Teaching with Integrated Thematic Units
Integrated thematic units combine instruction in multiple subject areas to investigate and explore a broad theme. Students use what they have learned in the different subject areas to design a service project.
We selected water quality for our integrated thematic unit as it impacts many educational disciplines and is a relevant and engaging topic. By studying water quality, students are able to work together to research and discover the significant social and environmental issues caused by poor water quality, as well as participate in a service project to raise awareness and promote solutions for these issues.
Service Learning encourages students to connect with and make a positive difference in their communities using the knowledge they have acquired. As Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A. states in "The Five Stages of Learning," service learning allows students to combine their interests and knowledge to bring ideas to life. We have included the public service announcement poster project in our integrated thematic unit to allow students to use their knowledge to promote awareness about water quality.
Art is a powerful tool for sharing knowledge and promoting awareness. According to Howard Garner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, each student has a unique set of intellectual capabilities. Integrating art in education increases learning for all students, but especially for those with strong visual or kinesthetic learning preferences.
Content - We chose to integrate our Biology and English subject areas because we felt that these two subject areas would allow students to pursue true creative thinking by using all parts of their brain. Even though these two subject areas may at first appear to be two dissimilar subject areas, they both also aspire to define what makes us fundamentally human.
A key element in designing a successful ITU is the use of cooperative learning in groups. The six basic elements of cooperative learning can be described using the acronym “PIGS Faces”: (1) positive interdependence; (2) individual and group accountability; (3) group processing; (4) social skills; (5) face-to-face interaction; and (6) specific task, added by Andrew Johnson, Minnesota State University, Mankato (Brown & Ciuffetlli, 2009; Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1988; Siltalia, 2010).
Different Content Levels - We chose to combine our Biology and English subject areas because we felt that these two subject areas would allow students to pursue true creative thinking by using all parts of their brain. According to famous author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, using both parts of the brain is essential to true learning (2011). Even though these two subject areas may at first appear to be two dissimilar subject areas, they both also aspire to define what makes us fundamentally human.
Vocab - We chose to use the Vocab Matrix Activity because it is a hands-on activity that requires intensive group collaboration and thinking. It requires students to use context clues, respond to how the word is used, use deduction, use a dictionary, and paraphrase text, all parts of Artley and McCullough's research from 1943. Additionally, they have to present their findings to the class and this allows them to not only convey the new word and its meaning, but allow them to share the strategies they used when confronted with a word they did not know.
Group Activity Supports - To promote cooperative learning, we have incorporated several group activity supports in our lessons. These include Jigsawing, working in table groups, the use of group presentations, and the use of Common Core sentence prompts and responses (National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), 2009). The Jigsaw classroom, developed by Eliot Aronson in the early 1970s, is a structured cooperative learning method, in which a topic is divided among students who learn their segment of the topic independently and then report it to the group.
The lessons in our integrated thematic unit incorporate many other supports, including graphic organizers, multi-sensory elements and choice activities. The use of graphic organizers to show relationships between ideas (Robinson & Kiewra, 1995), such as the VTW and water pollution graphic organizers, is an effective SDAIE (specifically designed academic instruction in English) strategy, helping students make visual connections between the different elements of the information they are learning. Multi-sensory elements, such as the use of whiteboards, provide multiple means of action and expression, a key element of Universal Design for Learning, the educational framework designed by David H. Rose and Jenna W. Gravel in 2010.
The lesson activities in the integrated thematic unit have been designed to be engaging for all students. The principals of Universal Design for Learning (Wiggins and McTighe 1998) were instrumental in the development of activities through the incorporation of multiple means of representation for both English and Biology. The lesson activities help all students reach the highest levels of learning on Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom et. al., 1956): evaluating and creating. The elements of water quality are initially introduced at the lower levels of understanding. The activities are designed to then encourage students to apply and analyze what they have learned to evaluate the issues of water quality and to design and develop solutions and public awareness.