Literature Ladders

Theory to Practice: Thematic Learning Environments

Many teachers like to use themes in their instructional units. Themes focus on a single topic that is of interest to students. It provides a core for group activities by building on the natural interests of learners. Writing, speaking, listening, reading, calculating, and content-related concepts can all be taught within the context of a theme. Themes can provide relevance for students by drawing together concepts under a single umbrella. In addition, themes can attract and maintain student interest over a long period of time and can provide continuity for a series of activities.

Motivation or Gimmick?

A theme can be an effective way to motivate students during a unit, but make certain the theme is real rather than contrived. Consider the classic "PIGS" month theme I admit hosting in my elementary school many years ago. During reading month, PIGS stood for "Poke Into Good Stories". Pig books were displayed in the library and teachers created PIGS bulletin boards. Pigs were plastered on everything from worksheets to T-shirts. However, even second graders could see that the theme was only surface level. The pig on their "addition facts" worksheet had nothing to do with mathematics, and the pig song in music class was really just "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" with new words. Before long, the children became bored with pink pig pictures all over the building.

Focal Points

Rather than choosing a theme for the sake of having a theme, select a "focal point" for activities. Choose a popular topic from the social studies or science area that has "interdisciplinary" possibilities. The environment, travel, social and health issues, and historical events are a good place to start. Another approach is to begin with a popular video, website, CD, television show, or book that could be shared across grade levels.

A single video, website, or read-aloud book can serve as a focal point for the unit. It can provide a shared experience. Regardless of background, prior learning, or reading level, all of the students can share in the theme through a single experience. This can serve as the springboard or centerpiece for the entire unit. Consider promotional ideas that will keep the theme fresh and exciting. The length of the unit will depend on the number of outcomes as well as the number of activities you identify.

When considering themes, start with a list of topics that are of interest to a particular grade level. What are the popular television programs, movies, and fads? Now make a list of the standard content that is taught in the curriculum of this grade level. Do any of the student interests overlap with the required content? Are there ways that themes could be used to connect content with interests? For example, middle schoolers love television. You could use television commercials in your advertising unit or persuasive writing lesson.

Theme-based Literature Units

In their online article, Themes of Human Experience: Linking Literature and Conceptual Development (offsite link), Noe and Fulwiler stress the importance of a "meaningful theme." They emphasize the human dimensions of a topic. They state that "an effective themed unit creates a web of intricately connected relationships and meanings that raise the teacher and students to higher levels of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Long after specific facts are gone, students will still carry the deepest meanings in their minds and hearts." Read their article to build you own theme-based literature unit. Also, check out their example.

Build a Unit

We often start with a traditional classroom topic such as pioneers, pollution, or nutrition. Develop this topic into a theme by focusing on the human dimensions of the topic, related standards, essential questions, along with the core concepts and generalizations that make up this topic. At the same time, think about how the literature you have relates to these ideas. For example, you might start with pioneers and end up with a unit that focuses on the challenges facing those that chose to move west. Out of your brainstorm might come literature circles focusing on the experiences of the characters in the books Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad, Black-Eyed Susan by Jennifer Armstrong, and the Little House on the Prairie series. Although you'll need to develop a core set of learning outcomes, involve students in developing and sharing their own understanding of the theme.

Katherine L. Schlick Noe from Seattle University has developed an excellent website titled Themed Literature Units (offsite link). Check out her Concept Development Process (offsite link) page. Consider using software such as Kidspiration or Inspiration during your brainstorms with students.

Use some of the words below to help in developing your themes.

teamwork

trust

ethical dilemmas

euthanasia

freedom

convictions

social change

communication

friendship

acceptance

customs

money

choices

denial

discrimination

resourcefulness

nature

friendship

belonging

memories

honesty

bullies

activism

commitment

guilt

heroes

good and evil

humor

help

immigrants

adoption

loss

loyalty

hope

leadership

loneliness

death and dying

courage

love

diversity

hatred

responsibility

peer pressure

poverty

pride

prejudice

safety

anger

racism

peace

patriotism

discovery

propaganda

community

self-esteem

violence

tragedy

survival

social change

poverty

westward movement

self awareness

character

war

abandonment

dreams

challenges

values

prairies and pioneers

environment

relationships

mythology

friendship

caring

homelessness

risktaking

 

Thematic Learning Environments

Use the following off-site, web resources to learn more about this topic:


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