7 Benefits of Teaching with Themes
After 10 years as a first grade teacher, I can honestly say that teaching with themes was one of the best decisions I've made in the classroom.
If you're considering it for your own classroom, let's chat!
Here are 7 reasons that teaching with themes can benefit both you and your students.
1. Model Perseverance & Patience
We live in a scrolling world.
Everything flies by so fast and there's always another shiny object around the corner.
When I watch some of my first graders during free choice centers, they jump from one activity to another. If something becomes challenging or they get "bored", off they go.
Spending time on a topic teaches them that there is so much more below the surface.
Digging deep into a topic can help us become experts and develop a real appreciation for it.
Some will even find that they want to continue exploring it on their own.
I do a little dance of joy each time one of my firsties asks me where to find books about our theme during a library visit.
Students spent time researching these creatures during our Ocean unit in May.
2. They Don't Know What They Don't Know!
I’ve heard the position that themes shouldn’t be used because we should be following student interests.
I wholeheartedly agree that student interests should certainly be honored and inform our instruction. At the same time, I strongly feel that there is still a place for themes.
Many of our kiddos haven’t been exposed to the topics we might choose for a theme.
They wouldn’t suggest it because they haven’t learned anything about it!!! Author studies are a perfect example of this…
Author studies introduce students to new authors. Laura Numeroff is always a hit!
As educators, our role is to expose them to things that they wouldn’t otherwise learn about.
It’s also very common for young children to latch on to one area of interest – looking at you dinosaurs!!
While we can certainly support and encourage our little ones to pick up yet another dinosaur book, I think we also have a duty to expand their worlds a little.
I can’t count the number of times that we’ve started a unit and my first graders aren’t showing a high level of interest only to become incredibly engaged by the end!
They would never have chosen to explore that topic because they didn’t know what they didn’t know!
And if little Sally returns right back to her beloved dinosaurs, that’s awesome! I’ll support that 100% every time. As long as I feel like I’ve expanded her world a little, I’m good with that too. 🙂
3. Build Schema Together
We know that our students come to our classrooms with varying experiences and knowledge.
Not all of our little ones have the same opportunities to learn outside the classroom.
Themes give everyone an entry point and level out the playing field a little since we spend time building a knowledge base together.
Themes allow us to build schema together to ‘level the playing field’.
Spiders are a hit every fall!
4. They Take Ownership Of Their Learning
In my experience, when we spend enough time on a topic, my kiddos naturally begin generating new questions and ideas.
They’ll start making their own books about the topic.
They eagerly bring in things they found at home that are related.
The sticks, stones and pinecones that my students collected became an exploration center.
Many of our centers have stemmed from their suggestions.
It’s entirely possible to teach by theme and still leave room for lessons/activities that are inspired by their ideas.
Just because you’ve introduced a theme doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to allow for inquiry-based learning.
In fact, you may find that those inquiries go a whole lot deeper!
5. Make Connections
The beauty of themes is that all subjects can be integrated. It takes a little effort but it’s possible.
Some of my most creative teaching ideas have stemmed from using themes.
Themes tie everything together and allow students to make connections between activities.
Switching subjects during the day doesn’t feel so abrupt when there is a common theme underlying the activities.
It encourages them to make connections and often leads to them coming up with their own ways to extend their learning.
6. Generate Excitement!
Once you’ve introduced a theme to your students, you’ll start to see the level of engagement increase.
They LOVE to guess what’s coming next!
Right now we’re in the middle of our Gingerbread unit and my kiddos can’t wait to see which book we’ll read next!
Build anticipation by showing your kiddos the covers of ALL the books. They’ll keep asking which one is next!
As a teacher, it also keeps me motivated! Their excitement is contagious and it inspires me to find new activities to go along with our theme.
An extra bonus is that I’ve been able to build large book collections for my themes since I’m always on the lookout for those specific topics.
7. Keeps Me On Track With Pacing
Because I integrate the theme across subject areas, it helps me ensure that I stay on track.
It’s easy to ‘fall behind’ on our long-range plans so this can be helpful.
When I open up my Gingerbread Unit in January, I know that it’s also time to begin my geometry unit in math since many of those activities have a gingerbread theme.
What first grader doesn’t want to build a gingerbread house out of 3D shapes right?!
January is the perfect time to enjoy all things gingerbread!
In February, it’s time for non-fiction text features when we pull out the penguin books.
While we optimistically set up our long-range plans at the beginning of the year, the reality is that it can be challenging to stay on schedule.
Theme-based activities are an extra incentive to keep up!
Give Themes A Chance
After using themes for a decade in first grade, I still see great value in this approach.
It’s flexible in terms of which themes you select each year and how much you choose to incorporate them across your curriculum.
If you’re considering it, I highly encourage you to give it a go!
Start small and dip your toes into the theme waters... you might find yourself just as inspired as your kiddos :)
One last benefit: teaching with themes will make organizing your resources so simple! Check out the Teacher Binder Organization Post to see how it works.
You can also see our collection of Monthly Theme Binder Covers below:
Until next time,