Friday, April 10, 2015

Rethinking Thematic Teaching

I have a question I invite you to ponder for a moment... In your own elementary school years, did you have a teacher who based everything around one central theme?  For example, maybe you had a teacher who loved frogs and based all of the classroom learning and activities on frogs for a month or two. Maybe your teacher was a compete Francophile and based much of your classroom that year on all things France.  Or, perhaps your teacher was obsessed with his or her alma mater and everything was based on Ohio State or UCLA.  In my own elementary years, one of my teachers based much of what we did on San Francisco Giants baseball.  This was great for the teacher, and we all were able to learn a lot about it and around it, but what about other teams? The teacher never took into consideration that I was actually raised an Oakland A's fan and spent much of my childhood rooting on the green and gold, not the orange and black.  Now, if you did have a teacher who based everything on one topic or theme, what did you think about it?  What do you think your other classmates thought about it?  Do you think it engaged everybody in the classroom? 

Many years ago, I built (what I thought was) an incredible month-long 3rd grade curriculum based on the Olympic games.  My  classroom was decorated with Olympic rings and medals.  I even made a fake torch out of construction and crepe paper!  Math problems, read alouds, writing assignments, and even social studies all centered around the Olympics.  My classroom was truly Olympic-ed out!  I thought it was awesome!  So did many of my students. My students participated in countless activities to earn medals- we even held medal ceremonies.  During that month, reading in class and at home earned students medals (I now cringe knowing I associated reading with extrinsic rewards- medals no less).  Room 21 was all Olympics, all the time.  As an athlete myself, I had a complete blast in the classroom during that month!  I truly loved teaching about and around one of my main interests.  At the time, I didn't realize that engaging with students wasn't about my interests... 

Reflecting back, I not only cringe that I awarded medals for reading, but I also cringe because I vividly remember my four students who had absolutely no interest in the Olympic games whatsoever.  Those four students did not enjoy school for the entire month.  Back then, I honestly thought that it was the students' issue.  I felt they needed to open their minds.  Again, I cringe writing these words.  I cringe because I think and approach teaching differently now. At the time, I only knew about four of my students uninterested in the Olympic Games. Perhaps more were uninterested as well, and I was just not aware.  No where in our then California State 3rd Grade Standards were the Olympic Games mentioned.  I chose to center the classroom activities around the Olympics because it was a world-wide current event with a long history that I truly loved.  This was not a sound reason to make it the center of everything for an entire month in my classroom.

During that month, my four students were not engaged during reading and writing time.  They did not do their best work because they simply weren't interested in the topic I chose for them.  In math, they were asked to calculate conversions based on 100 yard dashes and 400 meter freestyle swims.  I never once asked them how these things could or should be applied to their own lives. It was all about the Olympics and my interest in it, it was not about my students and their needs.  These four students, and perhaps more, were simply uninterested and just going through the motions.  I now know that learning in the classroom must be based on skills and strategies, not on random themes unrelated to the curriculum.  

In many classrooms over the years, I've seen gorgeous classroom-wide works of art based on dolphins, 24 pieces of writing adorning classroom walls about favorite desserts, and even dioramas devoted to The Golden Gate Bridge.  I've also seen classroom walls decorated with 24 original art pieces, walls devoted to narratives based on students' own small moment experiences, and inquiry projects that explored student selected topics within one of the required science standards.  In which rooms do you think the students were more engaged? 

When I once again have my own classroom, will I forever rid my room of the Olympic Games and my own interests?  Absolutely not!  Nothing is wrong with engaging students in current events or interesting historical themes.  However, I would never ever base everything in my classroom on one theme again.  When I did this many years ago, I unknowingly ostracized a few of my students.  I inadvertently made them feel different because they didn't care about the Olympic games.  This was not ok.  Will every student enjoy or always like everything we do in class?  No.  I'm not suggesting that needs to be the case at all. Rather, I'm suggesting class-wide topics and themes should be based on students' interests, curriculum, strategies, and skills rather than one person's interests or passions.

A few alternatives to thematic-based teaching...

  • Give students choice!  Invite students to explore their own interests in reading, writing, social studies, and other subjects as much as possible. Model how to set up an inquiry for students, then set them free to do their own with a theme or topic of their choosing.  
  • Honor holidays, current events, great leaders, change makers, and our own interests, but be sure not to base absolutely everything on them.  Balance and diversity matter.  They matter a great deal.
  • If we must do a theme at some point- build the theme around the skills and strategies that students actually need- not the other way around. Sound pedagogy always trumps thematic & cute. 
  • Write about our own interests and model this for students in our writing
    notebooks during writing workshop time.  By teachers writing about our own topics, we share ourselves with our students without forcing our interests upon them. Also, by modeling with our own interests and stories, we show students that it's safe and powerful for them write about their own interests and stories as well.  I wrote a little bit about this here.  To the right is a memoir I modeled for students.  The topic was a swim I completed.  After I modeled this for students by naming strategies that lead to skills, students chose their own topics and replicated the strategies and skills I modeled instead of replicating the topic/theme. Remember, It's about strategies and skills, not topics and themes.  I also wrote a little bit more about this here. Another example could be if we're teaching information writing, we can model writing with a topic we love or that is of great interest, then invite students to do the same, with their own topics or interests.  
  • Also, think about it this way- we all have had that one student who always wants to write about Minecraft or talk about football.  Imagine if we subjected this student to a month focused on tulips or owls?  If we expect students to diversify their interests, we should try to model that behavior ourselves rather than preach it.

It's not about us.  It's about our students.  It's our job to engage them in any way we can.  Two of the best ways to do this are to put sound pedagogy above thematic teaching and to invite our students to explore their own interests in the classroom- which may not necessarily be our interests or the topics we'd choose.  Our job is to engage our students in learning, not promote our own interests or develop fans of our interests.  This may sound harsh, but it's a very real lesson I learned the hard way. 

Happy teaching, friends! 

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