According to R. G. Dixon, our view of childhood dictates that children be passive instead of active, directed instead of self-directed, and dependent rather than independent (Dixon 1994). He urges the abandonment of this view to allow children some experience of control so that they can survive in the real world.
We agree with Dixon's argument, and search constantly for strategies that help to prepare children for the realities of the world. We inevitably return to a time-honored and time-weathered method, the thematic unit.
From the perspective of a social studies teacher, a thematic unit is the integration of material from other subjects into the social studies and the integration of social studies content into other subjects. The guiding principle is to identify meaningful relationships and then decide how those relationships can be incorporated into one unit of study. Topics such as Growth of Our Community, Geographic Overview of North America, The Role of Women in Our American Society, or Dwellings Around the World contain strands from different subject matter areas that can be incorporated into one thematic unit.
This article presents a third/fourth grade thematic unit taught by the authors, titled It's a Small World After All. The unit has been developed to introduce students to our contemporary global society in which the life-styles of one area have an impact on those of another. The unit integrates social studies with mathematics, music, art, and language. The activities are designed to motivate students to explore selected parts of the world. The unit encourages pride in one's heritage, which often can mark the beginning of developing sensitivity to others. The study of the cultures of other people aids in understanding the multicultural fabric that is woven in our own diverse society. Accepting and caring about these multicultural differences can free us from the bigotry and racism that often find their way into the lives of even young Americans. One way to achieve this freedom is to study, understand, and appreciate the contributions of others. With these thoughts in the background, the teachers and the children under their tutelage begin the "flight" around this small world of ours.
A Voyage of Discovery
On the day that the thematic unit begins, the children enter a classroom that has many of the features commonly found in an airport terminal. There are clearly marked arrival and departure gates. "Television screens" show the times of arriving and departing planes. There are tickets, air sickness bags, occupied cards, and route maps on each child's desk. Each of these items is discussed and thoroughly scrutinized. The students then engage in two major projects: to prepare his/her luggage (a gift box that he/she wraps in paper) and to assemble a passport, which each child does. The luggage goes on the "flight" and gets a luggage tag and sticker decal representing each country visited. The passport receives a stamp upon entering each different country.
Once the preliminaries have been completed, the journey around the world begins. Several different countries are visited. In each case the students first determine the route to be taken to reach their destination and the "plans" to be endured as they pass through immigration and customs. Then they study the location, major cities, landmarks, food, dress, festivals, and language of each country.
Although there are no clearly delineated class periods, activities and content from each of the major subject matter areas are included in the unit. Social studies activities include locating major cities, becoming familiar with important landmarks, and experiencing the country's food (in the Italy stop, the children make pasta from a pasta machine; in Germany, they bake pretzels; and in China, they learn to use chopsticks). The children also reenact some of the festival days (in the China visit, a dragon parade is held) and model some of the items associated with the native costumes of the area.
Mathematics learning is enhanced when the students order from a "locaquot; menu, total the cost of the meal, and then convert that amount into U.S. dollars. The students also learn to compare pounds and kilos, liters and quarts, and miles and kilometers.
Art activities constitute a major thrust of the unit. The students make German cuckoo clocks and French berets; they do mosaics representative of those found throughout Italy; they practice origami; they create stained glass windows exemplifying those seen in France; and they imitate the Chinese by doing fanciful rubbings. Some of this art work is done in cooperative groups.
Some of the favorite pastimes and games of the countries visited are enjoyed by the students in fulfillment of the Health and Physical Education requirements. They play Bocci ball, a lawn bowling game enjoyed by Italians. They practice eye-hand dexterity by playing pick-up sticks, a game enjoyed by the Chinese children. They learn native dances such as the Tarentella, Polka, Mexican Hat Dance, and the Greek Zorba Dance.
A major part of the unit centers on the language arts activities. Each child keeps a portfolio of his/her work. The portfolio serves as a journal in which descriptions of each day's travel adventures are recorded. Examples of notes taken from portfolios are given below (these sentences are written exactly as they appear in the child's journal).
The portfolio includes work not just from the Language Arts, but from every area of the curriculum. Math and art papers are also placed in the portfolio.
The portfolio work is in keeping with the trend of moving from a testing culture-where teachers are the sole authority, students work alone, and learning is done for the test-to an assessment culture, where teachers and students collaborate about learning, assessment takes many forms, and distinctions between learning and assessment are blurred (Kleinsasser et al. 1992). The work included in the portfolios is evaluated by the use of selected rubrics or descriptions of performance. Each rubric is scored as having not yet been achieved, as developing, or as having been achieved (NYDA). Examples of rubrics used are the following:
1.The student writes in a clear, well-written, meaningful way.
2.The student uses appropriate detail, description, grammar, and spelling.
3.The student follows sequential order (Claridge and Whitaker 1994).
The key to portfolio use is communication-communication with the students and their parents. When parents understand this assessment type of report, acceptance is usually not too difficult to achieve.
In the introductory statements of this paper, we expressed our goal of trying to search for strategies that help children cope with the realities of the world. In our twenty-five plus years of teaching, the thematic unit has continued to be the most dependable of the teaching formats used. It is not new and trendy, yet it serves to satisfy many of the new, innovative challenges present in teaching today. It can be student centered, exciting, and, in the case of the unit herein described, a wonderful learning experience.
Claridge, Pamela. "Implementing a New Elementary Progress Report." Educational Leadership 52 (October 1994): 7-9.
Dixon, R. G. "Future Schools and How to Get There from Here." Phi Delta Kappan 75 (March 1994): 360-65.
Kleinsasser, A., E. Horsch, and S. Tastad. "Walking the Talk: Moving from a Testing Culture to an Assessment Culture." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Association, Atlanta.
Lindioth, Linda. "Around the World in Many Ways." Teaching K-8 (October 1991): 52-54.
Jo Ann Cangemi is Professor of Education and Linda Aucoin is Assistant Professor of Education at Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana.