All teachers use different strategies and learning opportunities for their students. We all know that we need to change our ideas and teaching each year too, depending on who our students are, what they know and what they need. We are usually given a set of curriculum that either the state has mandated or the school district has adopted. These are usually great, and very basic for what you need to be teaching. They usually ensure that you are covering all of the material you need to cover before the end of the school year.
What about going above and beyond? Engaging students through what they are interested in? What about using our expertise and knowledge of students, the way students grow and develop and our personal philosophies of how we should differentiate in the classroom and teach in a developmentally appropriate way? I was told my first year of teaching there would be no fun in the classroom. I was bound and determined that I was going to use thematic lessons and centers because I believed in them. I believe in using children’s interest to build on their background knowledge. I believe that a child’s learning happens through play and hands on engagement, not just sitting at a table and writing and listening. This article is about using thematic units in an appropriate way, differentiating and engaging students in their own learning, and still covering the mandated curriculum. It does take time and work, but it is worth it in the end.
What exactly is a thematic unit? A thematic unit is: organizing your curriculum around a specific idea (theme). It also integrates this idea (theme) across all curricular areas. For consistency, I am going to talk about the Fall theme I do for different examples.
1. What will your thematic units be?—-I had basic ones I liked to use that children either already knew about, or I felt were important in case they weren’t learning about the topic outside of school. Remember though, as you develop these units you need to be able to back up why you are using the unit, how you are using the unit and be able to incorporate the following:
Find Themes here: Thematic units I used in my classroom
2. Planning your thematic units. (Materials, Time, Organization)—How will you do this? Weekly? Monthly? I changed to a new unit each week. A monthly unit can seem long and drawn out. In an early childhood classroom we are trying to expose children to as many ideas as we can. Changing weekly worked well for me, you have to do what is best for your classroom and children. This should be organized at the beginning of the year, and I organized mine by the letter of the week we were studying. You probably have a system in place you would follow. (“F” for fall, “W” for winter or fall for the month of October etc).
3. Align your text or mandated teaching materials with your units. (Objectives) As your mandated curriculum moves forward “make” your thematic unit meet the needs of what you are being asked to do by this curriculum. This does take creativity. For a simple example, if you are doing fall, take all of the things you will be incorporating into your thematic unit and then just use all ideas to enhance your mandated curriculum. The following will provide ideas.
4. What Math concepts need to be covered? Taking the fall thematic unit and teaching math concepts:
a. buy pumpkins and count the seeds b. sort different colored pumpkins c. weigh pumpkins d. measure pumpkins e. count, add, subtract, and even graph pumpkins. Make sure what you are teaching, by the mandated curriculum is covered in your chosen theme.
Find ideas here: Math Ideas for Themes
5. What Science ideas can be presented? Sticking with the fall theme, you again take your thematic unit and make it fit Science ideas. In my classroom we took a fall walk. Each child had a bag and picked up things along the walk and we took them back to the classroom and put them in our science area and in the “fall box”. They also went on a fall walk at home and were allowed to bring things back to share. The science area is a great way to incorporate your thematic unit.
6. Where can I incorporate reading, writing and spelling? I love to have a word wall that covers words we will use in our writing. I also have a word of the week I introduce that goes along with our theme. For example I tell my students we are studying fall but fall is also sometimes called autumn. Books in the writing and library center that cover the theme we are doing each week also enhance the students vocabulary.
Find Ideas here: Make and Take books to use with your students
7. Can I cook with my students? Cooking in the classroom is one of my very favorite things. So if I am continuing my fall theme, I would bake the seeds we counted, and we would sprinkle different things on them, sugar, salt and even cinnamon. We would also make pumpkin pie in a baggie. Cooking teaches: organization, math concepts, following directions etc. There are so many different things you teach using different themes and concepts.
Find Ideas here: Cooking in the Classroom
(Here you will also find a list of classroom mascots I used in my classroom. Each week along with the theme I had a mascot with a name that began with that letter that was with us all week. Find the letter of the week and the mascot it will provide you with a list of recipes to make with your students).
8. Is there background and history that can be shared? I like to share history of different themes, such as Thanksgiving, how to plant a seed and grow a pumpkin etc. Many times we can incorporate technology here and even a book.
9. Where is Art appropriate and what skills will it cover? Fine motor: cutting, gluing, tearing, stringing beads (pumpkins, leaves) etc.
10. Large motor skills that can be incorporated? What games can you play and incorporate your theme that allow students to develop gross motor skills? The fall walk could also be incorporated here. As you read through the ten ideas, you see that your thematic unit will cover a broad base of curricular areas and you can even add any others you would like. This list is only an example. I just made sure to cover my mandated curriculum along with what I know to be developmentally appropriate. In the next article, you will see how you can set up centers using developmentally appropriate themes and ideas.
My challenge for you is to begin incorporating some of these thematic ideas. Take your time, as it does take time to organize, plan and implement. Good luck, and enjoy the themes you use. Thematic units will engage your students in their own learning, they will become better problem solvers and be able to work in a collaborative group.
Great resources about Thematic Units
This guest post was written by Tisha Shipley. Tisha has a doctorate of education in Curriculum and Instruction and has taught multiple grade levels at Moore Public Schools, including pre–K and gifted 3rd–6th graders.
You can find Tisha online in these places: