A Slice of the Pie
I walk into a classroom of 6 year olds, fresh out of kindergarten, and prepare to start my science class. We kick off the year with plants and almost as soon as the word leaves my mouth, I’m stunned as a spectacle of hands fly into the air like fireworks accompanied with the popping of children’s voices: “Teacher, teacher!”
“Yes, Dora. What is it? You shouldn’t be interrupting me like that.”
“Plants do photosynthesis! They take the sunlight and make food!” she blurts in excitement.
Another is not so patient and boldly shouts out, “Yes! And teacher, they do pollination too. The bees help to take the pollen from flower to flower.”
“And then, they make seeds.”
“And then, they grow a stem and roots and leaves and more flowers.”
My board marker simply can’t keep up. I can’t tally up rewards for their contributions either and all of a sudden I feel like they know the topic better than the book. But, how?
Ten minutes later, we’re down to work producing a model of a plant. Despite the careful guidelines I’ve planned for the lesson, all the plants look different. I ask why.
“Mine has small leaves because it lives in a dry place.”
“Mine is very tall because it fights for light in the jungle.”
Now I realize they haven’t just memorized all these big words – they know how it all works.
A quick glance at the clock and there’s fifteen minutes left of science class. I get them to pack up – the room is spotless and all the equipment has been returned.
I start to wrap-up the lesson with some quiz questions to check everything has been absorbed. I’m met with twelve pairs of eyes looking at me as if to say, “Go on! Test me! I bet I have the answer.”
As the kids make their way home, all of sudden I realize I’ve failed to teach them anything new. I underestimated them. I’ll be back next week with a real challenge.
That was my first time teaching a class that had been through a theme-curriculum. I soon learnt the meaning and gravity of that.
A Finger in Every Pie
I had been told about what teaching by theme means. The idea of taking a topic like plants and building a vast variety of topics around it so that the immersion we advertised extends beyond English language. We were putting kids into a world where themes became the center and everything they did at school simply complimented it. Finger painting, roleplaying, writing, reading, singing, physical education, science, cooking…even mathematics!
All of it was creatively tied to one overarching topic. Why not just drill the language though? Isn’t that the point of ESL – to learn English?
Because, with the potential of our classes, we could do more. And we chose to.
You see, teaching English through themes is so much more than a tool for language acquisition. By approaching a broad concept from a variety of different learning angles, children are able to build a solid foundation (and indeed advanced knowledge) in a way that avoids drilling but uses repetition.
Moreover, it encourages a wider range of learning as within any particular theme, they are able to learn as broadly as possible.
Art classes push a visual understanding that adds tangibility to classes traditionally taught as a science. Writing tasks encourage a sense of linguistic freedom and experimentation often only thought possible in art classes. Role-plays add actions to words and utilize language to model almost any kind of topic into something children can experience through their imaginations.
In all these ways, English comes as a plentiful byproduct of what is a well-rounded education.
The Whole Darn Kitchen
Without exercises, books full or grammar problems, or spelling lists longer than a mile, our kids were able to graduate from theme program to tell me all about plants: from photosynthesis to life cycles.
Though, it wasn’t just about the results in their language skills. There was something incredible to see a class jump with enthusiasm at the mention of word like ‘plants’. To me, these motionless life-forms weren’t anything to get excited about. It dawned on me after that lesson that the kids I was getting ready to teach for a year genuinely loved learning. They craved it.
Conditioned with joy in the classroom and pride in excellence, the kids I had just taught, defied everything I had imagined Buxibans to be.
It wasn’t just that one student was beaming with enthusiasm. It was the whole class collectively. Even the quieter members had their hands up ready to go. In fact, I may have done them a disservice by allowing so many answers to be given without raised hands. Puzzled by this barrage of knowledge, I pieced together the evidence. These kids had learnt the value of knowledge as a whole and understood the personal rewards intrinsic to excellence and mastery.
I stepped into the classroom the next day ready with Social Studies textbook and a improved lesson plan. Much the same, they waited for the words to leave my mouth.
“Hello everyone, today we are going to look at leaders in our community. Who can tell me about a leaders”
The hands fly up. The squirming in the chairs ensues and I smile brightly. I begin the discussion all the while wondering how I would have turned out if I had studied a theme curriculum.
A Slice of the Pie