Why a theme-based curriculum? By Margaret Douglas, Head of School

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Here at Odyssey Day School we have been committed to a theme based curriculum since we began in 1995. I thought that parents might be curious about what theme-based education is, why we find it beneficial, and what it looks like from day to day.

A theme based curriculum means that each skill area of the curriculum is connected to a topic which we refer to as a theme. This could be a week-long theme, a month long theme, or a theme for a semester or even for a year. Sometimes themes are very specific, for example in the preschool a class the three year olds might be learning about transportation as a four week theme. All of their classroom activities would be tied into the theme during the unit. Sometimes themes are longer and more general like the third and fourth graders studying Ancient Egypt for a semester. In this case all the academic areas would touch on the theme throughout the six weeks.

We know that research shows that learning is an integrated process, and that theme-based education is beneficial in several ways. Children of all ages benefit from the connections made across the curriculum. Rather than teaching each skill or topic in isolation students are encouraged to see that at different times of the day or through different subjects we can learn about different aspects of a larger topic. In turn this helps students see connections and start to make their own connections from one experience to another. It also helps students become creative in their thinking.

At Odyssey we also used a theme based curriculum because it gives the teachers the flexibility to follow student interests and extend or shorten the time spent on a theme based on the level of student interest. Our teachers have the experience and flexibility to build themes based on the interests of the particular group of students, while teaching age appropriate skills. Another great reason to use theme based learning is that different age groups can have a shared theme and then work across age groups. This can them be used to build community.

What does theme based education look like on a day to day basis at Odyssey? It is slightly different at various ages. In the three year old room studying transportation the kids would do all sorts of activities centered on the theme which would be working on skills from all aspects of the curriculum. Dramatic play area might be transformed to represent an airport, a bus station or a train station, so you would see a “ticket booth” with tickets, passports, luggage, and chairs set up as a waiting area. You might also see tape on the floor making roads with stop signs or yield signs where different traffic patterns in the room cross. The kids might play transportation Bingo, make boats to float make craft stick airplanes, and use toy cars to make track paintings during centers. They would sing songs during circle time like Wheels on the Bus or How Did You Get to School Today?

All of these activities would be working on age appropriate skills in a way the children see as play. In the third and fourth grade class studying Ancient Egypt the kids would learn about many aspects of the lives of the Ancient Egyptians from the geography of the region to their religious beliefs, to the social structure and what types of jobs people had. What would this look like? In spelling the words the kids would learn to spell and define would be related to the theme so the list one week might include: delta, pyramid and mummy. They might go on a field trip to make model rivers at a beach to see how erosion happens, which would tie Science topics an inquiry to the discussions during Social Studies of the importance of the Nile River in the lives of the Ancient Egyptians. An Art project project might be to write their names in hieroglyphics, or create model canopic jars. Also during this theme the kids could experiment with how to preserve different foods in science developing observation skills and designing controlled experiments. These experiments and discussions would then tie in with the discussions of mummification, and why the Egyptians used salts in the preparation of the mummies.

The goal is that if you walked into either of these rooms you would see kids, guided by their teachers, actively engaged in their learning.

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