Thematic units can bring alive the classroom into a realm of learning and magic.
Definition Of Thematic Units
The purpose of thematic units is to foster integration. It is widely referenced through Dewey's work around meaningful learning in 1933 (Lipson et al., 1993). Furthermore, Cox (2018) defines thematic units as "the organization of a curriculum around a central theme" (p. 1). That theme is then immersed in the various subjects such as language arts, math, social sciences, and science.
In 2015, I was introduced to thematic units as a form of cross-curricular and integrative planning by a teacher trainer from the United States, Samina Hadi. As a part of her work, Hadi had often spent her summer months in India, supporting Teach for India fellows with their classroom instruction and pedagogy. According to her, thematic units are rooted in the term epistemology, which is the study of knowledge and knowledge structure. All knowledge comes from facts. Using that as a premise, Hadi noted the following: Facts > Topics > Theme > Concept > Theories.
Basically, facts are pieces of information that answer who, what, where, and when (e.g. who is the Prime Minister of India). Facts can be then organized into topics. Topics are specific to a place and time (e.g. Independence of India). The topics are then organized into a theme. The themes are general and can apply to different areas (e.g. cities). The topics and theme all relate back to a concept, which are broader ideas (e.g. democracy, character, happiness, and so on). Finally, these all lead to a theory. Theories are laws and principles, but can be subjective to the discipline (e.g. equality). Our goal is to teach our students the facts in order to build a strong basis that eventually leads to a theory. For further information, I have shared notes from that specific training session on thematic units, which provides an example of how to breakdown a theme into topics and facts.
Oftentimes, thematic units are decided by the teacher. However, in case you want to find out what students are interested in learning, you can use the Question Formulation Technique using the blog, Pinkadots Elementary as one way to do so. Here, students can come up with questions that they potentially want to explore as a part of a thematic unit. I find this a win-win situation. As a teacher, you provide students with the theme and they guide the direction of how the theme will unfold. This way, you still have a plan for the unit while also immersing student feedback.
Planning Thematic Units
Now, how does one plan for a thematic unit? In order to approach this, I will go through an actual thematic unit. More specifically, one of my favourite thematic units involves teaching about the rainforest (click to download). This is a straightforward thematic unit plan based on the language arts. I really enjoy planning this way because it provides me with direction, but it does not take too much time to plan. Although detailed unit plans are helpful, I would much rather spend time creating and preparing resources for the lessons, refining them as I teach. You can also use pre-made thematic unit plans, but I find I learn a lot more when I sit down and take the time to make one on my own. As I planned a thematic unit on Oceans, for example, I discovered that an octopus has three hearts.
In my experience, I usually use thematic units for the arts, environment (or science), and the language arts. Typically, thematic units are planned for four to six weeks, but this depends on your classroom and school. In addition to the rainforest, other themes that I particularly enjoy include learning about insects, oceans, and any theme around a country. For integration of the theme in other subjects, Jessica Meacham's Classroom Snapshots has a few thematic units around social and science integration. You can even add in math, but I had limited time to connect the math topics back to the rainforest theme.
Once you decide the theme and connect it a few of the subjects, you can start planning the topics and facts. In the rainforest, I focused on one topic for each week. This included learning about the layers of the rainforest, animals in the rainforest, plants in the rainforest, and deforestation. In each of the topics (e.g. learning about the sloth in Week 2), I provided students with knowledge around the topic. This is essentially based around the idea of thematic units, which is to teach students about the facts (e.g. sloths are slow animals).
Throughout the thematic unit or even at the end, students can work on a project to enhance their learning. I think a mixture of both small projects in-class and a larger project towards the end are refreshing for students. During our unit on Canada, students made a passport and a wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. At the end of the unit, however, the students had to get into teams and create a Bristol board project about Canada based on what they have gathered over the weeks. Ultimately, the idea of thematic units is not to replace any of the content areas, but a process by which to enhance the content areas. As a result, I have found that students learn much more when learning through thematic units.
That being said, there are both advantages and disadvantages to planning a whole unit around a central theme. I have noticed how the connection between different aspects of the day (e.g. reading and science) helps with student interest and retention. It also provides for a focused learning opportunity, whereby students learn about one theme through various topics to build a wider level of knowledge for that theme. The connection to the real world also helps build their knowledge. However, some argue that thematic units may lead to student disinterest. This is true if the theme does not connect or relate to the students, so it is important to find out what they want to learn or to select themes that are interesting. Another argument is that it requires a lot of tedious planning. This is definitely true, yet I have found the positives of thematic units to be by far more important to me as a teacher. There are also ways to reduce planning by making brief, concise unit plans like the samples provided below and using resource website to download worksheets.
Cox, J. (2018). Thematic unit definition and how to create one. Retrieved on September 1, 2018 from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-thematic-unit-2081360
Lipson, M.Y., Valencia, S.W., Wixson, K.K., & Peters, C.W. (1993). Integration and thematic teaching: integration to improve teaching and learning. Language Arts, 70(4), 252-263. Retrieved on September 2, 2018 from the JSTOR database.