Thematic Teaching: Geography Through a Lens of Multiculturalism
All too often, students feel that they must leave their everyday lives, experiences and interests outside of the classroom. From the perspective of many students, the more rigid foci of traditional curriculum do not allow for inclusion of personal dimensions such as ethnic background, distinct cultural knowledge or unique personal history. And as students reach the pre-adolescent stages of middle school, and as the formulation of personal identity becomes a stronger force in each individual's life, this rigid quality can have the impact of alienating the individual from the formal educational process. Thus, it is incumbent upon us as educators to find ways to bridge this gap between personal life and public education; between individuals strengths and learning needs; between creative freedom and academic proceduralism. As the Head of the Geography Department for 5th, 6th and 7th Graders, I propose a shift our strategic and curricular approach to students so as to help bridge these conceptual and practical gaps. Using a Thematic Teaching strategy that imbues discussion on geography with references to deeper cultural realities, the approach discussed hereafter is designed to improve the interdisciplinary qualifications of curriculum and the interconnectivity of class content with the lives, interests and experiences of students in the classroom.
According to the text by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NREL)(2005), thematic instruction is a valuable way to help produce a sense of personal association to the material being reviewed. NREL indicates that this approach to learning will establish a sustained topical framework within which to address a broad range of sub-topics. NREL describes this framework as a conceptual glue that can be used to connect a diverse array of subtopics. The source from NREL reports that "this approach relies on teachers who have a strong sense of curriculum as a learning process and can see ways to connect learning with key concepts. The goal is to choose themes that relate to students' lives to ensure interest and engagement in the content. Concepts that work best depend on students' age and developmental level. Also, topics typically found in single content areas offer rich links to other subjects, such as communication, immigration, rhythm, speed, matter, addition, metaphor, or waves." (NREL, p. 1)
These links will inform the various strategies employed over the course of a single lesson unit, with the imperative to form stronger connections with universal cognitive processes emerging as a central objective. Accordingly, the traditional objectives of geography instruction such as the identification of cities, states and countries would here be supplemented by an array of strategies intended to connect these locations with actual cultural examination. One extremely valuable way to do this is to incorporate the increasingly diverse ethnic backgrounds represented in the classroom itself. Thus, if a thematic glue may be suggested to hold together a series of lessons regarding the countries of the world, it may be the convergence of culture and immigration. The Indiana University Northwest (IUN)(2011) indicates that the instructor must take a 'lead teacher' strategy in creating a positive multicultural atmosphere where personal sharing is possible.
According to IUN, "lead teachers are comfortable as co-learners with their students and with colleagues around the world. Today it is less about staying ahead and more about moving ahead as members of dynamic learning communities." (IUN, p. 1) The creation of an egalitarian environment such as this is essential if students are to better understand the implications of coexisting with other cultures as well as the patterns of immigration and globalization that are forming the world shared by today's students. The Lead Teacher will use the context of geographical studies to help students gain mutual respect for cultural differences both amongst one another and in the world at large. This denotes the need to create an atmosphere in which thematic instruction is possible. In a time of great philosophical divergence over how best to orient our classrooms, this does pose a genuine challenge to the thematic approach.
Groups such as Cindy Whitaker's Teachers as Agents of Change offer critical support to those attempting to implement such strategies. According to the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA)(2010), the event and group were "developed to showcase the best practices used by Missouri educators, and give teachers tools to implement them, said Cindy Whitaker, MSTA's director of professional learning. Attendees were encouraged to collaborate and become 'change agents' in their own schools and classrooms." (MSTA, p. 1) While there is little that educators can do at the national level to alter the heavy-handed emphasis on state standardized testing, it is possible to find ways to optimize classroom time so that students can integrate in an overlapping and multidisciplinary setting many of the skills and foci that they are deprived of using during testing preparation.
One particular objective that is overlooked in the absence of more thematically unified course content and process is that relating to the provision of support in the development of a value system. Rigid instruction and emphasis on rote memorization often stand in the way of many of the more fundamental goals of middle school education. To this point, Montiel-Overall (2005) indicates that educators are prevented from collaborating and that consequently, deprived of the opportunity for "creating new value together. (Kanter 1996, 96)" (Montiel-Overall, p. 1)
And as values must come inherently to incorporate the perspectives and experiences of a diversity of students, the thematic umbrella of multiculturalism will only come from the formulation of new and ever more relevant educational values. This denotes that in the context of my department, an environment of freer collaboration will ultimately produce a better experience for the student and will combine strategies for optimizing classroom time not already designated for test preparations. One important dimension of this collaborative approach is that it affords the educator a greater sense of control over the classroom itself. Indeed, Kanter (2007) points out that one of the strongest predictors of resistance to change such as our adoption of thematic instructional strategies, is a feeling of lost control. Kanter notes that a negative effect will often arise as a result of a "feeling that changes are being done to, rather than done by, those affected." (Kanter, p. 1)
It is thus that the collaborative strategy proposed here aims to reverse this sentiment by placing more direct influence over the use of classroom time in the hands of the instructors themselves. Quite to the point, the thematic approach will inherently call for the teacher to drive some measure of course content around the cultural experiences and perspectives of members of the classroom community. This need for in-class flexibility is highlighted in the text by Adams & Hamm (2005), which observes that "one of the steps for developing thematic concepts is to determine what students know about a topic before beginning instruction. This is done by careful questioning and discussion." The text goes on to advise the instructor to "be sensitive to and capitalize on students' knowledge." (Adams & Hamm, p. 166)
Especially on the subject of culture, each student will have an experience that is distinct, a background on which only he or she is an expert and a sense of pride in the individuality of that knowledge. By utilizing these attributes, the instructor helps encourage all members of the classroom community to be contributors and also recipients of a growing body of shared knowledge. Simultaneously, the text by Heilman (2010) points out, the instructor can begin to connect this shared body of knowledge to more complex historical ideas such as broad patterns of immigration or colonialism. Heilman's test notes that "by utilizing a thematic approach that stresses commonalities (as well as differences) between different eras and different societies, teachers can help students gain greater insights into the workings of history…