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:
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?
- ICT Curriculum Themes… (classroomtales.com)
- Jolliff Middle School teacher has Titanic lesson plans (hamptonroads.com)
- Thematic Unit Links (pickettsmill.typepad.com)
- Thematic Units 4 Teachers (units4teachers.com)