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)
For the past three years I have taught Language Arts 8 in a Resource Room setting. Working with students with decoding and reading comprehension skills below grade-level, I am forced to modify the materials and curriculum used by the other Language Arts teachers. Choosing reading material isn’t always easy – it must be high interest and low readability. I feel like I have a pretty good choice of novels and selections from the text book that cover everything I need to cover.
The four novels I read during the school year are
*With the exception of Stargirl, the general education teachers at my grade level use these exact same novels.
However, with the adoption of the Common Core, I am faced with a decision. All because of increased lexile bands.
According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the lexile levels will increase for each grade level band. 6th-8th graders who were previously reading in the 860L–1010L range but will now be expected to read in the 955L–1155L range.
While the jump is not earth shattering for high ability readers, it is significant for students with reading disabilities.
Look again at the novels I use with my students with disabilities:
According to the lexile levels, only one of these books falls into the new range for 8th graders. In fact, three of these books are apparently in the range for 2nd and 3rd graders! If you haven’t read The Outsiders or The Giver, there are definitely some scenes that are not appropriate for 7-8 year olds. (I do understand the the Common Core is not recommending students at that grade level read these particular books, but you must get what I am saying.)
So does that mean that we ditch the books that have been middle school “classics” for years? The content is appropriate and the literary elements are there. I’ve seen these books make non-readers read because of the story lines. I’ve seen non-readers take these books home or ask if they can keep a copy because they love them. I’ve had students say that their parents are now reading these books because they’ve raved about them so much. In my mind, these books are keepers!
My frustration is in the fact that some people think that these novels, because of their lexile levels, must be thrown out. How can I justify not using three of the four books I have built my curriculum around? Especially when these novels are perfect for the students I work with.
At this point, I plan to use these novels and supplement with increasingly more difficult text as my students are able to handle it. Supposedly, we will be getting some software that will allow us to determine a student’s reading range. This should be helpful in writing the IEP and planning instruction, but will I be allowed to use these novels with 8th graders? That answer will hopefully come when we receive additional training in the Common Core later this summer.
How do you feel about the new lexiles and the Common Core?
Would you discard a classic novel that is grade appropriate because of its lexile?
How will you select your novels as your district adopts the Common Core?
The last few days of school and the natives are restless. Today in my Resource Language Arts class we did a fun culminating activity.
To begin, we looked at a worksheet about evaluating a piece of writing. We discussed what it means to evaluate, completed the worksheet, and then the students became the evaluators.
Students lined up along the back of the room with small dry erase boards. Their job was to rate/evaluate each piece of literature that we read this year. I started at the beginning of the year and went sequentially. Students would write a number 1-10 (1 being the lowest) and then arrange themselves in a number line from lowest to highest.
As we went through our stories, I showed them the title pages or covers of each selection. This helped spark their memory. (Note to self: Next year, put these on the SMART Board rather than awkwardly flip through the text book.)
To keep the activity educational, I did the following things at random:
I asked individual students to provide a reason for their rating. What made you rate this selection so low? What made this a perfect 10 for you?
I quizzed them over the plot, characters, and some of the literary terms we used when we read that piece of literature. What was the setting of The Tell-Tale Heart? Which character was the protagonist in The Outsiders? What was Leo’s internal conflict in Stargirl?
I helped students find and explain the patterns of their ratings. Some things we noticed: The boys preferred science fiction and horror stories. Those who hate to read out loud rated the plays lower than the other types of literature. Overall, students rated our novels (The Outsiders, Stargirl, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) higher than our short stories out of our literature book.
Allowing the students to stand and move was a great way to direct their energy at this crazy time of year. I know some people use a number line already posted in their room, but the use of dry erase boards made everyone accountable and honestly, what student doesn’t love dry erase boards?
This activity was beneficial to me as well, as it served as a kind of formative assessment. What did they learn? What do they remember? What did they enjoy? What did they dislike? This will help me in my planning and instruction next year.
Do you do any end of the year surveys or review games?
How would you change this activity to fit your class?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how was your year?