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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Themes of Discovery

Built around such themes as nature, cooking, and community involvement, after-school programs help students make powerful connections and ask big questions.

Each year, elementary school students spend a large percentage of their waking hours outside of school. Out-of-school programs are essential, therefore, to expose all children to a range of experiences that are developmentally appropriate, academically enriching, and physically engaging.
As creators of curriculum and resource packages for groups of children to use in their out-of-school time, we believe in a theme-based approach to learning. A theme-based approach to after-school programs can enrich and expand children's out-of-school time. Successful theme-based programs are guided by four principles: Students explore the content from several subject areas and relate the content to a central theme; establish connections among content areas; engage in authentic, deep, and experiential activities; and are assessed in meaningful ways.

Theme Content

In theme-based programs, students explore a concept through many lenses. After-school environments are perfect settings for such explorations because students can return to a subject and study it through a variety of activities over a long period of time.
For example, a group in Charlotte, North Carolina, devised a nature walk for their nature theme. The staff and students brainstormed three appropriate activities for the nature walk: One group sketched plants, trees, and moss in their field journals; another group recorded the sounds of nature; and a third group gathered pH samples from pond water. The group with the sketches compared its drawings to book illustrations and determined the names and origins of several plants and trees indigenous to their surroundings. The group that recorded sounds listened to professional recordings from nature CDs and discerned two distinct birdcalls. Students from the third group estimated the acid levels of the pond water samples.
Each activity led to further inquiry. The group that sketched plants and trees noticed that some plants appeared to be almost dead, whereas others were strong and full of life. The students researched the life cycles of two different kinds of plants and translated their research into a series of illustrations, labeling the various parts of each plant and noting its approximate life span. The group used visual and artistic skills, acquired new vocabulary words, compared and contrasted two kinds of plants, and documented changes and growth in nature.
The group that recorded the bird sounds became intrigued with the creatures making those sounds. Members used encyclopedias and the Internet to locate pictures of the birds. With the pictures as a guide, a smaller group created three-dimensional papier-mâché replicas of the birds and constructed a tree for the birds to rest on. Another small group created several bird feeders out of soda bottles and milk cartons and built cob and cone feeders and a storm shelter for the birds. The students also determined the most popular kind of birdseed and illustrated their findings on a pie chart.
Another small group, wanting to capture both the sound and physical appearance of the birds, decided to make a nature video with the help of an adult and a borrowed video camera. The activity was not without its challenges, however. After several trips to the woods, the students were unable to capture a range of birds, but they did discover a lively population of squirrels and chipmunks. Changing the focus of their video to squirrels and chipmunks, students took notes while one young person filmed. When they returned to the center, the group wrote a script entitled "A Day in the Life of a Squirrel" and added the words and music to the video. Students and staff watched the completed video, asking questions and giving feedback.
The group that collected the pond water samples developed an interest in acid rain. Students were concerned with the local water quality and its effect on the environment. Over time, they collected a series of 10 rain samples and measured the pH value of each. They entered their data into a computer program and created a bar chart.

Content Connections

A well-defined, theme-based program allows students to connect ideas, concepts, and experiences. We needn't associate a nature theme, for example, only with science. The students who sketched plant and tree life linked art, science, and language arts. They appreciated the beauty of nature and acquired new vocabulary words while investigating the science of the cycle of life. Had they simply opened a book and studied plant life, their experience might not have been as engaging.
Building bridges across content areas also gives students a context in which to apply the skills that they acquire at school. They are more likely to understand why they are learning fractions and percents in math class, for instance, when they need those skills to calculate changes in pond samples over several days.
A group from Champaign, Illinois, chose the theme "Cooking from Many Kitchens." Excited to share their families' foods and recipes, the students soon realized that food preparation required an understanding of addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and fractions. Their recipe for Indian flatbread, for example, did not make enough bread for the entire group, so they doubled the recipe, working through each ingredient's measurements to make certain that the proportions were correct.
Mathematics was a key area in the cooking theme, but social studies also played a role. Students brought in recipes that reflected their cultural identities. Each time they introduced a new recipe, the group discussed the history of the food and its relationship to culture and geography. Students found each recipe's place of origin on a world map, placing a pin on each location so that the map reflected the cultures of the group.
Students also learned new vocabulary words with each recipe, as well as new preparation techniques, such as sifting flour, separating eggs, and pinching salt. The theme also emphasized nutrition and healthy eating; although not all of the recipes were nutritious, the group created a game in which students competed to see who could create the most nutritious version of each recipe.

Authentic Experiences

An after-school program in Sacramento, California, chose the theme "Community Unity" because of its connection to service learning. Over a six-month period, theme activities included planting and maintaining a community garden, starting a recycling program at the after-school center, performing skits at a nearby hospital, and volunteering during a local political campaign. To share their activities with the broader community, the children created a newsletter and distributed it at local supermarkets, houses of worship, libraries, and the town hall.
Participating in a single, isolated activity would have benefitted students, but layering many different community experiences created a greater depth of understanding. When students volunteered during the political campaign, they needed to grasp the political process, ask questions, and understand the issues; when they planted the community garden, they needed accurate design sketches, a knowledge of how to use gardening tools and supplies safely, an understanding of plants and soil, and a serious commitment to maintain the garden over time; and when they performed skits at a hospital, they had to cooperate with one another and commit to a number of rehearsals.
The monthly newsletter included stories and pictures of their experiences, as well as the achievements and concerns of other groups who lived and worked in the community. Article topics included the importance of recycling in the community, a history of the two political candidates with a summary of their positions, and a photographic essay of the hospital skits.
The community theme challenged students' critical thinking skills. They began to ask the big questions: Why is this happening? Who can make a difference? How can I help? The older members of the group, who were already developing their beliefs and had deep concerns for fairness, began to rethink their positions on topics and to act on their beliefs.

Student Assessment

Theme-based programming is most successful when staff members listen, observe, and acknowledge the experiences that excite and motivate the students. To be true to the mission, staff must take into account diverse areas when they evaluate students to reflect the range of activities.
For example, the staff in the "Community Unity" program looked at the newsletter to assess the groups' writing abilities, literacy skills, and vocabulary. Staff members evaluated children's mathematics concepts through their plans for the community garden and evaluated knowledge of civic issues and the democratic process through the political campaign effort. They recognized students' artistic and performance skills through the newsletter graphics and photographs and measured the students' participation levels in the hospital skits.
All students are involved in some aspect of the theme and are encouraged to try new things. Because students choose activities that interest them, staff should have a range of methods to assess them. Some examples include student journals, anecdotal records, staff observations, checklists, theme goals, pre- and postassessments of the content, and group discussions.

Supporting Concepts

A number of essential concepts play a significant role in successful theme-based learning.


  • What do you know a lot about?
  • What kinds of people, animals, or places would you like to know more about? Why?
  • In what places in the community do you like to do things? Why?
  • What kinds of materials, equipment, experiences, or tools interest you?
  • What is your favorite topic or theme to pursue out of school? Why?
  • What could you bring to the program to make this theme more exciting?
  • What types of posters, resources, and materials should we collect?
  • What kinds of hobbies and interests could you share with our members?
  • How will you share those interests with students?
  • What strategies would help you implement the activities on a specific theme?
  • What sports or recreational interests do you have?
  • What interests did you have as a young person?
  • What strengths could you add to a theme-based program?
Find a strong match between staff members and theme-based program needs.

Physical Space

The clubhouse. By transforming any space into a clubhouse, students are more likely to engage in theme activities, make decisions, and feel a sense of ownership. Students can kick off the theme in the clubhouse with decorations, props, T-shirts, slogans or songs, or a theme logo.
Each time the theme changes, the clubhouse changes. For example, students in Rochester, New Hampshire, chose the theme of magic. They transformed a clubhouse into a magician's stage, complete with curtains and props. Members designed posters promoting magic shows, created a magic table, painted life-size playing cards, made props and magic hats for shows, painted scarves, and designed magic word searches. When they completed the magic theme, students chose the theme "Water Worlds." They removed the magic props and decorated the clubhouse with a three-dimensional fish mural and fish netting with buoys, shells, driftwood, and seaweed.
The pressroom. Staff can complement the clubhouse with a pressroom. In the "Community Unity" theme's pressroom, for example, members interviewed people from their community, wrote stories, performed newscasts, hung maps, and organized a resource and technology center. The pressroom also provided an effective way to measure and evaluate the depth of the students' understanding.

Communication with Parents

Staff should send letters home to inform parents about how to support the theme and to suggest interesting places where families can learn more about the theme, such as field trips to local museums and historical societies, 4-H events, and community concerts and fairs. Libraries will also have information.
The students who focused on cooking, for example, found that communication was especially relevant. Staff members sent home a series of notes to keep parents informed, request information, describe the goals and activities, and ask for family recipes. The staff also sent e-mails to parents asking for field trip ideas and for volunteers to chaperone events.

The Culminating Event

Staging a culminating event allows students to share and reflect on what they have learned. The event could be an art show, a performance, a community day, or an open-house night. Field trips or outings to local museums and parks are also fun.
The nature group hosted a parents' night. The group transformed its center into a natural world by dividing the space into three areas: the plant life cycle section, the bird territory, and the acid rain area. Members displayed their drawings, posters, charts and graphs, papier-mâché birds, bird feeders, and videos. They prepared natural snacks and shared information about their projects and the natural environment.
"Cooking from Many Kitchens" yielded a spectacular Creative Cooking Carnival. Members designed invitations and invited parents and teachers for an afternoon of food and fun. They selected and prepared several recipes and served them on large platters with colorful napkins. Music played in the background as people sampled each dish.
The "Community Unity" group organized a community garden party, for which students designed invitations on recycled paper, prepared light refreshments, mingled with members of the community, distributed copies of the newsletter, and photographed the event.

Homework Support

More and more after-school programs provide academic support for students, and theme-based programs can address academic issues through a homework assistance center. By setting up a comfortable yet structured environment, educators ensure that students will have a place to work on homework assignments; to find tutors, aides, and peer support; and to create learning games and activities. Homework assignments can often coincide with the program's theme.
After-school programs that join homework support with theme-based programs are instrumental in motivating students to learn. This integration, however, requires constant communication between teachers and staff. Both groups must stay informed about the complementary concepts, ideas, and skills.
An after-school program in Chicago chose the theme "Gads of Games." Members reinforced mathematic concepts when they played time-telling, money, and currency games; used metric tools and digital clocks; sang rap songs from an audiotape about math concepts; and read money magazines. They explored scientific principals when they experimented with chemistry, weather, electricity, solar energy, and electromagnetic kits. More than 90 percent of the students increased their grade levels in reading. These types of fun, hands-on activities helped participants become independent learners as they developed strategies to find answers for themselves.

Program Evaluation

Increasingly, educators are required to evaluate the effectiveness of their after-school programs, particularly because program accountability and documentation are necessary to obtain federal, state, and local funds. Many programs have systems for evaluation and improvement, although strategies and expectations differ on the basis of community needs and funding requirements.
After-school programs have a variety of expected outcomes: to improve students' attitudes toward school, to reinforce basic academic skills, to foster a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, to improve test scores and grades, to increase engagement in school activities, to improve school attendance, to increase parental involvement, and to create an environment that prevents delinquent behavior and supports students, parents, families, and communities.
Educators may collect evaluation data using a variety of assessment tools. Pre- and postactivity assessments measure students' growth in mathematics, reading, language arts, science, and social studies, as well as problem solving, independent learning, critical thinking, leadership, organizational and presentation skills, and computer and Internet literacy. Assessment tools include anecdotal observations; standardized test scores; school attendance; teacher communications about homework, motivation, behavior, and academic performance; and student portfolios that include projects, photographs, videos, and a range of the students' work. Some groups develop structured self-assessment tools.
Independent evaluators can also assess programs and, in some instances, are an essential part of the evaluation. Staff members can present assessment information and analysis to families, school personnel, community and political leaders, and funding sources to demonstrate the successes, needs, and trends of the program.

Thematically Successful

Quality after-school programs must balance a number of important variables. Centers depend on caring, qualified staff members and communication with parents, families, schools, and the community. Safe, clean, and healthy physical environments, balanced staff-student ratios, and strong administrative leadership are also essential.
Theme-based programming can provide authentic, meaningful experiences that relate directly to students' lives. Students must be active participants, however, and must have their say. They vote with their feet—so challenge them to invest their ideas and engage their minds in the time they spend outside of school.

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