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.