What’s Saving My Life: Teaching Thematically

Slide1I teach Grade 9 to 12 English thematically. If you teach middle years, this isn’t that radical an approach, I know, but it’s different for high school.

For over a decade, most English teams I’ve worked with have done this alongside me.

It’s a lifesaver for many reasons.

Giving each course an overarching theme gives the course focus. In my mind, I think of the theme as both an umbrella, which everything we study fits under, as well as an anchor, to which we attach our learning.

As my school year kicks off this week, the benefits in planning are foremost in my mind. I’m beginning three of our core courses this week, and the theme connected to each has been foundational in what I’ve got planned to start, as well as where we’re going to wind up. I’ve even got a handful of the steps along the path figured out. I know what texts I’m going to use, and I have a list of those I’d like to add.

This is a yearlong benefit. If something is happening in the world that relates to our theme, we can explore it. We saw this last year when we wound up exploring “The Adversity of Sport” in Grade 10, under the course theme of “Facing Adversity and Being a Hero.” This was something we threw together as we were glued to the screen at every free moment, watching the Winter Olympics.

Similarly, if we see something cool at a PD event, or shared online, we can bring that in as well. The structure of our courses is less about moving through units and material, like we’ve traditionally done, but instead exploring a theme. We have so much more freedom to work new things in.

This is because the theme anchors what we pursue, and as a result, our courses are much more about a process of exploring a theme than the specific things we do. We still do all the things, but in the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the theme. A nice benefit is that doing those things serves the learning, and seem much more relevant, and engaging, than what can feel like jumping through hoops. Studying the things that traditionally present a challenge may not become easier, but it is given a deeper purpose. Instead of looking at poetry in isolation, we are looking at how it reveals ideas around the theme, giving us a better reason to study it than “You study poetry in English.”

The focus of the theme allows me, as the teacher, to build opportunities for students to explore ideas and learning. We ask big questions, write, create and use texts and media that allow us to dig into ideas related to the theme. I can challenge their thinking with a text, and give them opportunities to think critically as they develop their opinions and ideas. We often go back and revisit our thinking about some things, and because we’re committed to exploring the theme, we can take that time.

For me, working to explore the theme feels like the whole course matters. From the first writing prompt, to their writing in the final assessment, students’ learning is focused on that theme, allowing them to explore, reflect, form opinions and ideas.

Teaching thematically ties very nicely into my second lifesaver, which is the team I work with. As a department, working with the same themes, we have a focus for our collaboration. When we talk about what we’re doing in our classes, we share the things we’re doing to explore the theme. We develop projects and pursuits (Semantics, I know, but I like that word better than unit.) together, tapping into the strengths each member brings to the team. As a result, though each of us teaches in our own way, our department is very much on the same page. If you teach in a place where that similarity is important, this approach is truly lifesaving.

I could go on at length about the benefits of teaching thematically. (I’ve presented sessions about it, and I’m well into the first draft of a book about it.) It’s been transformative in my practice, and had become the filter through which I look at most things in my classroom. Teaching High School English thematically is my lifesaver.

Do you use themes as a tool like this? What does it look like in your classroom? What are your “anchors” and “umbrellas”?

What benefits can you see in this approach? What challenges might you anticipate?


  1. It’s so wonderful. I think of the theme in terms of anchors and umbrellas, in that the theme anchors our learning, and is an umbrella under which everything we do fits. The benefits in the planning stages of a course are so rich.

  2. I agree. I am moving toward that model. Last year as we planned our Year At A Glance, we were asked to have an essential question. To me that should be worded thematically (sp?). It makes more sense when finding mentor texts and novels.

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