Thematic Learning in the Lower School

Exploring the All-School Fall Theme

Thematic education has been an integral and exciting part of the Lower School experience for close to 50 years. Each year, a fall theme is chosen by the Lower School faculty and eagerly anticipated by students. It’s followed by grade-level themes in the spring semester. A fundamental teaching practice in Friends’ Central’s early grades, it lays the foundation for an engagement with learning that carries through into Middle and Upper School. 

What is Thematic Learning and How Did It Start?

A holistic approach that unifies disciplines around a central theme, thematic learning plays an essential and ever-evolving role in bringing learning to life. Thematic learning at Friends’ Central Lower School began in the 1970s. Charlotte DeCosta, Lower School Principal at the time, wanted to establish a curricular approach that would unify the community. Quakerism was the very first thematic project. It’s a testament to the power of thematic learning that it continues on to this day, dynamic and ever-changing each year. This year’s all-school theme is Cities, and we spoke with several teachers across the Lower School grades – one of whom also shares her perspective as a former Lower School student – to explore thematic learning in action and discover what makes it so effective. 

Inspiring Creativity and Deeper Learning

For their study of Cities, the two FCS Kindergarten classes took on different aspects of New York, with KA students of Tanya Johnson Muse ’02 exploring Harlem and Kristi Kallam’s KB students learning about the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan. “It’s nice that both Kindergarten classes are focused on New York but studying different things,” said Tanya. “We like to have interactions between the Kindergarten classes so that they can share with each other what they are learning. It ensures our kids are really absorbing the information and becoming true experts in what they are learning.” 

Tanya’s class took a deep dive into the Harlem Renaissance. “We learned about Langston Hughes. We learned about the Savoy Ballroom, one of the first integrated clubs in the US,” she said. “We learned how to do the Charleston, the dance that was popular at that time. We learned about Ella Fitzgerald. I have a Harlem playlist, so the kiddos are singing Ella Fitzgerald all day, listening to Fats Waller, and hearing Langston Hughes recite his poems.” 

KA’s A Train

Tanya’s class also learned about New York’s A train, which was the only way to get to Harlem in the 1920s via public transport. They listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington’s song about taking the A train and made their very own A train, hanging in the classroom, as a series of images featuring a student’s face in each window. They built their own model of Harlem from the 1920s – currently on display in the Light Lab – using recycled materials sent in from home. For the model, Tanya shared, “each child constructed a part of the street, and we have the Hudson River, and a train station; one kiddo created a park, one created a parking lot. We even built a small airport, because it’s our own version of Harlem. Shane (Glover, KA assistant teacher) and I are making an Apollo Theater; the goal is to have each KA kiddo on stage in the theater, with Shane and me in the audience watching them perform.”

KA’s Harlem Model

“We learned about the Tree of Hope, which was the center of Harlem and was cut down to make room to enlarge the city,” said Tanya. “The stump of the Tree of Hope is in the Apollo Theater, where the tradition is to rub it for good luck.” As part of their model of Harlem, KA reconstructed the Tree of Life using lego and the Light Lab’s 3-D printer. 

Kristi Kallam’s KB students explored Manhattan, a topic she has covered several times in previous years and one that she particularly enjoys revisiting, she shared, as it grows and changes each time. “We always begin the unit with the Statue of Liberty,” Kristi said. “We learned that it was a gift from France. This year’s class wanted to know everything about the Statue of Liberty. They were really passionate about it. We read some books. We investigated why the statue is greenish-blue, doing some experiments with pennies (from before 1983 when pennies contained actual copper) to observe the change from copper to green.”  

Kristi and students at work on KB’s Brooklyn Bridge model

The class also studied the Brooklyn Bridge, and the teachers constructed a suspension bridge in the classroom, with input from the students. “The bridge project, which I’ve presented in the past elsewhere, to other school districts, always has a ‘wow’ factor in that it gets five and six year-olds to grasp the concept of a suspension bridge,” Kristi said. When she first devised the bridge project a number of years ago, Kristi was inspired by the book Twenty-one Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince (based on the true story of P.T. Barnum leading 21 elephants in 1884 across the newly built bridge to demonstrate its strength). She hand-made a stuffed elephant for each student to “walk” across the bridge. The students will take home their personal elephant at the end of the project.Students in KB also built their own model of the city using recycled objects. Through their study of some Manhattan artists, Kristi and Sofia Seidel, KB’s Assistant teacher and an FCS alum from the Class of 2013, decided to introduce students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (‘the Met’), the first time Kristi has taught this within her Manhattan unit. KB held their own pop-up Met exhibition (see photos here), which allowed for some collaboration with other grades visiting the exhibition. 

Also as part of their Cities project, Kristi and Sofia reached out to FCS alums to invite those who lived in major cities to send postcards to the students. The response so far has been tremendous, shared Kristi, and they expanded it to include members of students’ families – aunts, uncles – and former faculty members who had moved away. “We invited them to share a fun fact about their city,” Kristi said. “We plot where they are on our map. And then we hang up the postcards.” Several alums, who were former students of Kristi’s, inspired by their own memories of Kindergarten and fall themes, even sent in video messages for KB (Abby Donnenfeld ’20 video). Watch KB’s video below which highlights many of the great things they learned about NYC.

KB’s culminating movie, highlighting many of the great things they learned about NYC

Building a Bridge Between Home and School

“Thematic teaching and learning is a constant bridge between home and school,” explained Tanya. You’re teaching kiddos facts; kiddos are going home saying, ‘Did you know..?’ and sparking conversations at home, and it comes back to school – ‘Miss Muse, my mom didn’t know that…’ Three KA students were so enthusiastic that they have already made a visit to Harlem and brought back souvenirs to hang up in the classroom!”

“Thematic teaching and learning is a constant bridge between home and school. You’re teaching kiddos facts; kiddos are going home saying, ‘Did you know..?’ and sparking conversations at home, and it comes back to school.”

Tanya Johnson Muse ’02, Kindergarten teacher

Kristi Kallam has had similar experiences with several KB students. “One of our students went to New York City in mid-December, solely based on our studies. We have pictures of her standing in front of the Met (see photos here). She made a connection in the Met in the India wing, she read that the statues there were shipped to the Met in pieces, and she made a connection to the Statue of Liberty, which she’d learned was also shipped to the US in boxes.” 

Another of Kristi’s students also took a trip to New York City and insisted that the visit photos (see photos here) were sent to her teachers. “Everywhere we would go she would say, ‘Take a picture and send it to school.’ We were impressed with all the facts she knew about the Statue of Liberty,” shared her parents. 

Exploring Native Cultures and the Origins of Cities

First grade teacher Jessica Magin shared the work that her students have been engaged in around the theme of Cities. “1A students have been exploring what it means to live in a city,” she said. “We began our journey by learning about indigenous people – specifically the Lenni Lenape – and the origins of how a city is born. Next, we pondered how people get in and out of the city. We explored all forms of transportation and created some of our own in the Light Lab using a variety of materials. Soon after, we invited family members to share with the class cities they visited, work in, and that are special to them. We learned about Barcelona, Saltzburg, Septa Transportation, and a small town in Australia named Yackandandah. We engaged in conversations with Member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Donna Bullock about who makes the laws, why they are important, and how they get passed. We spoke about laws we already know about and the ones we would like to see happen. These discussions pair nicely with our current lessons on Civil Rights.” 

Students in 1A at work building their city

“We have been taking what we learn about these cities to create our own sculptures, homes, and green spaces inspired by the cities we have been introduced to from our greater 1A community,” Jessica said.  “Students have been collecting recyclables to help create city structures. We are currently at the stage of seeing all our hard work come together as we build our city. We participated in a voting process to determine the name of the city. Each child submitted a name, and we eventually narrowed down the name to Black Panther City. Teacher Brie has been helping us identify which essential businesses we are missing in our city. We are currently in the process of creating a book about Black Panther City and the many characteristics of and happenings in our city.” (Click here to see photos of 1A at work on their Cities projects, and click here to see 1A’s culminating Cities project book.)

Learning Empathy Through the Lens of the Fall Theme  

“We’re doing some really exciting things in fifth grade around thematic learning,” shared fifth-grade teacher Sue Clough. “With the theme of Cities, we decided that we wanted to focus on food insecurity; we wanted to target a problem in the city and then walk ourselves through the design thinking process with the kids to have them come up with a solution or relevant service project.”

“With the theme of Cities, we decided that we wanted to focus on food insecurity; we wanted to target a problem in the city and then walk ourselves through the design thinking process with the kids to have them come up with a solution or relevant service project.”

Sue Clough, fifth-grade teacher

Design thinking is a four-step process that fifth-grade teacher Christie Kapothanasis used in the previous year for a project on refugees, Sue shared. Step one is building empathy through a thorough exposure to the topic. “We read plenty of books, we talked, and we watched videos of kids that don’t have enough to eat telling their stories,” she explained. “We asked kids to reflect on how it makes them feel, to have those who haven’t experienced food insecurity understand what it’s like from the perspective of someone who has. Part of that is also having interviews with experts who are on the ground working to help alleviate food insecurity as well as people who are exposed to it.” 

The interviews have included Sue’s daughter, Jaime, an FCS alum from the Class of 2010 who, as a teacher in Baltimore and in Philadelphia, has seen firsthand students and their families struggling with food insecurity. The fifth graders spoke to her over Zoom to hear what effect it has on kids when they don’t have enough to eat. Another interview was with Candace Matthews from Philabundance who runs a cooking school to help prepare people for food service jobs and also helps to run the Philabundance pantry. Prior to each interview, the students spend time in Maker Ed developing interview questions specific to each interviewee’s background and knowledge. The teachers also spoke to FCS trustee Chinwe Onyekere ’94, Director of Equity and Inclusion at HealthSpark Foundation, (whose mission is “to invest in nonprofit organizations, networks, and coalitions promoting a more just and healthy community.”) and passed on what they learned from her to the students.    

“The fifth graders are learning about food deserts – What is a food desert, and why are food deserts linked to obesity? –  to help build empathy,” shared Sue. “We’re going to look at where the grocery stores are in Philadelphia, and where they are not; trying to help students understand that, for many people, it’s not just a matter of accessing food, it’s also a matter of accessing healthy food. Why do people eat at McDonalds so much? Because you can feed a family of four for around $10, right? It’s not healthy, but it fills stomachs.” 

“We’re trying to break down the stereotypes and help our kids get a rounded, deep understanding of the issue. And we’re also looking at what’s already being done – some organizations that are helping already, including No Child Going Hungry, Philabundance, the shelters, and the urban gardens that are planted. We’re trying to help students see that there are people who are helping, so that it’s not hopeless, and to have them ask the question, ‘What can we do?’”  

“The kids will take all of this information and research that they’ve done and bring it together, and we’ll brainstorm some kind of a service project to address food insecurity in some way. This is the second stage of the design thinking process. It may be a food drive that they run; it may be an event that they use to raise money to donate to an organization. The students will come up with the project and will run it, as the third stage of design thinking. And then we debrief at the end of it, which is the final stage of the process.”

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is build responsibility into our kids from a social justice perspective. You’re not going to solve the problem necessarily, but you’re approaching it from a place of understanding and empathy. How as a human can I help another human?”

Generating Natural Contexts for Learning

“Our math program is all about context, so it fits beautifully with this, because the theme creates a context,” said Sue Clough. “We just finished our unit on decimals, for example, so now we’re working with budgets and money, and students are practicing all the skills that we just finished. I’m about to start a math project where students are given a minimum wage salary. This is what you’d make in a month if you were on minimum wage. These are all the expenses that come with living in Philadelphia – taxes, rent – and this is what you have left to spend on food. Here are grocery store flyers from all over the city. You’ve now got $50 to feed a family of four. And how do you do that? Sue Borrero, FCS Technology Integration Specialist, is coming in to teach students how to use a spreadsheet and how to enter numbers so they can come up with the budget. And then we’re going to make some hard decisions about what you give up, if that’s all the money you have. We look at SNAP benefits – What does it cover? What does it not cover?” It’s mathematics skills applied to a context that is also designed to build empathy.

“We learned that the Statue of Liberty has 354 stairs to the crown. We took a math excursion and went and counted all the stairs in the Lower School.”

Kristi Kallam, Kindergarten teacher

In the younger grades, the contexts for learning that the theme generates may be more basic, but they are equally powerful teaching tools. In their study of the Statue of Liberty, Kindergarten students in Kristi Kallam’s class used the physical spaces around them to understand numbers and scale. “We learned that the Statue of Liberty has 354 stairs to the crown. We took a math excursion and went and counted all the stairs in the Lower School,” shared Kristi.We realized that there are 337 stairs that are accessible to KB students and compared that to the 354 in the Statue of Liberty. We mapped out a room to understand how big her eye is in real life to compare and contrast with the size of our own eyes.”  

Building Community Through Collaboration

KB assistant teacher Sofia Seidel ’13 shared how much she appreciates working as a team with Kristi Kallam. “Our creative ideas really bounce off each other. And it really triangulates with the students’ interests, too. We’re all feeding off of each other,” Sofia said.

“What’s so amazing about the thematic project is that it really sets people up for collaboration.”

Sofia Seidel ’13, KB assistant teacher

“What’s so amazing about the thematic project is that it really sets people up for collaboration,” she continued. “It sets up collaboration between teachers, and it sets us up for collaboration with our students. Everyone brings their own background and their own knowledge and interests to the theme. Cities as a theme is broad, and we’re all coming at it from our own angle. It also breeds collaboration amongst the classes and amongst the different grades. When KB had our Met art exhibit, other classes visited, and they wrote us cards. It’s an opportunity at every level for the whole School to participate. I loved that as a student myself. I remember it being the most exciting thing to visit other classrooms.” 

Stop motion animation made by KB artists as part of their Cities study, inspired by the story Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Friends’ Central Lower School’s fall theme generates natural contexts that truly bring learning to life. It builds collaboration and strengthens community within the Lower School, and it creates a natural bridge between home and school, as students engage with the theme outside the classroom with their families. It inspires creativity and ignites the passion of teachers, who are challenged each year to find exciting approaches to each theme. And it gives students an opportunity to discover their own interests and passions. Evolving and changing with each new year, thematic learning is destined to hold onto its place as a cornerstone of the Lower School experience.

Why Is Thematic Learning So Effective? A Teacher Perspective

“I think there are two main reasons why thematic learning is effective. One is the community-building aspect; there’s a real sense among faculty that there’s a community that’s all working on it together. The other reason, for me, is that, when you can take a topic and you can learn about that topic from so many different angles and perspectives, the learning is so much deeper – science is involved, maker ed is involved, math is involved, literacy’s involved – and so the picture that students are getting of this topic is incredibly well rounded.” 
– Sue Clough, fifth-grade teacher

“I love thematic learning and teaching. When you can get passionate and excited about something, then your students are going to be equally passionate. The more you teach them, the more they absorb that information and become experts, and the more research you then have to do as a teacher. They start researching at home. I love that connection.”
– Tanya Muse, Kindergarten teacher 

“There are many reasons why I love teaching thematically. First, as an educator, it allows me to grow each year professionally because I’m not teaching the same theme each fall. It also allows me to share a passion, and when a teacher shares passionately, it truly becomes contagious. My excitement leaks into the daily lessons and adds energy to the classroom community which usually leads to making the students more curious and gets them excited to go to school each day.”
– Kristi Kallam, Kindergarten teacher

 “We have one student who loves the Statue of Liberty; another student who loves designing the city and the particulars of making everything look realistic. These very specific interests are allowed to blossom within thematic learning. I remember feeling that as a student. I loved fabricating stalls and products for a market in our 4th grade unit on Ellis Island and immigration. I remember weaving, beading, and sewing in 2nd and 3rd grade units on early American dwellers and settlers. Through different themes, my instinct towards making was kindled, and now as a teacher, I get to witness my student’s instincts and interests take shape through themes.”
Sofia Seidel ’13, Kindergarten assistant teacher 

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