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Yearlong Themes Spur Learning and Fun!
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In this weeks Voice of Experience column, educator Cindy Farnum shares her thoughts about using a yearlong theme to motivate students and create fun in the classroom. She shares a bunch of ideas from her plant-astic plant theme and seeks your help with her latest theme idea. Included: A page of curriculum-wide plant connections!


Each year, I create a theme and use it in my classroom all year long. In years past Ive used themes such as Celebrate the Millennium, Dogs, and Heroes. This school year Ive chosen endangered animals as my theme.

Before I go any farther, I ought to explain that I use a theme for a handful of reasons. Yearly themes can help create an environment that fosters a love of learning and engages students in countless cross-curricular activities. I look for themes that satisfy students natural curiosities and lend themselves to fun activities that make students more aware of themselves and their surroundings. A theme can be a great way to ease into the year too; it can motivate students and get them working together cooperatively on projects that help you get to know them and their skills. Themes often lend themselves to lively bulletin boards and engaged discussions too. Clearly, the yearlong theme doesn't connect to everything we do in the classroom, but its surprising how many times during the year students point out that what were doing connects to the theme. Students also will share information, stories in the news, and experiences that tie to the theme.

My favorite theme, however, was plants. Would it be too corny to say that the year I used that theme was a plant-astic year? To demonstrate how a theme can add life to a classroom and motivate students, I'd like to share a handful of the activities I used during plant year.

A PLANT-ASTIC THEME! The plant theme helped us get the year off to a great start. I introduced the first activity, which combined a goal-setting activity with creating a classroom bulletin board, during the opening days of school.

On the first day of school, I took digital pictures of every student. That night I printed the pictures and cut out each students face. I attached each face to the center of a daisy pattern cut from different colored construction paper, and then displayed each daisy on a classroom bulletin board. I attached to each daisy a foot of green ribbon to create a stem. I used green construction paper to create a bottom border of grass. (Easter basket grass would also work.) The following day, students were excited at the sight of their personalized flowers!

I capitalized on the students excitement by starting a discussion about the importance of setting personal goals. Then I handed out eight leaf patterns to each student and asked students write a yearlong goal on each leaf. We attached the leaves to the flower stems and talked about which goals were short-term goals and which were long-term. Then I added an Our Goals Help Us Grow banner to the top of the bulletin board. That bulletin board was an excellent icebreaker at open house. Parents were thrilled to see the goals their children had set!

Add Your "Voice"!
Have you seen these Voice of Experience columns from previous weeks?
* In Classroom, Computers Often Yield More Glitz Than Guts
* School Uniform Rules Conceal Students' Unique Identities (Not!)
* Weighted Grading Can Work
* Teachers As Writers: Have You Been Thinking About Publishing Your Best Lessons?

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Throughout the year, I use mind mapping (based on research done by Tony Buzan) as a tool for brainstorming, memory enhancement, planning, and note taking. Basically, mind mapping uses color, size, dimension, visual images, and humor to trigger the right side of the brain.

More information about how to mind map is available on the Mind Mapping FAQ Web page.

The year I used plants as a theme I decided that a flower would be the perfect symbol to use to introduce mind mapping to students. I drew a colorful flower in the center of a poster board and wrote the word Needs on it. I asked students, Do plants have special needs? Students responded with a list of the basic things plants need to sustain life (water, sunlight, shade, and so on). Then I asked students, Are we at all like plants in this way? They all replied yes and gave some examples of things we could not live without.

I explained to students that mind mapping uses colorful images, symbols, and words to help them to remember and to organize their thoughts. The flower would be a symbol for us. I used Tony Buzan s Wheel of Life Mind Map as a framework for a mind map about our needs (family, social, community, financial, health, and so on). I continued to model mind mapping using other colorful images tied to students comments, fun arrows and lines, bold print, and key words. Then I put away the poster and asked students to take out a sheet of paper and write down as much as they could remember about our discussion of human needs. Students began writing away!

That activity was a great way to prove to students that mind mapping -- with its vivid and often humorous illustrations -- does help them remember things they might not otherwise remember. We used mind mapping off and on throughout the year -- and it all stemmed from our plant theme!


Plants make a great theme because it is a topic that links easily to every area of the curriculum. Click here for a handful of ideas for linking plants to your language arts, science, social studies, mathematics, and art curricula!

Cindy Farnum teaches sixth grade at St. Johns Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. She is also the coordinator and webmaster of a non-profit organization for military spouses, The Key Volunteer Network. Cindy has taught in the Chicago Public Schools, in Virginia, and in Department of Defense State Side Schools (DDESS).