Thematic Curriculum–A Format for Meaningful Learning

The thematic curriculum provides for engaging, in-depth learning. Engaging, because the material is new to every child in the school every year; at Lake and Park it is never the case that a teacher would teach the same material in the same order year after year. This is critical because children typically have more than one year with a teacher due to the multi-age makeup of our classes. Because the entire school focuses together on the same topic, content may be referred to from one year to the next with real meaning, i.e., “Remember when we looked at how The Days of the Dead were traditionally celebrated in Mexico last year? How do you think that way of honoring the dead compares to what we are learning now in terms of the approach to death of the Ancient Egyptians?”.

Studying Mushrooms
Teaching is not only teacher to student but peer to peer. 

The topic often begins in the child’s active world of the concrete: look up to see the sky before beginning a unit where we learn about a scientist creating a taxonomy for clouds, bend down to pick up cones which lead to a study on primitive plants which don’t produce true seeds, bring in a light bulb of any kind from home as we seek to focus the children’s attentions on electricity. The topic often returns to the concrete, but along the way, the abstract and symbolic have been brought in. This is what we mean by in-depth, as the approach we take is to go to the heart of a topic. In doing so, children at Lake and Park are exposed to intellectual abstractions and theoretical concepts more commonly reserved for the secondary student.

Themes are chosen by the faculty, under the guidance of Director of Thematic Instruction, Eileen Hynes. Teachers look to provide a balance across the disciplines as well as to respond to events that occur culturally and seasonally in the city and region. They make room for the emergent as a theme may present itself from the experiences of an individual child or of the class as a whole. In a given year, a carefully planned array of topics will be presented. There will be an annual balance of Physical, Earth and Life Science. The Humanities – Social Studies and Literature, will each in turn be brought into focus. While the Arts – Drama, Music, and Poetry – are integrated into topics. There are times when a component of the Fine Arts becomes the central theme. We respect the need to pay attention to Craft as well – Sewing, Woodworking, Cooking, Weaving, to name key aspects. A theme may be chosen from the field of mathematics, such as a study of circles. When that is the case, the abstraction of geometry becomes a central focus, with the concrete brought in under the rubric of the theoretical.

Our Approach to Basic Skills 

Basic Skills are brought to life through the lens of each given theme. Actual assignments such as “Write a story about a deep sea diver” (during a study on oceans) or “Figure out how many candles would be needed to light the menorah during all the eight nights of Hanukkah” (as children are given actual candles to work with during a study on the Winter Solstice with its Holidays of Light). Children participate in literature groups with assigned reading. Jane Yolen’s Letting Swift Water Go, for example, is compared to the real town of Moncton that used to be on Rainy City Lake, after a field trip to the Cedar River Watershed. Children might then be asked to write a story based on the point of view of a resident living in either town at the time when it was evacuated.

kids study
Cooperation in preparing a presentation on a thematic unit of study. 

We understand that bringing basic skills to life through purposeful activities as exemplified above and so bountifully suggested by the themes is in keeping with best instructional practices in working with elementary age children.

We realize, as well, that isolating instruction in a particular skill is often necessary and can provide its own joy:

If we teach the structure of the number line at the introductory primary level we offer mathematical beginners the “whole nine yards”. They soon come to realize that numbers go on and on in both directions, and find it fascinating that the Romans hadn’t thought of zero and therefore couldn’t make a number line like ours. Children find it natural to imagine negative numbers and are brought into an understanding that the greater and lesser than signs, so typically confusing for the young child to grasp, are actually vestigial arrows from either end of the number line. They take this structural awareness with them as they progress, moving from a horizontal line to a vertical one, then going on to construct an axis and then soon after a whole grid with its corresponding ordered pairs. Camille Hayward is the Coordinator of Basic Skills Instruction. Dr. Marian Sheehan works across the grades, providing small group and individual instruction, supporting growth in the basic skills. Teachers regularly meet to discuss children’s progress in these key areas.

We pay attention to grade level norms in terms of academic growth and expectations, choosing to wait to begin to teach formal reading to children who are ready for instruction. (A six year old who is technically in kindergarten may be ready for beginning reading, which we provide individually or in a small group format.) We watch for signs of developmental readiness, i.e., able to rhyme words orally, showing interest in print, etc. If the child did not receive reading instruction as a six year old in the kindergarten year, we begin teaching reading in the first grade year, when many children are six, which is typical for the majority of children at Lake and Park. Instruction is provided systematically and usually individually, replicating a tutorial in many ways. Children begin with whole language for confidence building: Let’s “read” Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and before long children are “reading” already. We soon go on to work with basal readers to develop a basic sight word vocabulary, hone initial consonant auditory skills and visual awareness. Concurrent with beginning reading instruction, children are asked to write simple sentences such as I like ______, with the child encouraged to sound out the word for the blank, furthering her/his awareness of sound/symbol relationships–to initial consonants are now added final consonants, some initial blends and final blends and thereafter medial vowels– all while making a meaningful statement of the child’s own expression. Drawing is seen as a key component of this work. As time progresses and phonetic skills develop, children grow in ability to identify individual sounds and to accurately represent them in writing. Soon after, they are introduced to increasingly complex constructs: th, sh, ch, ing, tion, for examples. As they grow in reading they come to recognize basic words as the, said, etc., and are asked to spell those words in standard form; the transition from inventive spelling to standard spelling continues in this way. Words from the theme are often presented conventionally and add to the young child’s sense of mastery.

While each child operates independently, the above progression is typical of every child’s development in early writing and reading. Children are held accountable in reading acquisition by reading orally to a teacher, often on a one to one basis. The teacher guides the selection of materials to supplement the basal reader and monitors the transition to entry level trade books such as Frog and Toad, Little Bear, and Ricky Ricotta, and in this way the child is launched into reading. During the initial year, children are taught to sustain silent reading, exposed to high quality works of poetry and composition, asked to read for informational purposes and begin to participate in a literature group.