Creating thematic units using the Common Core State Standards
By Rachel Wilser
Love it or hate it, planning is an essential part of teaching. Personally, I love it. And I love it even more when I can create thematic units, or at the very least tie different subjects together within the same unit.
As we’ve said before, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a curriculum, but rather a checklist of goals that students work to achieve during the school year. One really great side effect of the CCSS is that in most states and districts, the scope of one year is really narrowed, so rather than having to briefly touch on two dozen different standards, you have the time and freedom to build a deeper understanding of fewer topics.
The great news is that the CCSS were set up for interdisciplinary, or thematic, units. (I’ll use those labels interchangeably.) From kindergarten to grade eight, each grade level has a unique and distinct set of standards, but in grades nine through 12, the standards are banded together over two years (so nine through 10 and 11 through 12) to give schools, districts, and states more flexibility to design their high school courses. Not only does the CCSS emphasize an integrated model of literacy, with repetitive standards like writing 9 (write about what you read) and speaking/listening 4 (share research findings), they also emphasize a shared responsibility for students’ literacy development. From CoreStandards.org:
The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school. The K-5 standards include expectations for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language applicable to a range of subjects, including but not limited to ELA. The grades 6-12 standards are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development, as well.
Y’all! The heart eyes I have for this — it totally hits at one of my most core feelings about teaching: that we’re better when we collaborate (collaboration over competition). When we as teachers take the time to plan thematic units, we give our students the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding than when content is taught in isolation. The great news if you’re a high school teacher? You already have beautifully connected ELA, social studies, and science standards. (You can also find more science content on NextGenScience.org, the website of the Next Generation Science Standards, which about 20 states have adopted.) When you read the standards, you can just feel the lessons practically planning themselves. For example, RH.9-10.6: “Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.” Think about the amazing literary comparisons you could create to tie to this standard — To Kill a Mockingbird and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail; the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.
Even though there are no specific social studies standards (via CCSS) in elementary grades, some ELA standards point to great thematic units. For example, RI.4.6: “Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.” You could teach this a thousand different ways, but I think a comparison of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) and Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) would not only clearly meet the standard, but would also tie in moral/character education, as well. (This would also be a great time to try out literature circles if you’ve never used them before! Not sure what literature circles are? Check out this quick article.)
Don’t think that only reading and social studies can go together! One of my favorite couplings is art and math. Don’t panic — I am literally the least artistic person on the planet. I’m not suggesting an elaborate art project, but think about how great it would be for students to consider art outside of their art class once a week. Almost every grade has at least one Geometry standard, and I find that’s a great place to start looking for art connections. For example, 4.GA.1 says: “Draw points, lines, line segments, rays, angles (right, acute, obtuse), and perpendicular and parallel lines. Identify these in two dimensional figures.” This is a great standard to tie in a mini-artist study on 20th-century Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, part of the De Stijl movement, who is most famous for his compositions that are essentially line studies. (Check him out at the Guggenheim.) You can fold in examples of Mondrian’s art and invite students to create their own examples in Mondrian’s style over the course of several days or a week.
Want to connect math and science? Start with this kindergarten standard. K.GB.5: “Model shapes in the world by building shapes from components (e.g., sticks and clay balls) and drawing shapes.” This would be a great tie-in with a science unit focused on the scientific method. You could teach the steps of the scientific method and introduce shapes, as well. Your culminating activity could be students building shapes out of a variety of building materials, asking them to answer the question: “Which building material is stronger (sturdier)?”
I hear you; I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds great, but I don’t have time for it.” As teachers, it’s easy to let the no-time argument win. Teachers have a lot on their plates, but if you work smarter, not just harder, you can find time to plan thematic units. Plus, it’s always the initial plan that takes the most time. When you revisit it in the future, you’ll just have tweaks to make; the hard work will be over.
Often when we plan units, we start with the topic we want to teach, such as place value, and then bundle the standards that address place value and put them into a logical order to build a unit. However, it’s more useful when planning thematic units to start with your big-picture theme and think about what you want students to do at the end of the unit. You’re not thinking, I want my students to retell a story using first, middle, last; you’re thinking, I want my students to create a global newspaper (this would likely be a fourth- or fifth-grade unit).
If we consider the example of students creating a global newspaper, the next step would be to think what they need to know and/or learn to create this newspaper. A quick (but certainly not comprehensive) list would be:
- What is news? (What’s relevant globally versus locally?)
- How long is the news relevant? (How long should we follow one story?)
- How do we share the news without influencing the reader?
- How do we write concisely but with enough detail that our reader understands the story?
- How do we evaluate how important news stories are? (What’s a front-page story? How long should stories be?)
Even a loosely planned thematic unit like this hits on almost all the grade-level literacy standards. It covers almost all of the standards for writing and reading informational text. Thematic units like this one also let students practice their speaking and listening skills, another quadrant of standards. The ambiguity of such units give students multiple opportunities to engage with content.
This theoretical unit also allows students to really dig down into the writing standards (for both fourth and fifth grades). Working as a class to create and publish a newspaper will emphasize the importance of informative writing; it also gives students a meaningful audience — parents, classmates, and community members. (Depending on the size of your city or town, you could even have students submit articles to a neighborhood or city newspaper.)
You might also bring in math standards by adding additional constraints, such as giving them a budget for their newspaper, or telling them they need to raise a certain amount of money via advertising. In fifth grade, students need to read, write, and compare decimals (5.NBTA.3) as well as add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to the hundredths (5.NBTA.7).
One last word: An important aspect of planning thematic/interdisciplinary units is that they contain an authentic assessment. So, in the newspaper example above, students wouldn’t hypothetically create a newspaper; they would actually create and publish a newspaper. The newspaper could go to other classes in the school or to stakeholders in the community — they might put a few copies in the city library branch close to school. If you ask students to invent something or solve a problem, take the product to the people who would benefit from their solution.
Planning thematic/interdisciplinary units takes time, but it’s time that pays off in the end. These units enhance our students’ understanding not only of academic content, but also of the world around them. They help our students move toward a deeper conceptual understanding, which is at the spirit of the CCSS.
Read more on this topic:
Does planning an interdisciplinary unit feel overwhelming? Several museums and theaters have ready-made art integration lessons on their website. The Kennedy Center, for instance, has lessons for elementary, middle, and high school. These lessons include almost everything you need for instruction.
“How to Design Projects Around Common Core Standards.” This article is a quick read with general steps on how to design thematic units. It paints broad strokes, so it’s a good starting point for any grade level.
“In Common Core, Teachers See Interdisciplinary Opportunities.” Learn about the positive outcomes of thematic units for student learning in upper elementary school and beyond.
Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.
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