Tips for Planning an Integrated Teaching Unit {Cross-Curricular, Thematic, Themed, Interdisciplinary Learning}

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Yesterday I blogged about organizing your big ideas and teaching concepts for the school yearusing curriculum maps. Today will focus on integrating some of those concepts together. . .

I’m a thematic girl at heart. I live for planning my children’s birthday parties.  I spent crazy amounts of time and money redoing my entire classroom to fit a new theme annually (On a side note, check out my classroom themes and color schemes page if you’re setting up a themed classroom this year and need ideas). Needless to say, I was in my glory when I taught Preschool and Kindergarten and everything was taught with a theme.

Then I moved on up, one grade level at a time, from first to third and found myself doing less and less thematic units.  However, when I was going through the National Board Certification process, I was challenged to find ways to integrate subject areas in meaningful ways.  The response from the kids was amazing and I found myself wanting to find more ways to make learning relate across the curriculum. I am so excited that the implementation of the Common Core coupled with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides the perfect opportunity to revamp past lessons and find ways to work in more integrated learning experiences. 

When it comes to teaching thematically, it is important to go beyond cutesy and coordinated. I had a college professor who frequently proclaimed, “Slapping spider clipart onto a math worksheet is not effective thematic teaching.” True. So when it comes to teaching with a theme it needs to be about integration and cross-curricular planning.

Still fun? Yep! 

Your plans can be as simple as a full day of learning about one topic or as elaborate as a month (or beyond) of literature, real world math, writing tasks, research projects, fine arts integration and a culminating event involving parents and the community. Either way you’ll find your students more invested in their learning and excited about the happenings in the classroom. We recently did a unit of study on plants which motivated my students to bring in plants and seeds they found outside of school, library books on the subject and extension projects they created on their own. That type of motivation encourages learning and gets them reading and thinking outside the box. When kids ask to take clipboards out to recess so they can do “field research” you know you’ve struck gold.

Here are some tips for turning your big ideas into an organized, integrated, cross-curricular thematic unit:

#1 Pick a Theme or Topic

There are lots of ways to choose.

  • Are you required to teach a specific topic for science or social studies? 
  • Do you read aloud a certain chapter book that lends itself to a theme?
  • Are there holidays or seasonal events coming up during the year?
  • What are your kids interested in learning more about?

Any of the above can get you started. If you have filled out a curriculum map / pacing guide you can use that to guide you in creating some integrated lessons. My packet includes a fun activity page to inventory student interests. Children can draw a picture of themselves under the thought bubble and then fill in the bubble with a collection of topics they are curious about. They can use words or pictures. This pagemakes a really cute bulletin board (especially at the start of a new year).

#2 Determine a Time Frame for Your Unit

Knowing when you’ll be teaching the until will help guide what you’ll include in it. You want to take into consideration math standards, special events, you’re school calendar, etc. Figure out not only when you will teach the unit, but also how much time you will need to allow. Be flexible. The students often find ways to extend the unit.

#3 List Your Objectives

Decide what you are going to accomplish by listing specific objectives you want to meet by the completion of the unit. You’ll also want to determine the evaluation strategies you will use to assess learning. The Thematic Unit Organizer packetincludes a template to record your goals as well as the manner in which students will demonstrate understanding. This could be a traditional assessment, informal observations, project-based evaluation, or a combination of many methods.

#4 Start Brainstorming

This is my favorite part. I love jotting down my own ideas and searching for new ones. Use a graphic organizer to manage all of those ideas as they pop into your mind. I suggest using two different sheets for this. Use the first one to truly brainstorm and the second as an “edited” version of your thoughts and ideas.

Keep this handy as you plan because you’re sure to think of more ideas as you continue to plan. I highly recommend sorting your ideas by content area to keep things organized.

#5 Truly Integrate

Remember, “Slapping a spider sticker onto a math worksheet is not thematic teaching.” But, measuring spiders and collecting data and graphing the number of students who are afraid of spiders integrates math and science quite effectively. Throw in some spider research using non-fiction texts and a creative writing project along with some fine arts activities and things are starting to click. 

#6 Gather resources 

The library is a treasure trove for books, dvds, cds and more. The internet can point you in all kinds of directions. Pinterest is a jackpot of ideas! Be sure to keep track of who and where you are borrowing things from

#7 Team Up With Your Specialists

Collaborating with your grade level colleagues will certainly get the ball rolling, but the real magic will come when you team up with the specialists. Time is an obstacle in the classroom. Figure out what your art, music, physical education or technology teachers can do in their classrooms to enhance the unit of study during their time with the kids.

#8 Reach out to the Community

Let parents and community members know of your plans. They may have ideas and access to resources that you had not thought about on your own. Perhaps there are local field trip opportunities or someone who could come in and share their related knowledge and experiences with the class. Parents may even have artifacts, books, etc. to share. 

#9 Plan Lessons, Projects and Activities 

Take your big ideas and turn them into specific lessons, projects and activities. Narrow down the time frame for when you will start and complete each. Be sure to leave wiggle room for student-generated ideas and extensions. Kids get very excited when it comes to thematic learning and often want to elaborate on what you are doing in class.  The most memorable learning opportunities come from their inquiry and enthusiasm. Take it as far as you can.

#10 Wrapping it up

All good things must come to an end. And when your unit wraps up you’ll want to be just as prepared and organized as when you started. Take time to reflect. Make note of what worked and what didn’t work. Have students and their families complete surveysto share their insight on the unit. This information will be important in planning future units. If this is a unit you’ll be teaching again then be sure to package everything safely and neatly for storage. Review your original planning sheets and consider rewriting them with changes for next time.

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