in the class, Holly Dilts (our music instructor), helped students with their research while also adding yet another layer of depth — music. It was amazing to have students reading a novel in English, discussing it in social studies and science, as well as getting to understand the artistic culture of the time. The depth was unreal.

Q: Do you still teach daily English classes, or do you teach all of your lessons in the embedded style? If you retain the daily English classes, do they contain embedded material from other disciplines?
A: This year, I am focusing on our college-credit-plus English course, so 75 percent of my day is teaching my version of Clark State Community College’s syllabus to our high school students. The other 25 percent is my freshmen class, and for them, I teach much like I did in Year One. The biggest difference is the amount of co-curricular project-based learning that we do.

We have already started our whole-school STEM fair (all curricula participate), and soon, we will start an awareness project (looking to be tied into social studies and math), regarding the opiate epidemic occurring in Ohio (more specifically, Springfield).

Editor’s note: Many of Ohio’s STEM schools are participating in design challenges tackling the Ohio’s opioid crisis. Learn more.

Q: How does your style mesh with a STEM school curriculum? Are there special challenges to teaching an “art” instead of a “science” at a STEM school? Would your method be usable in a different kind of school?
A: I’m currently looking to publish an article I’ve written regarding this exact notion: teaching humanities in a STEM school. Many believe that because STEM began as an acronym (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), that STEM schools teach only those subjects. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Humanities are the core of all classes. Language arts (focusing on reading, writing, producing, speaking, listening and the like) are the backbone of all classes. Many encourage educators to do more reading and writing in their classes. What better way than making English/language arts the thread that connects all curricula?

I never planned to teach less English or remove it from schooling. I intended, instead, to reinforce it: showing its prevalence in all courses. And yes, I firmly believe this method is, and should be, considered best practice for any school.

With a staff that is willing to work together and put students first; an administration that is supportive and creative, willing to put students first; and some extreme front-loading of ideas and connections, this embedded method could work for any class.

Life isn’t compartmentalized. Our jobs, hobbies, problems, solutions, relationships, etc., are not compartmentalized. Why should school be? Removing the boundaries will only help to build cross-curricular connections, building a deeper understanding of foundational and higher-level learning.

michael payne headshot
In April, Payne received the Springfield Ohio Rotary Club’s Excellence in Teaching Award – Springfield News Sun report

Q: How can other English teachers incorporate your ideas into their teaching, if only in parts?

A: Basically: Research ways it can work; find easy connections to other curricula to get you started; be ready to keep an open line of dialogue with the staff members you will be working with; find a balance between co-teaching and interrupting (that was difficult for me, as I can’t resist the urge to mutter my thoughts and ideas); be sure you have a supportive administration who desires to do what is best for the student (as the data show); be ready to learn much of what you never understood (by participating in the learning during your time spent in other classrooms); and find a decent pair shoes (you will be on your feet quite a bit).

I’m aware that many of these “steps” are more like pipe dreams for some (e.g., supportive administration), but that’s what I believe is necessary.

Q: Are other English teachers at your school using your method? Are they successful?
A: Other English teachers have not attempted the embedded method yet. This is not to say they don’t want to, but to embed takes a lot of preparation. So, it’s not always feasible. Other teachers, however, are carrying out many co-curricular projects. The major difference is, many English or language arts fundamentals are still taught within the confines of an English classroom. Again, the courses are far from traditional, they just aren’t embedded.

Q: Are you planning to try other innovative ideas in your classroom? Give us some examples.
A: I’m consistently thinking of new methods of curriculum delivery. Though I am currently overseeing our college-credit-plus English course, I am always considering how things could be “different.” I do feel, after gathering and analyzing data, that embedding leads to positive outcomes and should be considered best practice, but that doesn’t mean more isn’t out there.

I am working with the head of the math department in regards to embedding more than just English (i.e., mathematics), as well as developing math courses for middle school that mimic the ideas of “appreciation” courses. Basically, we are looking at why so many students/teachers consider math to be so difficult, or trying, or impossible, or boring, etc. As I mentioned before, when we brought language arts into the math room, so much changed (for the better).

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your education methods or philosophy?
A: In “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897), John Dewey, the father of pragmatism and an advocate for progressive teaching, noted, “The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences” (Dewey 9).

Dewey headshot
Payne cites John Dewey as a major influence

In other words, the relationship of pupil and pedagogue is that of a partnership. Though Dewey’s teachings are over 100 years old, I believe they are invaluable lessons that ultimately ring just as true today as they did a century ago.
In a modern classroom, it is incredibly pertinent that we — as current/future educators — understand that education should not be considered the acquisition of objective or predetermined skills, but rather a relative experience that differs for each individual: an experience that eventually aids in students reaching their full potential. I truly cannot see myself envisioning a learning environment in any other way.

I believe school most certainly should be a place of experience and shared learning. School should act as an open forum for partnership and shared knowledge, creating students who grow and improve as individuals capable of working together: collaborative and autonomous.

Q: What are the biggest lessons that you have learned about teaching during your career?
A: It is extremely personal. Everyone is different. Many (if not all) teachers get into the career because of their passion for their subject matter and their compassion for children but often become jaded due to strict legislative policies and non-supportive administration.

Students tend to work harder and smarter when I get out of their way (in other words, the less I waste time lecturing/telling the what or how to think, the more they dive into materials with intrinsic motivation.

Finally, I have learned that teaching is simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding career field I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.

Edited by Patricia Bitler, freelance writer and editor.

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