Thematic Teaching With an Interdisciplinary Twist

Two years ago, I graciously accepted an offer to contribute to Adventures in Literacy Land, and I have been blessed because of it! Not only have I learned so much from my creative and talented co-authors, but I have made friends that offer support and encouragement. One of the greatest things about connecting on-line with other teachers and working collaboratively to support and share our passion for literacy is that we all bring something different to the literacy "table". 

As we celebrate our 2nd birthday (WOOT!), we also celebrate Lit Land's authors- new and old. We celebrate our diversity of backgrounds that allows us to grow professionally from one another and from interaction with YOU, our loyal and royal readers!

This month we are sharing our area of "expertise". As a passionate literacy educator and coach, I have many areas of interest. One constant that has spanned my career of working with students and teachers in pre-k through grade 12, as a classroom teacher to reading specialist to literacy coach, has been instructional planning, specifically thematic teaching.  I have written curriculum and planned with vertical and horizontal building teams as well as written curriculum at the district level. One of the things that I loved the most as a literacy coach was the opportunity to work 1:1 with teachers to plan and write lessons that integrated literacy as well as those that were interdisciplinary in nature.

My teaching style reflects the way my brain works when planning: I think holistically in terms of themes. I always start with the question of "What interests do my students have?", "What would they enjoy learning about?" and "How would they best learn and study this theme?" There is much research to support that thematic teaching is an efficient and effective model for both students and for teachers.

Advantages of Thematic Teaching
There are many advantages, but here are my top three:
  • Increases students' interests~ engaging
  • Helps students to make and understand connections among content areas
  • Compacts curriculum and makes efficient use of time

Depending on your position and school district, you may have more of a dictated curriculum and perhaps even mandated lesson plans. I've worked in schools like those too, yet I have also had the complete opposite where I had (almost) complete freedom, as I was writing my own curriculum whether it be for the classroom or for student intervention purposes. 

Currently, I am homeschooling my youngest child who is in the 3rd grade.  I want to share with you a little about how I plan a thematic unit in the hopes that it will inspire you and give you ideas to use with your own students.

We are at the end of a snow unit. I try to be as student-centered as possible, capitalizing on students' interests and what I call "wonders" (i.e., things they are curious about).  Up until this week, we had not had even one flake of snow. Both my boys were lamenting this fact when I had a last-minute idea!  How about a mini-snow unit?  

Questions to Consider When Planning:

How do I start planning a thematic unit?
I don't think there is a right or wrong way to plan a thematic unit. You might begin with a big picture question (e.g. How is snow made?). Or, you may select a topic/theme that you know will motivate your learners.  Some districts and schools still use basals and anthologies.  Many of these books are arranged by theme and you may get an idea that sparks your interest.

What things do I include?
To determine this, I consider how much time I have to spend on the theme and what resources I have.  For my snow unit, I knew I wanted to integrate science (how snowflakes are formed and how snow is different from other forms of frozen precipitation) with reading and writing.

Purpose: Why am I doing this?
This is where differentiation and individualized learning probably comes in.  For some classes (and for my son) that I have taught, sometimes I selected a theme because I knew it would motivate and inspire them if they needed a "pick-me-up"

How much time do I have?
I actually find that I save time when I teach thematically. Content areas such as social studies and science are merged with ELA and sometimes math.

What are the curricular standards/objectives expectations?
To compact curriculum, think about whether you can meet a science or social studies objective during ELA time. I often use our social studies text during our reading block, which merges two curricular areas and maximizes our time.

Other Considerations

Interdisciplinary Connections
With so much to cover in English language arts and math along with other expectations, it can be difficult to cover content areas such as social studies and science. Integrating other content areas into your thematic unit can "kill two birds with one stone"~ save you time by making efficient use of your time. Plus, this is so effective in teaching students how to make connections among contents and is an authentic application of math and ELA knowledge and strategies. Of course, it all depends on what your scope and sequence looks like in the content areas and how much flexibility you have.

Integrate genre- go beyond paired texts
In my snow unit, I included fiction (short story and poetry), a biography (Snowflake Bentley), reading from the science text, a science/STEM experiment, and an informative PowerPoint.

Integrate the "arts" and "specials"- music, art, P.E., etc
My son loves art, especially art and music. We made our own snow, made "shivery snow paint", and created a snow globe topper for informative writing. Plus, it was also a fun surprise that part of his piano practice for this week include some winter themed songs!

Highlights From Our Snow Unit
Science and informative writing 

Snowman Shape book from Creative Clips

Snow globe writing!

Snow paint!

After reading Snowflake Bentley, he worked on a lap book to synthesize and showcase his learning.  I used resources from these two fabulous teacher-authors for the lap book:

Snowflake BentleySnowflake Bentley Lapbook

Of course, there is a whole lot more that goes into planning a thematic unit, such as assessment and reflection. I hope you were able to gather some new ideas for your thematic planning that integrates the content areas.

You can read more details about my snow unit (including lots of FREEBIES!) over on my blog.  Just click the picture below!


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