Why You Should Teach ELA in Thematic Units

When I first started teaching, I did what lots of ELA teachers do: I started at the beginning and then went from there. In other words, I taught literature chronologically.  What better way for students to understand the comprehensive sweep of literature written in English, right?  Well, it often felt like I was just stringing together a list of texts, and, as happens to many people, I never really got to the stuff that was written in the last 100 years or so.

I think that my shift to teaching thematically happened like many shifts do, both gradually and all at once.   I started off by wanting to break up the older readings with some contemporary pieces—so I added a modern poem to my Romeo and Juliet unit, and I found a great contemporary non-fiction piece for my Gatsby unit.  Slowly but surely, I was dropping the chronology idea and moving more towards thematic units—until one day, I was only teaching thematically.

Now, I love all of my thematic units—and finding new TED Talks or articles from The New Yorker to add to what I am already doing keeps me excited about teaching the same units every year.  Besides the fact that it is more entertaining for you, there are lots of reasons to make the switch to a thematic organization for your ELA class.

Here are 7 reasons why you should thematic units in your ELA class:

1. Thematic units teach students that we are asking the same questions that have been asked for years.  When I can pair a Shakespeare play with a “Modern Love” column from The New York Times, then I know that I have found some timeless themes.  Students often think that people living a long time ago had nothing in common with their own lives, but by comparing older texts with contemporary ones, they see how little things have really changed.

2. Thematic units remind me to share multiple voices and perspectives with my classes.  It is often all too easy to slip into teaching only dead white males, especially when most of the texts in the book room were written by them, but when I teach thematically, I am reminded that multiple views and ideas are necessary in order to really get a grasp on an issue.  And so I am constantly searching for new voices from marginalized groups or places I’ve never been so that I can give my students a more comprehensive understanding of the issues.

3. I can show a film to my classes without feeling like I’m just babysitting.  As with everything else I do in class, when I show a film to my students, I want to challenge them a little.  So when I am thinking thematically, I know that I am adding depth to their understanding of a theme.

4. Discussions are deep and engaging.  When we look at an issue from multiple perspectives, we spend more than just a class period talking about the important questions.  And when students have multiple  texts and viewpoints from which to draw in their discussions, they are much richer and nuanced and full.  One of my favorite activities for my thematic units is the graded discussion; I play no role in that class period besides that of observer, and students prove every time how much they gain from listening to their peers’ ideas.

5. We cover all the genres without having a “short story unit” or a “poetry unit.”  Often students get the idea that certain genres, like poetry or short stories, are taught some time when the “real” books are done.  And so the poetry unit gets pushed to the end of the year, and often simply dropped because their isn’t enough time.  The message that students get is that novels and plays are important, and the other forms of writing are lesser somehow.  Instead, when I teach thematically, we read stories and poems and contemporary essays throughout the year.  We even get to touch on more genres such speech or radio interviews or documentary films.  They are all equally important when we are looking at big ideas and not just big books.

6. Students have enough views and perspectives to formulate their own ideas on a subject.  Again, I’m always thinking about the long term when it comes to my goals for my students.  And I know that one day, they’ll be out there on their own, forced to come to terms with all the evidence to figure out what to believe all by themselves.  So I want to train them as soon as possible to weigh that evidence, to think about what they are presented with, and to figure out their own opinions.  Getting them to parrot what I believe might make me feel good, but it does little to create independent thinkers.

7. I get to push my students to look for solutions to the issues that matter.  I know that they are just kids now, worried more about their weekend plans than how they’ll change the world one day, but I also know that the future depends on these kids.  I want them to start thinking now about the tough questions and the problems that they’ll be facing—in their own lives or in the greater world.  By pushing them now to start questioning and wondering and thinking about how they can cause change, I am setting them up to make the world a better place one day.

In the end, I know that I will be the best teacher that I can be as long as I am continually challenged.  Teaching thematically is a great way to make sure that I never rest on a good ole’ tried-and-true lesson.

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