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Teaching with Themes in the Middle School ELA Classroom

As you know, I teach Middle School ELA. Here's a couple things about my teaching styles that you won't know about me unless you work with me. 

First; I hate being told what I have to teach. Absolutely HATE it! Give me the standards you want my kids to master, and give me the dates you need checkpoints in by (ok, local and district assessments), but don't tell me what materials I have to use, or worse, what materials I CANNOT use! Now, don't misunderstand. I will be happy to plan with my team, and use the same materials as they, but don't limit us or expect us to present it the same way. We are professional, individual, teachers - so let us teach!

The other thing I hate, although not nearly as much, is the mandatory use of a textbook. I feel that it limits choice, usually, and the selections are usually ones that the students don't like. Except Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, and a VERY few others.

Fortunately, I am blessed, and I know it. My administration team recognizes the strengths, and weaknesses, of their teachers, and allows a LOT of autonomy in the classroom, and in the materials that we use, especially compared to other districts I taught in. When our district decided to go to a textbook, they even asked for our input, which made it a bit more palatable. And the textbook they went with was a great one, as it is designed to be "consumed" by the student.

And the textbook we use is THEME based, not genre based! I LOVE IT!

Why Use THEME Based teaching in ELA?

Tell me if this sounds familiar. "For this unit, we will focus on poetry. For these 6 weeks, we will look at fiction. For these next few weeks, we will look at informational texts. Oh, and we need to teach writing a personal narrative essay...". In other words, everything is taught in isolation. Which is wonderful...if you live in isolation.

The fact is, nothing in an ELA classroom should be done in isolation, with the possible exception of DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) work, and even then, everyone is reading their chosen book at the same time. So what do you do differently? Teach using a 



With a theme approach, you can spiral in your genres, both reading and writing, throughout the year. You select the theme, the underlying topic, of your lessons, and you build around that selection. It allows you to monitor student understanding of the various standards you are teaching, and allows you to respond to that data. And, you are constantly making connections across texts and across genres. Show me one state standardized test that DOESN'T ask questions across two or more texts!

Additionally, you can more easily build on successes that your students achieve. For those of you who had teachers like mine, you will remember Mrs. Hall (my 4th grade teacher) saying, "Write an essay telling about what you did over summer vacation." That was her version of Capturing Kids Hearts and "getting to know your students". But, believe it or not, there was an actual, valid,  pedagogical reason for doing this. Your students may not be able to string together two thoughts about social justice, or what they want to be in 20 years, but they can, by gosh and by golly, tell you ad nauseam about playing Fortnite for 3 solid days without sleep! The easiest thing to write an essay about is yourself and what you have done. Once a student sees that they can successfully write ANY essay, they realize they can write any essay! And that brings us back to themes.

If you are teaching through thematic units, you can use personal essays at any time. You can use informational articles whenever you want. Your students can write an opinion paper every few weeks, and succeed. Want to do a unit on ecology? Shock your middle school - or high school! - students by using as a master text...The Lorax! You read that correctly. Dr. Suess in Middle or High School! You start with that fun, engaging story, then assign research. Have students log into NewsELA or Achieve 3000 and start finding articles about deforestation, species destruction, or the need for green space in urban planning. Then read "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer. Time for a Pro/Con essay - the necessity for logging and forest conservation?

You could use that one theme for a 6 or 9 week grading period, a complete semester, or an entire year, and not run out of material. You may run out of students who are interested, though. But let's say that you have some GT kids (and everyone does, they just may be hiding their gifted-ness), and the theme you chose (or the students chose with you) for the first six weeks resounds in them. You may have just awoken not only a student-SCHOLAR, but a global citizen who now wants to make a difference. Imagine if you could allot independent study, tied to any theme from the year, each week, with a project or presentation at the end of the year. What kind of projects could you get from them then?

Now, say that you decided to have a theme run through the year, but using different aspects that can tie in to them. You start with Suess and Ecology. Next you move on to Social Justice. Did you ever read Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen? That becomes the master text for the unit. Now, start drawing on other resources for social justice. Maybe the tribal justice systems of the Australian Aboriginal peoples - if they had one. I say that because I don't know (yet). Compare your justice system where ever you live in the world, with the justice system of the country on the EXACT OPPOSITE point on the globe - or the closest land mass thereto. Bring in other sources and materials. Have students research different aspects of how laws are formed, and how they are enforced or NOT enforced, and why they aren't removed. Did you know, for example, that it is still the law in Ohio that an unmarried lady must address unmarried men as "master", and that those men must address those ladies as "mistress"? Fact. Do you think it gets enforced? But, it could be.

Getting Started Teaching with Themes

If you have the autonomy to teach with themes, and you get to select the themes, where do you start? Well, you probably should NOT start with what you are passionate about. Why not? Well, in my case, not many of my students care about travel, camping, and survival. Oh, that isn't to say that they honestly don't care, but they will either love it, hate it, or pretend to hate it because they don't know that they are ambivalent about it. So, start with a simple survey, say on a Google Form. Ask them what their passions are. Or, better, give them a list and have them rank them. This allows you to plan according to that list, but gives them a sense of control and choice.

When you create the list of themes, try to have in mind your master texts for each. Now, this is key. You DO NOT have to have a physical copy of each text. We live in a digital age, so take advantage of all the free access materials out there. Can you imagine a high school principal's reaction to a P.O. for 138 copies of The Lorax? Or, for your unit on unusual foods, Green Eggs and Ham?

If possible, give the survey a week before school starts. Even if you only get a limited number of responses, it gives you a starting point for your first unit.

From here, let it grow. You will need to decide what types of assessments you will want to use, what projects you may want, how often you want essays or other written work turned in, etc. But as you go, you can see where your students are growing into scholars, and where they are struggling. Each unit, you have the chance to revisit the struggling standards, and you can celebrate the successes all year long. 


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