Carol Hodge offers some ideas for activity based cross-curricular learning within an International Primary Curriculum (IPC)

What have chocolate fridge cakes and mixing vinegar and sodium bicarbonate got to do with volcanoes? They are just two of six weeks of activities, learning in a cross-curricular way, that were part of our volcanoes and earthquakes unit; one of the themed units of our International Primary Curriculum.

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Here is what we did:

Launching the unit
I introduced the unit to the class through a ‘disaster day’ where we imagined the school was a safety zone, an area designated safe from a volcano. It gave the children a real sense of how a disaster such as an earthquake or volcano immediately impacts every single person. The children all took part in setting up their safety zone. It was a huge success.

Knowledge harvest
The following day we did a knowledge harvest to identify what we already knew about earthquakes and volcanoes. There was a little bit of knowledge but absolutely no understanding. I encouraged the children to think about what they had at home linked to earthquakes or volcanoes that they could bring in and share with the rest of the class. Someone brought in a piece of volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvius, someone else brought in a video from their holiday in Iceland flying in a helicopter over an active volcano. It gave us a wealth of resource material to directly support our learning.

Real-life experience
A week after our knowledge harvest, the earthquake in England happened. The timing couldn’t have been better! We compiled the Abel Smith school newspaper report featuring interviews with people in school who’d experienced the quake, geographical information about the earthquake and how different areas of the country dealt it. There was some excellent research and recording work and lots of great descriptive writing because it was real and relevant. We watched the Newsround investigations. The language that the children were hearing linked directly to their learning in the classroom putting it all into context. This was a good example for me about being prepared to be flexible. It was an opportunity that was totally unanticipated but I just had to grab it because the learning experience that it provided was phenomenal.

Understanding volcanoes
This is when we made our chocolate fridge cake; layering cherries, marshmallows and raisins and covering the layers with melted chocolate. The finished cake looked smooth on the top but when we cut down into it you could see all the layers. It was easy for the children to then understand how the lava flows from the crater, cooling to form a new layer of rock just like the melted chocolate did. It was a great activity for helping the children to understand the formation of a volcanic mountain and the science of melting and solidifying. We used maths for weighing ingredients and literacy to write our recipe and method.

Creating an eruption
The children worked together to make a papier mâché volcano, using a small plastic bottle for the vent. We then simulated an eruption by mixing sodium bicarbonate, vinegar and red food colouring in the plastic bottle. We watched the eruption and saw how the lava flows and settles down the mountainside. It was also an excellent opportunity to learn about chemical reactions.

Going global
Our own earthquake experience helped the children understand the need for disaster drills that children in earthquake zones, specifically San Francisco, have to practise to prepare them for much bigger and potentially more dangerous quakes. We practised an earthquake drill and discussed how this might affect people’s daily lives. It was very easy from here to engage the children in discussion and investigation about why people live in earthquake zones and to research the architecture of the buildings in these zones. We also investigated how many volcanoes are in a Ring of Fire, looked in atlases to find out where active volcanoes are today, and tied that into investigation about explorers and reading maps of the world. We watched Isaac’s holiday video of the helicopter ride over the volcano, found the volcano on the map and talked about volcanoes in Lanzarote and how they impact the people who live and visit there.

By learning about volcanoes from a global perspective, the children now have a great sense of how volcanoes impact on people differently in a variety of countries. This is opening up their minds to the rest of the world and how we as a country are independent and interdependent with these other countries.

Group learning
The children spent a lot of time working in teams, which helped their understanding of themselves; they are finding that each one of them has different qualities that matter. Some of the lower achieving children have done some amazing creative work and are understanding different learning skills that they can do and do well which contribute to the group learning; that’s wonderful for them and for their self-esteem. Through this approach they’re not being judged by subject ability or purely by the words or numbers that they put down on paper. They are finding their own niche and excelling in their own ways. The output and the engagement has been incredible. It’s the most work I’ve ever seen many of them do.

Literacy links
In the early part of the unit we focused on a lot of factual detail. The children were then able to draw on the learning experiences and knowledge they’d acquired to create some very descriptive and meaningful creative writing and poetry. There was also plenty of linked reading. I have some struggling readers who actually wanted to read more because it was a subject that really appealed to them.

In conclusion
The children are loving the IPC cross-curricular way of learning. But it goes way beyond just having fun in the classroom. They are learning through real-life, worldwide experiences; it’s learning that makes sense to them. There’s enough time to get totally absorbed into a theme (this unit lasted six weeks) and to link it meaningfully and rigorously to every subject. It’s a much more creative way to teach. It’s really good fun planning in themes rather than individual lessons that don’t have any meaning between them. Working from a teaching framework reassures me that I’m maintaining the rigour yet at the same time I’m creating learning experiences and an international mindedness that I know the children will benefit from and remember with enthusiasm.

Carol Hodge is a class 5 teacher from Abel Smith Primary School