Surviving and Thriving with Themes. (outside the Box)

By Rasmussen, Barbara | School Arts, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Surviving and Thriving with Themes. (outside the Box)


Rasmussen, Barbara, School Arts


In the last sixteen years, there has been an evolution in the philosophy of the creative arts elementary magnet schools in the St. Paul School District where I teach. The district's approach to arts integration and thematic teaching has undergone many changes. At first I thought these changes were due to the introduction of a number of staff who were not trained in the program, a change of administration, and a shift in district and state expectations. In essence these did have an effect on the program, but other factors also may have contributed to these changes. What went wrong?

Importance of Themes

When the magnet schools were created, the school district trained the entire staff in thematic and arts integrated teaching, but much of our understanding of the program developed through our own experience of trial and error. As an example, the whole concept of themes was an important component of the program. In fact, Connecting the Curriculum Through Interdisciplinary Instruction (1992) by John H. Lounsbury and ITI: The Model. Integrated Thematic Instruction (1995)by Susan Kovalik with Karen Olsen both stress the importance of choosing themes. Kovalik says that themes must "have substance and application to the real world, have readily available resources, be age-appropriate, and be worthy of time spent on it."

Problems with Themes

In the beginning, we had a number of different themes in one year. We soon discovered that the time it took to develop these themes was overwhelming. Our solution was to work with just one theme for the whole year. Unfortunately, the theme still remained a stumbling block. The theme itself was difficult to choose. It had to work within the primary and intermediate curriculum, and also for the specialists. In addition, the administration did not allow enough time to choose the themes. Therefore the themes often did not apply to all grade levels or were not broad enough for everyone to develop a curriculum around them. Time for the specialists and classroom teachers to plan was not scheduled into the school day. This needed to take place, not only at the beginning, but also throughout the school year. Nor was there time for the classroom teachers and the specialists to have in-depth discussions of the objectives to he learned within each theme.

Need for Consistency and Training

It became clear that it was very important that all new faculty understand the philosophy of a program and be trained in it. Unfortunately, the school district's financial support was not there to train incoming staff as thoroughly as they were at first. Soon, there were many teachers who did not understand the need to plan with the other specialists or how interdisciplinary teaching could enhance their teaching and not take time from it.

I found I was able to easily make social studies and multicultural connections, but also knew that other parts of my visual arts program were being sacrificed. I did not have time, nor was there an understanding by the classroom teachers for the need to include instruction in art criticism, history, and aesthetics as well as art production. To them, the finished project seemed to be the sole purpose of the visual arts program. An art display for the parents at the end of a theme seemed to more important than making sure all aspects of my program were being taught.

What, I wondered, was the most important component of a successful program? I believed the key was that the administration had to be completely behind a thematic integrated curriculum. Unfortunately when the school's principal and the district's superintendent changed, the school's emphasis changed with them. …

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