Creating Connections with Themes

In 16 years of teaching, I have found a theme: I prefer to teach in thematic units.

I love the creativity and planning aspect of thematic units.

I love finding ways to tie as many things together as possible to get a “big picture.”

I love helping kids find connections (to both other subjects and to real life.)

In my first unofficial teaching position as a K-5 leader in an all day summer day care, I planned weekly themes as required by the center. Each day we had to have fine motor, gross motor, music, reading, science, and arts and crafts activities based on the theme. As a 22-year-old, with an age range of 5-11 to work with it was a huge task and often a stretch. Talk about being creative! I can’t remember all of the themes but I do remember the following: Colors, Oceans, Transportation, Animals, Sports, Fairy Tales, and Insects. This minimum wage job ($4.25 an hour?!?!) sort of set the tone for a career of teaching in themes.

In my first official teaching position (which is worthy of its own separate post someday), I was a home instructor for five siblings with severe to moderate disabilities. This job was unique in that I had my own “classroom” on their enclosed back porch/sunroom. My lesson plans for this job were also done in themes: one letter of the alphabet every single week. This was probably not the most logical way to plan because of the complete randomness of apples, angels, and acrobats or raisins, rhyming, and railroads, but for this group of children, it worked. Again, I had to plan for activities covering a wide range of skills: math, pre-reading, writing, music, gross motor and fine motor (I worked with both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist), and speech and language (a speech therapist came once a week too.) The randomness of the alphabet pushed me to stretch my imagination and helped me think outside the box.

In my second year of teaching, I finally had my own classroom in a traditional setting. I was the teacher for the K-3 Self-Contained Special Education Class. The only inclusion in the regular classroom was for music and gym. (I got to teach my own art class!) With this position, I had a very specific curriculum and themes I was required to cover. Each month, I would receive a giant Rubbermaid tote from the curriculum office and inside I would find a huge list of suggested activities and supplies to teach the content. I was able to supplement as I wanted. My planning at the day care came in handy. Some themes I had to teach that year: Oceans, Birds, Plants, Transportation, Colors, and Community Helpers. We also did a school wide theme on America in the month of February.

From there, I moved back home to a middle school DH/MH classroom. This was a new position in the building and I had no supplies, materials, curriculum…just 9 students, 3 aides, 9 desks, and a teacher’s desk. Fortunately, my students had a lot of inclusion time so I did not have as much to plan. I spent three years in this position and I remember these themes two themes as highlights of those years: Holiday Traditions Around the World and Leaders of America.

The next three years…back to a K-5 Resource Room setting and more themes (many repeats from other positions). But three unique themes I will never forget:

  • Houses and Construction – We built gingerbread houses as a culminating activity.
  • Pumpkins – We carved 22 pumpkins at the end of that unit. What a mess! More importantly, what was I thinking?? I have to say, my 5th graders were awesome helpers with the younger kids.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico Hot Air Balloon Festival – I could’t live much further from Albuquerque and it probably sounds like a crazy theme but my dad used to live there and had so much interesting information, I went with it. The culminating activity was making 22 paper mache hot air balloons for our own festival, which the whole school was invited to.

My next three years at the middle school level were inclusion and I was at the mercy of the general educations teachers. (Little to no opportunity to do my own thing/theme.)

At the high school level, I was working with students who failed the Ohio Graduation Test and needed additional tutoring. I spent the most time tutoring in Science and Social Studies and it was based on individual needs, which boiled down to “themes” like Plant and Animal Cells, Laws of Motion, and The Industrial Revolution.

And now I am back at the middle school and my perspective on theme has somewhat changed.

A few posts ago, I told you about the novels I use in my Resource Room: The Outsiders, Stargirl, The Giver, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Four novels, four nine week, and one common theme? Was it possible that a theme could last an entire year?

At the end of the year I ask students: “How are these four books related? Do they have a common theme?”

Here are some of the responses I have gotten in the past three years:

  • “You can’t treat people bad just because they are different.”
  • “People are discriminated against if they are different.”
  • “Everyone should be allowed to be who they want to be.”
  • “Everyone just wants to belong.”
  • “Friendships are the most important thing.”
  • “Sometimes people have to run away from their problems.”
  • “You should accept everyone.”

The definition of theme that we teach in 8th grade is:


Taken from my “Literary Terms” SMARTNotebook file.


It the above themes aren’t amazing life lessons, I don’t know what would be.

For years, I taught in themes, but now I’d like to think I teach life lessons.

What are some of your favorite thematic units?

What thematic unit would you love to do if there was room in your curriculum?

Have you ever had a theme for an entire school year?

4 responses

  1. I like your themes, and the special ones – profound understandings – of the books.

    I try to work in ESL here in Hongkong along similar lines, even though supervisors feel compelled with “exam-oriented” curriculum, and allow little wiggle room. So common “content” in preparation for the tests consists of “examination practice.” There actually is NO systematic language-learning or developmental content.

    And who gets blamed when they don’t learn or grow? But the kids and parents themselves buy into this, so any “innovation” happens by accident, and is usually vehemently rejected and/or snuffed as “foreign”.

    But it hasn’t stopped me, now for 20 years here. 😀

    1. After doing Ohio Graduation Test tutoring for two years, I completely understand what you are saying. I feel your pain. Exam prep and teaching to the test is grueling and definitely not the way to make connections to real life. I am not sure how many students you work with at a time but I did very small groups each period 1-3 students so at least I was able to tailor my delivery in unique ways to try to make connections that would help specific students understand and retain the info.

      1. Hi again MeLanie. Wow, quick reply.

        It sounds like your teaching has been rewarding. I have struggled to make it so here in Hong Kong, and on rare occasions, have succeeded.

        I was certified and taught secondary in the Chicago area, and so I know the kind of test you refer to, the Ohio Graduation, since Illinois had/has its own similar version. Please believe me: those tests are nothing like what these kids face here. Tertiary places and employment opportunities here are much more limited than in the U.S., and the competition is very destructive.

        95% of my work would not only be called “teaching to the test”. I was actually teaching ABOUT the test — giving kids simulations of the test itself, and then explaining how the test works, based on that. So, fundamental components of language learning and use, and thinking, are not presented in a systematic, cumulative or engaging way.

        The textbooks — which I was not permitted to vary from AT ALL — were exact simulations of the test, in both format and content. Students and their parents accepted no other material. Any time they suspected that I was deviating from that limited set of material, or that I did not understand it, or that I could not explain it to their satisfaction, they complained.

        Just this past year, a letter to the Principal signed by a number of parents complained that I was “introducing unrelated material”, that “students would, therefore, not be prepared for final examinations.” And it demanded that I be replaced. Administration did support me in that case — but some administrators often did not, even when students or they were clearly in error linguistically or methodologically.

        Please excuse the rant. I am in the middle of an end-of-year assessment process, and this is giving me an opportunity to distill my thoughts and prepare for upcoming meetings. Thanks, and keep on helping kids make connections to life. I always have been, and will be convinced that that is a fundamental methodological principle worth losing a job over. Please hang in there.

      2. I can hear your frustration and I’m sorry. It is unfortunate that you are held to such strict guidelines. An important part of teaching is being creative and it sounds like you have little to no option for that. So not only are you teaching TO the test but you are teaching HOW to test. I did my master’s Action Research Project on the Science OGT. I am so glad that I was able to find a new position. I did learn a great deal about teaching and testing and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but again, I can sympathize with you.

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