Thematic Teaching in Early Elementary

At Honey Creek, we teach using year-long themes. In grades K-5 we teach “How Things Work” one year and “Journeys” the following year. Teaching thematically helps children integrate what they are learning in different subject areas and understand how to apply what they learn to real-world situations.

In Early Elementary we use integrated, hands-on thematic units to meet state learning standards in a way that is age-appropriate and engaging for young children. We also use thematic units to teach higher-order thinking skills and greater understandings that students can apply independently as life-long learners.

The thematic units incorporate all of the social studies and science standards for kindergarten and first grade, with content goals spread over two years (e.g. learning about the physical sciences) and the process goals addressed each year (e.g. learning how to think like a scientist). In addition, we integrate poems, art, environmental education, and academic service-learning into the thematic units, as well some of the math and language arts goals.

Each year-long theme is divided into separate units, beginning with the child, then the school, the community, and working out to the larger world. This fits the way young children understand the world around them, beginning with the personal and then applying what they’ve learned to the next level.

In each theme, we focus on an overarching concept that we would like students to use to understand the thematic teaching and apply to all areas of learning. This is called teaching for understanding. For instance, in How Things Work, the concept is systems, and through the teaching of the unit we expect students to understand that they are a part of many interconnected systems, that what happens to one part of a system affects the rest of the system, and that improving one part of the system can improve the dynamics of the whole system.

These understandings are then reinforced in each unit of the theme. In How I Work, students understand that they are each a system, and that they are a part of their family and classroom systems. When one part of the system is not working, it affects the whole system, but when one part of the system is improved, the whole system works better. In How My School Works, they apply this to the school as a system, and on to the community and the world. We find that as students grasp these understandings, they are able to apply them to many areas of learning, resulting in higher-level thinking skills.