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1 of 18 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 3 Number 14September 15, 1995ISSN 1068-2341A peer-reviewed scholarly electronic journal. Editor: Gene V Glass,Glass@ASU.EDU. College of Educ ation, Arizona State University,Tempe AZ 85287-2411 Copyright 1995, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES.Permission is hereby granted to copy any a rticle provided that EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES is credited and copies are not sold.Toward a Theory of Thematic Curricula: Constructing New Learning Environments for Teachers & Learners Carole Cook Freeman La Salle University Harris J. Sokoloff University of Pennsylvania harriss@nwfs.gse.upenn.eduABSTRACT: A theory of thematic curriculum emerged during the development of a unit on pets, entitled Pets & Me The unit was designed through a school/university partnership for children pre-school to grade 5. Analysis of data collected during the unit 's development and field tests supports a dynamic view of curriculum that challenges policy m akers to rethink policies that begin from a view of curriculum as a static list of "facts" to b e learned or "topics" to be mastered. Reflection on the project led to the differentiation of three distinct constructs: (1) facts and information, (2) topics, and (3) themes. Each of these three constru cts plays a different role in children's learning. Facts focus on basic information and narrowly defin ed ideas understood as discrete items. Topics provide a context for facts and information, and pr esent a way of organizing discrete bits of information into classes of experience recognizable by scholars within traditional disciplines. Themes defined as broad existential questions, tran scend disciplines, allowing learners to integrate the information and the topic within the full range of human experience. All three are important elements of thematic curriculum.PREFACE Politicians and educators who set curriculum polic y, whether at the national, state, or local level, face many questions. These include questions about:


2 of 18content of the curriculum (What is "covered"?); appropriate materials (Whether to require use of ad opted textbooks or to encourage teacher and child selected materials?); and locus of control of the content (Should teachers ad dress only "tested" information or should they direct learning while creating an envir onment where student questions play a central role?). While these questions can be answered in a variety of ways, it seems that currently, Americans are choosing to think about standardizati on and a static view of what should be taught and learned in schools. Much of the on-going work r egarding national standards reaches a very specific level. Benchmarks for Science Literacy (19 93) lists specific concepts to be mastered at specific grade levels. In California, state decisio n makers recently debated how many pages or how many illustrations in the approved textbook sho uld be devoted to a given topic. And at the local level, there have been increasing numbers of challenges on religious or moral grounds to books being read. Each of these cases reflects a vi ew of curriculum and teaching as part of a static system of delivery. As a question of how to develop curriculum policy, each case, we would argue, represents a misunderstanding of the i nteractive realities of learning in schools. In contrast, what follows, presents the story of a curriculum development project that operated from a dynamic perspective, grounded in th e traditions of Progressive Education.(Note 1) The process of writing a thematic unit as a coll aboration among university-based educators and pre-school and elementary teachers led to a new perspective on levels of knowledge (themes, topics, and facts and information) and their roles in the learning process. The project highlighted the on-going, dynamic, messy nature of curriculum d evelopment. This work also demonstrated that it was possible for one group of teachers to w rite a thematic unit that was useful to others. This paper and analysis provides those interested i n curriculum policy decisions with a framework for thinking about thematic teaching and an example of one type of curriculum that engages teachers and children together as learners. As such, this paper makes an argument for curriculum policy that encourages a dynamic vision of curriculum including the exploration of broad existential questions.INTRODUCTION ...the language of education, if it is to be an inv itation to reflection and culture creating, can not be the so called uncontaminated l anguage of fact and "objectivity." It must express stance and must invite counter-stan ce and in the process leave place for reflection, for metacognition. It is this that permits one to reach higher ground, this process of objectifying in language or image w hat one has thought and then turning around on it and reconsidering it. (Bruner, 1986, p.129) Bruner's observation clarifies the distinction betw een education and other forms of learning such as indoctrination, training, or condi tioning and invites teachers to engage students in learning in ways that are deeply intellectual an d connected with moral purpose. While many educators support this ideal, the profession is not clear about how to go beyond standard or traditional practice and create learning environmen ts and activities that truly engage students in meaningful exploration. Many innovative teachers ar e trying thematic units as one approach to Bruner's "higher ground." We share this interest in thematic units and have worked with teachers to write and field test one unit. During this proce ss, we learned that the theory base for thematic units is not entirely clear, that there are several unresolved questions about what makes a unit thematic and that we need to know more about what types of teacher involvement in planning are necessary for a successful unit. In this paper, we share the story of the Pets & Me project in


3 of 18order to raise some of these questions, address the m from our experience, and introduce a conceptual framework for thinking about the content of thematic units. Currently, many researchers and teachers in languag e arts and other disciplines are exploring what they mean by the term thematic unit. In part this feels like a revisiting of some of the central issues of Progressive Education. Dewey, in the early part of the century, argued that the teacher needs to build the classroom around the principles of continuity and integration (Dewey, 1938). Later, Bruner (1960) argued for the centrality of meaning and building a spiral curriculum where students visited and revisited cor e ideas. Even when the "back to basics" movement gained strength throughout the 70's and ea rly 80's, teachers grappled with ways to connect those "basics" with kids' lives and raised questions about what they saw as a growing fragmentation of curriculum.(Note 2) The current fo cus on thematic units can be understood as an attempt to overcome that fragmentation. There are many visions of thematic units and approp riate methods of instruction and assessment for thematic work. In most, teachers are urged to develop thematic units by identifying a topic, developing a visual representa tion (most often a web or concept map) of ideas and facts related to the topic, and then identifyin g materials and designing curriculum activities (Pigdon and Wooley, 1993). In addition, the literat ure reveals many questions about who can write themes (Altwerger and Flores, 1994), what con tent should be included, and how this content should be structured. Some authors, especia lly those who operate from a whole language perspective, advocate planning units almost exclusi vely at the classroom level and at least part of units with children (Altwerger and Flores, 1994, Ha rste, Short & Burke, 1988; Mills and Clyde, 1990). While we support the important ways that tea chers are curriculum planners, we wonder if there are not also legitimate ways to draw upon the expertise of other teachers, scholars, and researchers in the development of thematic studies. In order to explore the possibilities of another vi sion for thematic unit planning, two education department faculty, eight pre-school and elementary teachers, and a veterinary school faculty member whose specialty is the human-animal bond, worked together over a period of three years to write, field-test, and publish a the matic unit, Pets & Me This action research process was documented through notes from meetings, phone conversations and interviews with test site teachers, collections of children's work, and various draft versions of the unit itself. During the process, the team confronted many issues including development of a shared theory of teaching and learning, a process and format for sha ring the team's work with others, and an emerging perspective on curriculum. In particular, we came to a new understanding of the inter relationships of facts, topics, and themes in curri culum. As teachers and children engage in the lessons from Pets & Me they actively explore their relationships with animals. Learners also research, compare and contrast results, describe, analyze, and synthesize. These explorations lead to multiple opportunities for talking, reading, writing, and creating. In essence, through a variet y of interactive experiences, they explore the underlying theme, visit and revisit the topic, and support their understanding through learning discrete facts and information about many different types of animals. Importantly, these learners are mindful and reflective as they construct a deep er understanding of themselves and their responsibilities to those animals they keep as pets In this paper, we argue that this mindful and reflective approach is possible because teachers an d students explicitly examine the underlying thematic question, "How can we understand the relat ionships among humans, other animals, and nature?"DESCRIPTION OF THE THEMATIC UNIT Pets & Me is a thematic unit for pre-school through grade fi ve that uses the human-animal bond (mainly focusing on pet ownership) as a heuris tic and a topic worthy of study itself. Its


4 of 18heuristic value is based on the fact that children are naturally fascinated by animals. This heuristic is widely exploited in books as is eviden t from the high percentage of children's books that feature animals--Pat the Bunny, animal alphabe t books, the Frog and Toad series, and Winnie the Pooh stories are just some examples of t his genre. But there is also a growing research base that demonstrates the strong attracti on of animals for children as well as the positive influence pet ownership has upon children' s social and cognitive development. As a topic itself, learning about the human animal bond can involve language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, art, a nd music. For example, the language arts are involved when students read stories, articles, or o ther expository works about or involving animals; when students write reflections, poetry, o r stories about animals; or when students talk to each other about their reading, writing, or refl ections. Math is involved when students conduct surveys of pet ownership or when they solve problem s about the growth of animal populations. Observing animals either inside or outside of the c lassroom and developing hypotheses about the animal and its behavior provide the fundamentals of scientific literacy. Inquiry about what animals other cultures consider to be pets contribu tes to social studies curriculum. Resources from multiple curriculum areas are consulted so tha t learning in one discipline connects to learning in another. In these ways, the activities in the curriculum also stimulate growth in the following skill areas: observing and drawing infere nces, interpreting and creating, thinking and deciding, research and analysis, presenting and per forming. The thematic unit is descriptive, not prescriptive. The lessons are not written as recipes, but are presented in a format designed to encourage teachers to develop their own lessons or to modify and adapt the suggested activities. Along wi th each "Sample Process" (lesson), we have left a blank page entitled "Your Modification" wher e teachers can reflect on how well the lessons worked for them and their students as well as make notes of their own modifications. This explicitly acknowledges that teachers--regardless o f national, state, or district policies--must adapt materials to respond to the exigencies of the ir particular classrooms. (Note 3) Consistent with emerging research on thematic and i ntegrated instruction, the unit is based on a constructivist approach to learning (Perkins a nd Blythe, 1994; Brooks and Brooks, 1993). We operate on the belief that learners best underst and those meanings of a concept that they create for themselves out of the data of past and p resent experiences and with appropriate guidance from concerned and knowledgeable "teachers ." Using this belief, we have divided the unit into three cycles which create different kinds of opportunities for individuals and classes to explore and then revisit the topic question, "What makes a pet?" The outline for this exploration includes: Lessons begin with what children already know. This knowledge is used to structure a broad conceptual and practical framework about pets Children are then asked to find out what others know. What makes a pet, the values of p ets, and observation of pet behavior in the man-made and natural environment are explored t hroughout the unit. 1. The second cycle begins with a lesson that returns to the question, "What makes a pet?" Children are given opportunities to generate and or ganize factual information about pets through a variety of means including data base rese arch, library research, interviews with pet care professionals, and their own non-invasive experiments and observations. The goal here is to encourage them to reflect on what they a lready know about pets, to increase their knowledge, and to modify their original thinking. 2. Lessons end by returning once again to the question "What makes a pet?" Students synthesize what they have learned and develop it in to a broad framework. They demonstrate this synthesis through creating their o wn imaginary pets, building habitats for them, and writing pet care manuals. 3. These three cycles build upon children's early lear ning about animals. Each provides


5 of 18students with a set of structured experiences that help them develop deeper levels of understanding about animals and our relationships t o them. The experiences (lessons) provide multiple and multi-sensory approaches to teacher an d student learning about the bond between people and animals. These experiences create multip le opportunities for an entire school to come together to examine the human-animal bond as well a s for cross-grade work engaging older and younger children in the same questions. This overal l collaborative and cooperative approach is designed to foster the growth of the school as a le arning community. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE UNIT As is generally the case in the literature on thema tic unit teaching, when we began and during the time we were working on Pets and Me, our notions of facts/information, topic, and theme all ran together. During the first year of de velopment of the thematic unit, we worked from a notion of interrelated core concepts. We identifi ed four concepts and organized the unit around them. These four concepts were : (1) values of anim als as pets, (2) what kinds of pets are available, (3) responsibilities of pet ownership, a nd (4) health issues related to pet ownership. In addition, we had a notion of revisiting a central q uestion, "What is a pet?" three times during the unit as a way of having children address their own understanding at deeper levels. We believed that children constructed their own understandings through talk, action, and reflection. We also wanted to be interdisciplinary in our approach inte grating scientific exploration, children's literature, and popular media. Working as a team, we wrote lessons and organized t hem in ways that enabled children and their teachers to engage in learning more about animals and pet ownership. We were generally pleased with the outcomes from both the s chool where the materials were developed and from the initial test sites. At the end of the unit, pairs of children designed imaginary pets and wrote Pet Care Manuals for their creations. Thr ough these culminating projects, children demonstrated developmentally appropriate and comple x understandings of the needs of animals, their life cycles, and the issues of pet ownership and care. During the second year, however, one of the teacher s pushed the team to do more. She wanted to include the full range of issues around p et ownership from deciding to adopt a pet to pet loss. She also wanted children to explore their understanding of the statement, "A pet is a way of taking nature inside." She pushed the team t o include more environmental questions and to explore the use of the monarch butterfly garden and the experience of raising and releasing monarch butterflies as part of the unit. Although s he did not articulate her reasons as moving toward including a thematic framework for the unit, that was the result of her efforts. CRITERIA FOR A THEORY OF THEMATIC CURRICULA Thematic units are only one of many valuable and po werful ways of organizing curriculum. Developing Pets & Me taught us that if one is going to organize curricu lum thematically, a clear understanding of how thematic units differ from other kinds of curricular organizations is essential. When most authors talk about thematic units, they u se the terms "unit," "theme," "topic," "essential concept," and "issue" almost interchange ably (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde,1993). They also talk about integration across subject areas as essential. Some, such as Pigdon and Wooley, talk about the importance of relating children's st udies to "big ideas." What teachers and other curriculum planners are left with as a result of th is literature is a fuzzy picture and sense that there is something important here, but what that "s omething" is remains ill defined. We see the ideas represented by facts and informati on, topics, and themes as serving different functions in children's learning. While s ome authors use these concepts interchangeably


6 of 18(Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, 1993; Harste, Short & Bu rke, 1988; Mills and Clyde, 1990; Pappas, Keifer & Levstik, 1990; Gere et al., 1992) or avoid them altogether (Pigdon and Wooley, 1993), we want to propose seeing them as a hierarch y of distinct yet inter-related elements of curriculum development. (Note 4) The heuristic of s eparating theme from topic and topic from information and facts provides curriculum developer s and teachers with a typology they can use to help students make increasingly sophisticated se nse of their worlds. Exploring themes gives teachers and students a framework for understanding interrelationships among different levels of ideas and abstractions (from specific to abstract). This perspective on thematic units as a format for curriculum, draws upon the ways "theme" is used in other disciplines. A theme in li terature is connected to the underlying message of the story or poem. This message often helps the reader understand more about the human condition. For example, in The Scarlet Letter Heste r's actions (the facts) can be understood in the broader context (topic) of the way Hester's life pl ays out in the community. But exploring the nature of responsibility for one's own life and the paradox of social membership (the theme), adds an important dimension to understanding our ow n lives and responsibilities to others (which is one reason we read the book). Another link between our understanding of themes in literature and themes in curriculum is that as we study The Scarlet Letter, or any book there are "right answers" at the fact and information level, but as we move closer to themati c issues, the focus shifts from looking for a "right answer" to looking for the patterns of reaso ning learners use to explain their understandings. At the thematic level, there is no single right answer for many of the questions we explore, but clearly there are wrong answers or answers that do not fit within our beliefs about the nature of our civilization. Similarly in science, data at the fact and informat ion level are fairly clear cut. When we want to look at these data in terms of patterns for understanding, falsifying hypotheses enables us to interpret them, gain further understanding, and begin to explain why phenomenon happen as they do. The examples from literature and science, help us u nderstand the roles of facts/information, topics, and themes in curriculum Recognizing the implications of the necessity of interpretation is essential to underst anding the potential and power of themes in curriculum. Our experiences developing and testing Pets & Me demonstrates both the potential and the power. In this emerging understanding, "facts/information, "topic," and "theme" serve different functions in children's learning. As distinct and h ierarchically related elements of curriculum development they represent different layers of cont ext and meaning with facts and information at the center, while topics and themes are successivel y broader rings in a set of concentric circles. See Figure 1.1, Relationships Among Facts/ Informat ion, Topics and Themes in Curriculum. Figure 1.1 Relationships Among Facts/Information, Topics & Themes in Curriculum


7 of 18 The boundaries that separate the different layers i n this representation are both permeable and intimately connected. Each layer is given meani ng because of the others and the relationships among them. Consistent with our experience developi ng Pets & Me teachers and children enter into this hierarchy at any layer. Conceptually, it does not matter where you enter; educationally, it is important that teachers and children move across all three layers, being conscious of the connections among them.Characteristics of Facts/Information: In this conception, the layer of facts/information means basic information and narrowly defined questions and ideas understood as discrete items. This is not unlike the substance of traditional curriculum for elementary school childr en. It is a focus on "the three R's," of information contained in textbooks and most textboo k units. The factual level is exemplified by the focus of standardized testing programs as well as of curricula that prepare students for those tests. At the fact and information level, little at tention is paid to a larger context that, among other things, gives meaning to facts and is the rea son those facts were selected in the first place. It is important to recognize that facts and informa tion may contain an intrinsic appeal to children--children may, for example, enjoy playing with numbers and with words. Yet, in most cases it is not the sounds of the words alone that is the appeal. Nor is it typically the numbers themselves that children enjoy. Rather, children li ke the way facts and information enable them to manipulate or gain control over their world, and they like the access to things and ideas that comes with knowing facts and possessing information .Characteristics of Topics A given set of facts is fairly meaningless unless i t falls under some topic. For example, "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue," is a nice but meaningless rhyme until we put it in a context that tells us what it means to sail the oce an blue, what a Columbus is, and why one ought to care what Columbus did. The traditional academic topics of European and American history provide a context in which to understand the story of Columbus. As teachers, we must be cognizant that from a Scandinavian or Native Americ an perspective those "facts" and possibly the "topic" would take on a very different meaning. Thus, in our model topics begin to provide a contex t for facts and information. They also


8 of 18help us decide what information is important for ch ildren to learn. Organizing facts and information within topics allows us to guide childr en's engagement with the world and provide them with categories that adults have used to make sense of their world. In this sense, topics are a way of organizing facts and discrete bits of information into classes of experiences. Typically, these facts and information are grouped into topics that fall within what Crittenden (1973) refers to as the "sta ndard ways of knowing that humans have developed." These standard ways of knowing include the arts and the academic disciplines. Topics can also be understood more broadly and acro ss disciplines. For example, knowing the sequence of events of a particular story might help explain why honesty is the best policy; learning the days of the week can help one anticipa te and prepare for what is going to happen; and knowing the classifications of animals can be p art of deciding what kind of pet would be best in one's home. In all cases, topics are ways of gro uping, categorizing or making sense of facts and information. Moreover, when exploring topic questio ns, facts and information are an essential element to answering that question one way rather t han another.Characteristics of Themes The exploration of themes moves us beyond the disci plines with their standard ways of knowing to constructing complex, moral dimensions o f meaning that are not discipline based. In addition to learning discrete facts about a topic o r studying a topic for its own sake, we learn something about our selves, our society and what it means to be human. This often means that we explore fundamental human (existential) questions. It is, for example, fruitful to study the Mayan culture and learn about that culture: its mathemati cal system, its calendar, its social organization, and some of its artifacts. Inclusion of the layer o f theme within this study, however, would engage learners in dialogue between their own exper iences and the life experiences of the Mayan people leading to the exploration of one of several possible thematic questions, including, how do people make sense of their world; what do differ ent cultural groups create and why; or how do we understand our purpose or "project" (Greene, 196 8)? Themes allow learners to integrate the information and the topic within a context of the full range of human experience. Designing curriculu m around themes provides the opportunity to engage students in a celebration of life, a convers ation about what it means to be human, and a joint exploration of the world with their teachers. For individuals, thematic learning helps people grapple with their place in the world. At the aggre gate level, thematic learning explores interrelations of people with institutions and the natural world.Analysis of Content Using Facts/Information, Topics and Themes The literature is replete with discussions of what is the appropriate content for thematic study (Stotsky, 1993). We think that is an understa ndable but misleading emphasis. For what really matters are the broad existential and develo pmentally appropriate questions the content can help you address. It is easier to say this, however than to use it as a guide for constructing curriculum. Often teachers begin by selecting a top ic and the facts and information appropriate for their students' levels of development or knowle dge. Taking the next steps to uncovering and using the embedded themes is conceptually demanding and non-linear. Our experience is that we get to an understanding of the theme through engagi ng in a messy reciprocal process of curriculum development. We use an example reported by Sandra Stotsky (1993) to illustrate the difficulties related to sorting out these relations hips. Stotsky tells the story of a middle school thematic unit that paired the study of the Jews in Germany during World War II and the study of Japane se Internment camps in the United States at the same time. In her example, drawn from an act ual case, students read one literary work


9 of 18 about the Holocaust and one about Japanese Internme nt. Stotsky found this to be inappropriate. She thought that the two events-concentration camps in Germany and internment camps in the United States-were not parallel. She wondered what underlying messages were being taught by this selection of works. She then suggested that ch ildren would develop a better understanding of the Jewish experience and the inhumanity of the Hol ocaust by exploring literature, art, music of European and American Jewish communities as part of their thematic study. We agree with her suggestion but believe that it do es not address the issue of underlying messages because she mixes questions about the topi c and the underlying theme. By not sorting these out, her analysis still does not address the potential for broad moral understanding students might develop through study of these complex and im portant issues. Our understanding of themes, topics, and facts and information suggests a different analysis. We constructed Table 1.1, Analysis of Wor ld War II Thematic Unit, using Stotsky's example. It shows that the two "events" do share si milar fact and information patterns. For example, both Jews in Germany and Japanese-American s were imprisoned and lost their property. Moreover, both actions were "legal" in th at they were based on laws passed in those respective countries during the 1930's and 1940's. Thus, if one were studying the topic of how different groups were treated during W.W.II, the pa iring of the two groups seems appropriate, if limited. Table 1.1 Analysis of World War II Thematic Unit in Stotsky's Example Jews in Germany Japanese-Americans in United States Facts/Information Imprisonment Loss of property Laws against Jews Genocide Imprisonment Loss of property Laws limiting rights of Japanese-Americans Topic Treatment of an ethnic/racial group during WW II Treatment of an ethnic/racial group during WW II Theme UnclearUnclear The pairing becomes more questionable when one begi ns to think about the human significance of these fact/information patterns in both their similarities and differences. That significance resides in neither the facts/informati on nor in the topic, but in our ability to construc t an interpretation of them in the broader context of a theme (e.g., rich existential questions like "'man's' inhumanity to 'man'" or "the nature of goo d and evil"). The question after all is not simply to understand particular events but to under stand how it is that very human tendencies can lead to very inhumane actions. The exploration of t he theme would enable students to work through the conditions under which different threat s to a nation's security justify different kinds of behavior. In the process, students would develop ways of seeing themselves and their actions in relation to historical and current events and ex plore what constitutes moral action. Thus what seems like an appropriate, if limited, pa iring of topics based on a similarity of fact patterns, can not be considered thematic curri culum. In our typology, the focus on specific events in a single historic period has the hallmark of a topic not a theme. In addition, teachers using a thematic approach would identify and addres s rich existential questions (what we think


10 of 18 Stotsky is wondering about when she questions the u nderlying message being conveyed through this pairing of novels). Also, students would use w hat they are learning in the classroom to help them make sense of and enlarge their own experience s and values. Characteristics of Thematic Study Thus, the learning that takes place within thematic study engages teachers and children in exploring the moral dimensions of their emerging un derstanding of the world. In Pets & Me students learn how animals live and die in the worl d. They also explore ways humans live in the world in relation to those animals they keep as pet s. The moral and ethical issues of pet ownership are an integral part of the work students complete as they address the unit's four central concepts. In thematic units, topics are examined from multipl e disciplinary perspectives. For example, in the case of pets, children study the li fe cycle of the animal, its natural habitat, and it s habitat as a pet. They also explore the ways in whi ch it is represented in art, literature, music, television, and advertising. They examine the relat ionship between the animal and its human owner looking at both what the pet gets from the hu man and what the human gets from the relationship with the pet. Students understand how the pet lives in the world and they pursue in more depth standard scientific concepts such as cla ssifications, anatomy, or physiology. Table 1.2 demonstrates the application of this typo logy to the content of Pets and Me. Separating the content into the levels of facts and information, topics, and theme makes clear the potential for connections among the three levels of contextualization. It is important to remember that this classification does not imply that teache rs and children move among the levels in a set order nor does it imply that one or the other level s is most important or should be "mastered" before other levels are addressed. Table 1.2 Content of Pets & Me Facts and Information: Classes of animals and indiv idual animals as pets. a. Information about the ways selected animals liv e in the world b. Information about selected animals' lives and n eeds c. Information about ways humans and other animals interact d. Information about the environment where selecte d animals live 1. Topic: What is a Pet? a. Values of animals as pets b. Kinds of pets available c. Responsibilities of pet ownership d. Health issues related to pet ownership 2. Theme: How can we understand the relationships amon g humans, other animals, and nature? 3. Thematic studies also have a role to play in the de velopment of communities of learners (Senge, 1990; Lytle and Botel, 1988; Barth, 1990). Such communities are, typically, based on inquiry, classroom discourse that is open-ended, an d other learning activities in which participants work through the meaning of their stud ies. In classrooms where curriculum is based on the acqu isition of facts and information it is difficult to build a sense of shared inquiry. In su ch classrooms, answers to questions are based on


11 of 18a linear and close-ended search for information. Th e inquiry is confined to locating the correct authority, and there is no need for extended discou rse or deliberation. It is often easy to forget that facts and informati on are only the beginning. Working with topics connecting to broader themes, arriving at a "right answer," even if there is one, is beside the point or just the starting point. For example, one third-grade classroom in Wylie, Texas had a fish tank. The first day of the unit children began to ask whether the fish could be pets. After all, one child said, "I can't pet them." This generated a great deal of energized discussion. By the last day of the unit, the focus of the discussion had ch anged. The class had, in fact, decided that the fish were pets. After all, another student said, "W e take care of them." But, other children wanted to know, "What about the sea horse?" The sea horse was also a fish, but the children did not recognize or classify it as such. The teacher didn' t know how to answer and turned to ask one of the authors of Pets and Me. The response, "What do you think?" led to a vigorous discussion during which one child said, "I don't know how to r elate to that sea horse. I guess I'll have to keep working on that!" The point, they had learned, is t o look at an issue from multiple perspectives and wonder about the meaning of those perspectives for their lives and for their relationships to the world around them.THE THEMATIC UNIT IN USE One issue the team struggled with as we developed t he materials was figuring out how to write materials that would be useful to teachers an d students in a variety of contexts. Gibboney (1994) demonstrates clearly the problems that accom pany attempts to adopt written/published curriculum or pedagogic techniques exactly as they are written or presented in training programs. He argues the most successful innovations are those that professionals adapt to their own political and educational contexts. This is not sur prising. Teaching, like all practices, requires that the practitioner adjust curriculum or pedagogi c techniques to fit the needs of her students, the expectations of teachers and administrators in the school and school district and the expectations of parents and the school board (MacIn tyre, 1981). When teachers attempt to structure learning experiences for students in ways that are inconsistent with educational norms and other organizational constraints in the school or district, those innovations are generally short lived and unsuccessful. Knowing that successful innovation comes when teac hers adapt and invent their own curriculum raises a recurring and significant tensi on for us between "packaged" and teacher developed curriculum. On the one hand, our understa nding of thematic units, and of the messy work involved in uncovering thematic foci as they a rise, requires that teachers be intimately involved in constructing the units and related mate rials. On the other hand, we have produced a packaged unit that seems to violate this understand ing. We have not completely resolved this tension, but we have some beginning insight based o n our experience with the field tests of the unit. As we describe below, we have structured the unit to encourage teachers to engage in hard, intellectual work as they move among the levels of fact/information, topic, and theme. We also explicitly encourage teachers to become learners in the classroom as they explore the theme of human-animal relationships with their students. In addition, the design of the unit invites teachers to work together in cross-grade and school-wide pro jects as they make the unit their own. We explicitly designed the thematic unit to encoura ge every teacher to use the materials in ways she felt would work with her students and in h er organizational context. This expectation is clear in the structure of each "lesson" and in the lay out of the curriculum materials. Each "lesson" is presented descriptively, as a descripti on of how the teachers on our design team actually taught the material in their classes. More over, each lesson is called a "sample process," the first structural indication that we expect adap tation, not adoption. The page facing each "sample process" is blank except for the words "you r modifications" at the top. This page serves


12 of 18several purposes. First, it provides teachers with more than space in the margins for their modifications. Second, in giving ample space, it ma kes it easier for teachers to keep a year to year record of their adaptations of the lessons and notes about what worked and what did not. Conversations with teachers who have used the mater ials indicate that each teacher used materials in her own ways -often within organizat ional constraints. Several weeks before the unit was used as a school wide thematic unit in the T. F. Birmingham School in Wylie, Texas, teachers there m et in grade-level teams and in cross grade teams to discuss the unit and how they would adapt it to their individual classroom and team needs. We also spoke with them as part of a confere nce call and discussed their modifications. Some of those modifications were adaptations to the learning needs of their students. Other modifications were in reaction to Texas State manda tes that certain skills content be taught. These teachers were incredibly creative in making a daptations that would fit both substantive and political demands. Field tests of the curriculum in Norristown, Pennsy lvania; Wylie, Texas; Nashville; and Chicago demonstrated that one of the powerful aspec ts of a thematic unit is the multiple entry points, both for teachers and for students. Teacher s became involved in a variety of ways. Most frequently, they (and their students) were most fas cinated by the topic, pets, or the opening topic question, "What is a pet?" This is not surprising. As we explained earlier in this paper, the natural attraction humans have for pets is part of the reas on so many children's books are centered either in content or in characters around pets and animals One first-grade teacher immediately saw that she was able to group together many stories from he r reading program and use them while doing other activities from Pets & Me Consequently, her class completed many reading an d writing activities in connection to pets. Her fourth-grade partner, however, was much more interested in having live animals in the classroom. The fourth-gr ade students read less about pets but had many opportunities to care for, observe, and ultima tely deal with pet loss. In almost every case, however, teachers and student s developed an interest in the theme, namely, the relationships among humans, animals and nature. While this relationship is the theme, it is often most powerful in learning contex ts to think in terms of a thematic question, "How can we understand the relationships among huma ns, other animals, and nature?" For teachers on the curriculum development team, the th eme emerged over the three year writing and revision process as we realized that the topic open ed opportunities to explore broader questions. Indeed, each generation of the materials expanded t he opportunities for students to explore the underlying theme through an expanded set of topics and acquiring more information about those topics. While teachers and students using the mater ials were initially also attracted by the topic, they quickly discovered that they could not answer the topic question without becoming immersed in the theme. One of the early activities is a reflection (Carini, 1982) in which students were asked to reflect on the phrase "A pet is a way of taking nature inside." One fourth-grade student wrote: A pet isn't like a ten speed bike. It's a toy that controls it's self [sic]. Another fourth-grader wrote: Taking a dog inside is like taking nature inside be cause a dog evolved from nature and its not man made so taking it inside is like ta king in a part of nature. In lots of ways you can tell there not manmad [sic.] if man ha d made pets they wouldn't bite they wouldn't scratch or break things. But by not b eing manmade they're special and unlike and a lot more fun. Clearly, these students are working through more th an what a pet is. They are making connections and distinctions between the man made w orld and the natural world while


13 of 18comparing and contrasting phenomenon from both. The y are working through their relationships with pets and with nature. In the process, they are implicitly moving from the topic to the theme. Experience with this theme expanded as students acq uired more factual information through reading and interviewing pet care professio nals as well as caring for and observing an animal in class. The animals they cared for in clas s were not typically thought of as pets spiders, land snails and monarch butterflies. Yet, with the experience in the classroom caring for these animals, students began to revise their concept of a pet and their understanding of their relationship to nature. Starting with a topic question also led students an d teachers to acquire more and more factual information. Indeed, teachers liked startin g, as the unit does, with a conceptual question that was immediately appealing to most students. Th e question, "What kind of animals can be pets?" serves as a powerful heuristic device to inv olve students in more specific, fact based, studies. These include comparative studies of what kinds of animals people keep as pets in different places (urban, suburban, rural), cultures and times. It also leads to questions about responsibilities of pet ownership which leads nicel y to a project researching individual pets: life span, health issues, environmental needs, etc. The layers of facts/information, topic, theme can b e entered at any place, but it is important to acknowledge and attend to the entire system, not just a particular layer. If we start with facts, i t is important not to leave children at the level of new information, but rather to help them integrate it back into their understanding of the t opic and of the broader theme. It is, after all, th e topics and theme that provide a context for using f acts and information in making sense of the world. Likewise, if we start with the topic questio n, facts are what form the substance for knowing about the topic. If we start with the thema tic level, the topics and facts are necessary for understanding the relationships expressed by the th eme. As we noted earlier, thematic units are often refer red to as important curriculum elements in the current literature on improving classroom pr actice in the elementary school (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde 1993). Advocates claim that thema tic units will help overcome the problems with fragmentation in the curriculum, help students see the interrelationships among various ways of knowing, and provide "meaningful, conceptua lly and experientially rich ... explorations" (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde 1993, p 106). Our experiences go much further. We see the develop ment and use of thematic units as a way of capitalizing on the shifting paradigm of sch ools and schooling. The paradigm is shifting away from schools as teaching organizations to thin king of schools as learning organizations. The understanding of thematic units we have develop ed enables teachers to move from teaching as a technical activity to teaching as a deeply per sonal and intellectual activity. It also enables students to experience learning that is active and deeply personal. It is through the exploration of the theme that teachers and students alike are able to transform their experiences. While this article is based on a pre-school and ele mentary level project, we believe that the fact/information, topic, theme analysis has implica tions for secondary and post-secondary education. These implications can be seen by explor ing our fundamental goals for student learning. If we ask, "What knowledge, skills and attitudes sh ould students demonstrate in order to graduate?" our inclination is to answer from a disc iplinary perspective. We respond, that is by talking about math skills, science skills, English skills, history knowledge, etc. Building curriculum from the answer to this question keeps t eachers and students focused on facts and information or topics. In other words, the curricul um has a static and disciplinary focus that makes it difficult to address thematic questions. I n contrast, if we ask, "What fundamental questions do we want students to have grappled with before they graduate?" our response is usually more oriented toward broad existential ques tions. Building curriculum so that students explore these questions requires that students deve lop facility in math, science, literature, history,


14 of 18etc. It is not possible to answer such questions wi thout using the knowledge, skills, and attitudes represented within the disciplines. The implications of this shift do not require the a bandonment of the departmental structure of most schools and colleges. They do, however, req uire a fundamental rethinking of how we structure time (for teachers and students), courses teacher and student interactions, and graduation requirements. While we can not make spec ific recommendations based on this project, it is important to raise these questions. We close with a quote from one of the teachers who worked with us in developing Pets & Me It summarizes her thoughts and feelings at the en d of an extended "lesson" during which her fourth-grade students had raised monarch butterflie s, planted a garden that attracts butterflies, and released the butterflies. For this teacher, exp loring human-animal interactions had implications far beyond the specifics of the topics developed or facts students acquired: "The project helps the children connect to the environme nt and have an impact upon it. I hope it will help them to see school as a place where they can l earn to make a better world. We will all see butterflies quite differently in the future." ( Pets & Me 1991, p.10) Notes The rich history of Progressive Education in the Un ited States, England, New Zealand, and Canada provides many examples of project methods, p ersonalized instruction, and connections between school learning and moral devel opment (Shannon, 1990). We do not address the historical perspective directly in this paper but want to acknowledge its impact on our thinking as we were attracted to and develop ed this project. 1. Progressive Education has always represented a chal lenge to the policy maker's need for standardization, control, and accountability. One i nterpretation of the "pendulum swing" of American education is that it grows out of the tens ion between social and individual agendas. On the one hand, society needs to insure t hat all children are being taught roughly the same skills and information at roughly the same time. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that different children from different backgrounds and with different interests and abilities will learn things at different times or at different rates. 2. The challenge is not only one of responding to [act ing within] policy constraints. Publishers also place constraints on the substance and structure of curriculum materials. In our case, we had to overcome our publisher's reluct ance to leave entire pages blank, except for the word "Your Modifications." It took us many meetings with the publishers to convince them that it is necessary to make it easy for teachers to modify curricular materials. 3. The work of Ausubel and other cognitive psychologis ts implies that the hierarchical relationship among information, topics, and themes would be best represented as a concept map with "theme" as the super ordinate concept, "to pics" as the first level subordinate, and "facts and information" as the second level subordi nate. As we show in figure 1.1 (at the end of this section), we understand these concepts as an embedded set with permeable boundaries. 4. AcknowledgmentsThe development of the Pets & Me unit was funded by a grant from the American Pet P roducts Manufacturers Association. The authors want to ackn owledge the contributions of the other team members to the development of the unit. This work b ecame the foundation for our analysis of the relationships among facts/information, topics, and themes. Alan Beck, Ph.D., Dorothy N. McAllister Professor of Animal Ecology and Director of the Center for Human Ethology and


15 of 18Human-Animal Interaction in the School of Veterinar y Medicine at Purdue University, guided the team's understanding of the human-animal bond. Madeleine Antionelli, Elizabeth Bennett, Elizabeth Bradley, Sally Fricke, Barbara Grippi, an d Dolly Ketterer wrote, taught and revised the lessons. References Altwerger, B. & Flores, B. (1994). Theme cycles: Cr eating communities of learners. Primary Voices K-6 2 (1), 2-6. Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within: Teachers, parents, a nd principals can make the difference. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Benchmarks for science literacy. (1993) New York: Oxford University Press. Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructi vist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Bruner, J. (1960) The process of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. Carini, P. (1982). The school lives of seven children: A five year stu dy. Grand Forks, ND: University of North Dakota.Crittenden, B. S. (1973) Education and social ideals: A study in philosophy of education. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada.Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and education New York: Kappa Delta Pi. Gere, A. R. et al. (1992) Language and reflection: An integrated approach to teaching English. NY: Macmillan.Gibboney, R. (1994). The stone trumpet, A story of practical school refo rm, 1960-1990. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Greene, M. (1968). Teacher as stranger: A philosophical theory of edu cation. New York: Harper and Row.Harste, J., Short, K. & Burke, C. (1988). Creating classrooms for authors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Lytle, S. & Botel, M. (1988). PCRP II: Reading, writing, and talking across the curriculum. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Departme nt of Education. Mills, H. & Clyde, J. (1990). Portraits of whole language classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.MacIntyre, A. C. (1981) After virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. Pappas, C., Keifer, B. & Levstik, L. (1990). An integrated language perspective in the elementary school: Theory into action. White Plains, NY: Longman.


16 of 18Perkins, D. & Blythe, T. (1994). Putting understand ing up front. Educational Leadership. 51 (5), 4-7.Pets & Me : A thematic learning experience built on the relat ionship between people and animals (1991). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Center for Scho ol Study Councils, University of Pennsylvania.Pigdon, K. & Wooley, M. (1993). The big picture: Integrating children's learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Senge, P. (1990) The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.Shannon, P. (1990) The struggle to continue: Progressive reading instr uction in the United States. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Stotsky. S. (1993). Linkages between multicultural education and the development of civic responsibility in English and history curricula: St rengths and problems. Paper presented at Faculty Forum: La Salle University, Philadelphia, P ennsylvania. December, 1993. Zemelman, S., Daniels, H. & Hyde, A. (1993). Best practice: New standards for teaching and learning in America's schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.About the AuthorsHarris J. Sokoloff, Ph.D. Harris Sokoloff is Executive Director of the Center for School Study Councils (CSSC) at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of E ducation. His responsibilities includes working with school superintendents, school boards, and district staff to help them keep pace with state-of-the-art educational and management th eory, research and practice. He has worked with more that 70 educational organizations in six states on a range of organizational development and improvement projects. His consultin g focuses on strategic planning, organizational redesign, and improving linkages bet ween schools and the communities they serve. Dr. Sokoloff and the Center for School Study Counci ls are working to develop a regional and Commonwealth-wide network of educators who are able to moderate deliberative dialogues that will create stronger, more supportive linkages between schools and their communities. As part of this network, he has moderated deliberative forums around the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under a grant from the Pennsylvania Hu manities Council and is working with the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY radio on a project c alled "Citizen Voices." This later project extends the idea of deliberative dialogues to inclu de the print and electronic media, involving them as partners to the conversations. Dr. Sokoloff also directs the University of Pennsylvania Summer Public Policy Instiute which trains people i n the theory and practice of deliberative dialogues. Some of Dr. Sokoloff's projects include working wit h the Susquenita (PA) School District to redesign the early childhood and elementary educ ation programs, and to build board and community support for those changes (some of this w ork is reported in the November 1996 issue of School Administrator ; designing and implementing an instructional stude nt database for the Wissahickon School and Southeast Delco School Distr icts; and working with the West York Area School District to improve school district and community dialogues. Dr. Sokoloff has also


17 of 18 worked on technical assistance projects with the Ra dnor School District, the Haddonfield (NJ) School District, the Haverford Township School Dist rict and the Upper Dublin School District. He has worked extensively with the School District of Philadelphia in the early design of the PEPI (Philadelphia Elementary Principals Institute) Dr. Sokoloff is also lead author of a thematic unit for pre-school and elementary school settings. Entitled "Pets & Me," the unit has been c ommended by the National Council of Teachers of English and has received glowing review s from professional organizations focusing on the teaching of the humanities and the sciences. That curriculum served as the impetus for this article which appears in EPAA Dr. Sokoloff received his Bachelor's Degree in Phil osophy from Temple University and a Master's in Education in Philosophy of Education an d Educational Counseling, also from Temple University. In 1983, he received his Ph.D. from Syr acuse University where his research focused on Philosophy of Education and Social Theory.Harris SokoloffCenter for School Study CouncilsGraduate School of EducationUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia, PA 19104-6216Phone: 215-898-7371Fax: 215-898-4399 Home page: Copyright 1995 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesEPAA can be accessed either by visiting one of its seve ral archived forms or by subscribing to the LISTSERV known as EPAA at (To sub scribe, send an email letter to whose sole contents are SUB EPAA y our-name.) As articles are published by the Archives they are sent immediately to the EPAA subscribers and simultaneously archived in three forms. Articles are archived on EPAA as individual files under the name of the author a nd the Volume and article number. For example, the article by Stephen Kemmis in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Archives can be retrieved by sending an e-mail letter to LISTSERV@a and making the single line in the letter rea d GET KEMMIS V1N1 F=MAIL. For a table of contents of the entire ARCHIVES, send the following e-mail message to INDEX EPAA F=MAIL, tha t is, send an e-mail letter and make its single line read INDEX EPAA F=MAIL.The World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is Policy Analysis Archives are "gophered" at To receive a publication guide for submitting artic les, see the EPAA World Wide Web site or send an e-mail letter to and include the single l ine GET EPAA PUBGUIDE F=MAIL. It will be sent to you by return e-mail. General questions about ap propriateness of topics or particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, Glass@asu.ed u or reach him at College of Education, Arizona Sta te University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2411. (602-965-2692)Editorial Board


18 of 18John Andrew Coulson Alan Davis Mark E. Thomas F. Alison I. Arlen Gullickson Ernest R. Aimee Craig B. Howley u56e3@wvnvm.bitnet William Richard M. Jaeger Benjamin Thomas Dewayne Mary P. Les Susan Bobbitt Anne L. Hugh G. Richard C. Anthony G. Rud Dennis Jay Robert Robert T.

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