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Thematic Rebuilding of Culture

In the blink of an eye, kids experienced the sensation of the rug being pulled out from beneath them as Covid 19 forced the shuttering of school buildings in the spring of 2020. With little advance warning, learners were sent home with their laptops to figure out distance learning as their teachers struggled with the new reality of remote teaching.

And now, a year and a half later, kids and teachers will be face to face again; thrust together to rekindle that enterprise known as teaching and learning. How exciting for some. How nerve-wracking for others. For adults and children alike, they’re out of practice - they haven’t “done” school for a long time.

Getting back into the swing of things, establishing (or re-establishing) the patterns of being in a common space may feel a little wonky, unfamiliar and unsettling for some people. To assume that everyone can simply slip in and resume where they left off would be naive. The early weeks and months of the coming school year will necessarily be focused on re-familiarizing all of the stakeholders with the rhythm and pulse of the school house, rebuilding the culture that defines the unique character and underlying charm of the place.

A huge component of defining and rebuilding the culture of a school is found in a real sense of common purpose, common expectations and common experience. Attaining these goals can be nicely supported through the application of a school-wide theme. Not only is a thematic approach, if done thoughtfully, unifying, it also offers huge instructional benefits.

As the body of evidence from brain research grows, we increasingly understand that learning is a process of integration. Our minds do not compartmentalize. Rather, they seek to make connections across concepts and ideas to create distinct patterns and pathways of understanding. We place children at a disadvantage when we expect them to think as scientists one hour, then as mathematicians the next followed by an isolated examination of history or global affairs. When they have the opportunity to “connect the dots,” the resulting experience increases the likelihood that they will find a degree of personal relevance to what is being taught and allows their learning to be reinforced when they can understand and articulate these connections.

Based on her classroom experience, British educator Chris Lawrence cites five reasons to implement thematic instruction in a 2021 post on EdTechLens.

  1. It’s fun! She believes that a sense of fun is a key ingredient to learning. “If children are happy, they are confident, and so are teachers. This magic combination makes teaching and learning so much more effective.”

  2. It harnesses curiosity to motivate learning. “To me it's the most natural way to learn,” says Lawrence. “A child or adult finds something that intrigues them, maybe a foreign stamp or a stone. They want to know more and so they start on a journey of collecting ideas and information. With the stamp, the child finds out about its source, the geography of its people, the music of their homeland, the art work within it. They investigate its richness, draw its setting, sing its songs, write letters to find out more, investigate in books and on the internet. The learning is never sluggish, but is vibrant and exciting.”

  3. Educators become facilitators learning. The teacher is no longer the keeper of facts to be doled out at the pace of his or her discretion. They become managers of learning, guiding students while keeping open the limitless prospects of self-discovery.

  4. It teaches children how to learn. With theme-based learning, children are thinking for themselves, following the thread of a topic to explore and discover more.

  5. It allows families a point of entry to become involved.

She concludes with “as a structure for integrating content areas, learning around a theme makes sense to children. It helps them make connections, to transfer knowledge and apply it. It fosters comparison, categorizing and pattern finding. One part builds on another and thus reinforces it. The vocabulary, the investigation, children's literacy work, their math, and their art and craft work, along with classroom displays of it all, flourish.”

Let me honest. Thematic-based instruction can prove challenging for teachers, particularly those who find comfort in the predictability of following a traditional curriculum and maintaining control. Due to these challenges, we didn’t manage to employ a theme every year in the schools where I served as the principal. I wish we had because the kids loved it. However, sometimes the wise, though unfortunate, approach is to take a break. That said, my experience assures me, comparing the thematic years with ones that were themeless, that thematic instruction works, and works well.

The trick is to select a theme that is open-ended enough to minimize constraints while offering the greatest flexibility and opportunities of inclusion. Here are some specific examples of school wide themes I had the opportunity to be a part of or that I observed.

  • In the American Grain was the title of an exhibition that we learned was coming to our local art museum. It focused on the work of three visual artists from the early 20th century. We studied everything that could be connected to that period of U.S. history: politics, economy, conflicts, values, attitudes, innovations, culminating in the entire school attending the exhibition. (That was some field trip!)

  • Harlem Renaissance. Again, this specific period of American history and the specific location and circumstances that surrounded it became the fulcrum from which the entire curriculum of the year was balanced on.

  • Water. Beautiful in its simplicity, this theme allowed for extraordinary opportunities in virtually every curricular discipline that one can image. The artistic showcases that came out of this theme were breathtaking.

Other themes included migration, community, identity, In the Eye of the Beholder, perspective, tapestry, persistence and determination, and maybe even a stamp or a stone.

There is something magical about how teaching evolves when the entire school is entertaining a theme as a guide to instruction. The creativity of the enterprise and the opportunities for collaboration are transformative. Rather that going their separate ways into the silos of discreet content, the entire community seeks ways to come together, to build bridges of common understanding and connection.

Isn’t that what we aspire to in building a healthy school culture - common understanding and connection? Utilizing a theme can prove instrumental in reaching both. That, coupled with the realization that an integrated approach is simply good teaching, affords a win-win for those with the vision to give thematic instruction a try.

The down-side is minimal. The upside is HUGE. It’s what kids deserve.


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