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Education Q & A

Answers to your questions about your child’s first years at school.


“ I’m worried that my daughter’s first grade teacher isn’t teaching academics.”


Q : My first – grader tells me she is learning about penguins in her math class.

I know she is being taught through “thematic units” in which various subjects are tied to a common theme but I am skeptical. I like penguins as much as the next person but is my daughter wasting time that should be spent on academics?


A : Rest assured: Your daughter’s education isn’t going to the birds. Kids who are taught through thematic units learn the same academics subjects-reading, writing, and arithmetic social studies and so on-we learned as kids, the information is just organized in a different way. What distinguishes this approach is that a central theme ties together what kids learn. In this case the theme is penguins. They might be used to teach addition (adding penguin eggs together), spelling (learning words such as “bird” and “cold”), science (learning how water freezes.), and social studies (discussing why penguins aren’t pets but dogs and cats are.) Projects such as building penguin habitats or drawing maps of Antarctica help students demonstrate what they’ve learned. (By the way the penguins your daughter is studying now are most likely part of a larger theme. Perhaps “animal families” that she’ll be working on for much of the year.)


“Thematic units show kids the connections between different subjects.” Says Cathy Shevey, director of elementary education for the Montclair New Jersey, public-school system, which has been using the units for more than ten years. “Learning math, for example, isn’t isolated from the ways in which these skills are useful when studying science. This approach also helps the kids make connections between what they do in the classroom and what goes on in their day to day lives.” Far from taking time away from academics, she adds, classes structured around thematic units actually provide more reinforcement of basic skills. Kids are evaluated for their spelling in science class and for their sentence composition in social studies.


  According to Shevey, this integrated approach to learning prepares students for assessment tests that require them to demonstrate what they know and can do through presentations, speeches, and experiments. These tests, which are usually given to students beginning in fourth grade, are being used by more and more school systems across the country.


  In the meantime to see if thematic units are working for your daughter, ask her to give you a demonstration of what she’s been learning.


You’ll probably find the results are reassuring.



By, Cindy Schweich Handler