I like themes. I am a theme kind of person. My friends laugh at me because every year, after the holidays, I search the sales to buy the perfect, coordinated wrapping paper, bows, ribbon, tissue paper, and tags to wrap my presents in for the next year. I love the way it all looks under the tree…. coordinated and complimentary. All the gifts, no matter whom they are for are, in a sense, “tied” together with the chosen, well-thought out gift-wrap theme! Now remember, the real goal of wrapping gifts is to “hide” the contents of the package until the designated moment and enhance the gift giving experience. My quest for a coordinated “theme” does not in anyway diminish my meeting these goals, in fact I would say it fuels my gift wrapping work and makes my gift wrapping task even more enjoyable!
I believe the same is true for the role or place for a theme in our instructional planning. It is interesting to me, as I reflect on 20 plus years working with early childhood teachers and teacher candidates, the shift in “theme” thinking I have seen. In my early work with both in-service and pre-service teachers, I had to work hard to shift thinking from being so focused and directed by a theme to the detriment of content standards and objectives. In recent years this thinking has completely flipped. With the prescriptive nature of curriculum, curricular expectations, and high-stakes curricular outcomes for teachers, the theme has become a planning element which seems to have vanished and with it a powerful tool in instructional planning and teaching.
I am in no way advocating a return to theme-based curriculum, lacking in content specific rigor. However, I believe utilizing the instructional theme as a vehicle to carry the content objectives and assessments would provide the same fuel, energy and joy for our classrooms and learners as my lovely, coordinated gift-wrap provides me as the gift wrapper and my gift recipients. I have recently been working with my teacher candidates on infusing the well-chosen theme into their social studies unit planning. So let’s use social studies as an example and say our content objectives this week are focused on students comparing and contrasting the past, present and future and utilizing the tools of the historian. Are the content objectives of our instructional unit in anyway diminished if an instructional theme, say the telephone, is interwoven into the unit instruction and assessment? Using the “telephone then and now theme”, we can provide students opportunities to investigate how, where, when, and why telephones have changed over time and how they would predict changes in the future based on these influences!
The theme gets our creative juices flowing, gets our learners excited, and provides a learning context that is connected to something that surrounds them everyday. Imagine your second graders’ excitement when you come to class in character as Alexander Graham Bell….all day…from math to literacy to bus duty! And really, electronics is only one, simple example; the same unit could be done with clothing, television, computers, music, games, toys, and sports…and all while never watering down the rigor of the original history standards.
And theming is certainly not limited to social studies. However an engaging science and/or social studies theme can be a way to tie your literacy and math objectives together for the week, while infusing social studies and science into your instruction. Who knows? It may just open up whole new doors and ideas for parent and community involvement possibilities as well!
So grab a theme this week and get your kids involved. Let them list themes they would be interested in exploring and their ideas for bringing it alive. Have fun, get your kids engaged and energized in the learning ahead! I ask my nephew many days after school…”what was the best part about your day today?” and I always get one of two responses….“recess” or “P.E.” I am waiting for the day he says, “I don’t know Aunt Nancy. Reading was so much fun, but math was great today too! We are learning about Mars and we did our math on Mars, and our classroom was a space station…it was cool!” What do your kids say when they go home? I know our days are full, the curricular demands are huge, but we have to have a delivery mode, and I choose a contagious, engaging theme over blah, blah, blah…how about you?
Now all of this has got me in the mood to pull my Christmas gift-wrap out for the season and get wrapping!
This post was brought to you by Dr. Nancy Latham. Nancy is a Professor and Coordinator of the Early Childhood Program at Illinois State University and has worked with countless pre-service and in-service teachers over the course of her career in ECE.