Awakening Curiosity Through Thematic Learning

Julie Anderson, Lower School Teacher

Awakening Curiosity Through Thematic Learning

by Julie Anderson, Lower School Teacher

When you reflect on your elementary school experience you probably don’t recall the day you learned to add a period or when you first discovered 3 x 2= 6.  It’s the special events and lessons that leave lasting impressions. Sometimes they can even inspire the direction of our lives. This happened to me. I remember distinctly when I was in 4th grade, our school did a special science theme over several months. In multi-aged groups, we participated in activities to identify mystery powders, find out if air has mass, we investigated simple machines, and learned about the human body with a mannequin named Charlie. I was inspired! Later, I would pursue science for my undergraduate degree. Charlie played a big role in that decision.  

This kind of thematic learning is a cornerstone of what we do at Sparhawk School. Every Wednesday all Sparhawk K-5 students spend the afternoon exploring various facets of our theme, which for this year is Connections.   We seek to awaken a sense of awe and curiosity as well as broaden horizons. Activities range from teachers becoming models of the sun, moon and earth to demonstrate how those celestial bodies interact, to having students pretend to be ants that have to find their way to the correct anthill using only their sense of smell.  It can be challenging to create lessons for such a wide age range, but by doing so we create a common narrative and cultural experience for all Sparhawk students. We create a sense of family. Back in the classroom teachers delve deeper into the topic in a way that is appropriate for their age group. The Wednesday Theme Time lessons are meant to be impressionistic and inspiring.  And they are.

The proof is in stories told to me by former students and from my own class. Just last month a spontaneous conversation about a past theme took place at lunch. Upon seeing some crackers, a student brought up the time when her “family” only had crackers to eat because they were immigrants newly arrived at Ellis Island, and how so-and-so (an adult who was role playing) was so mean because they kept stealing things. And of course, how thirsty and miserable she was. This particular theme was two years ago when this student was in kindergarten.  Clearly, it left an impression.

Years from now I believe Sparhawk students will remember not only Rainbow Jeopardy, but also touching a lobster and going inside a giant whale to learn about those animals, making their own spiral galaxy and making up their own bee dance to have a partner find a particular flower with the best nectar.  I believe they’ll remember the sense of community and family they shared during our theme time. And perhaps a seed or two will be planted that finds fertile ground and inspires a lifelong interest.