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Theme-based Approach to English Language Arts

High school student smiles and points to a passage in a book.
Ripley, '23, enjoys reading in English Class.

When I got to Wye River, I was encouraged to take a theme-based approach to curriculum development. It was new, but I embraced the challenge. In the four-plus years I have been here, I have seen its benefits. Exploring a theme through literary and informational texts helps students develop independent thinking skills. Reading informational texts helps students expand their vocabulary and develop the critical thinking skills needed to succeed beyond high school.

Writing within a theme allows students to hone a variety of creative, critical, and research writing skills. For example: the theme for sophomore year is: Magic. The creative writing possibilities seem clear, but critical analysis or research? My goal for this group, at a very important age in the development of their understanding of the world, is to help them move beyond the rigid ways of thought defined by scientific inquiry to a more expansive understanding of the possibilities in realms that science has yet to explain. We read several non-fiction sources that expand the possibilities of conventional belief. For example, in “How Whales Converse with the World,” the writer explores an ethno-anthropological approach to animals communicating with humans. The article details a right whale that appears to an Inuit tribal leader and directs him to alter the traditional hunting season by several weeks. The change results in better harvests and a rebounding whale population. The interdependence of the Inuit and the whales only partly explains how this communication was possible.

In grade 11, we are exploring Truth. Using literature like The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. In this book about the Vietnam War, O’Brien considers many issues of truth and how to tell if a story is true. He further explores the possibilities of fiction being truer than truth. He calls this “story truth.” These concepts launch our yearlong exploration of “post-truth” and its effect on society’s ability to agree on a common understanding of reality. The capstone project for this class is a research paper. Students read and research post-truth throughout the year. In the process they hone research skills and expository writing skills needed for college and crucial to judging for themselves what is true.

In grade 12, we explore “the Immigrant Experience.” Using literature from slave and indentured servant narratives to contemporary works by immigrant and first generation writers we explore the making of America and the development of our unique American literary voice. The American voice continues to diversify, yet remains distinctly American. Our novel is The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez, a child of a Panamanian immigrant. She masterfully weaves a tale of Spanish speaking immigrants who share an apartment building in Newark, Del. Through their life stories and challenges to assimilate she depicts the very human motivations that bring immigrants to America. Using reports on immigration compiled by non-profit research groups and news articles students follow the current immigration debate and form their own opinions about the role immigrants have and continue to play in American society.

Theme based curriculum helps students connect themes throughout fiction and nonfiction. They develop a better understanding of literature and its ability to expand our thinking around larger ideas that ultimately help us navigate our world, while appreciating the beauty, humor and humanity around us.


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