16 March 2009

The Creation of a Theme Unit

For the next two weeks, we'll be doing a unit on birds and I thought I would document the process of what I do to put together a unit study.

1. Choose a topic

I chose all my topics at the beginning of the year which allows me plenty of time to collect ideas. I wrote more about choosing a topic here.

2. Make a concept map

I have a spiral notebook that I use to keep track of ideas for theme units. At the beginning of the year I gave each topic a page and as I think of things or come across ideas, I write it down. I do take some time at the beginning of the year and go through all the topics I plan to cover and just write down as many things as I can come up with. They may or may not be relevant, but I'd rather write it down and not use the idea than wonder, "What was that great idea I had last night?" (which happens quite a bit, too!)

The concept map is not complete ideas, but really just a page of word associations with that topic. Although if I do have a specific idea, I'll jot it down as well, so I won't forget. Here's on that I made for this unit:

3. Find good literature

I start with any relevant titles that I can think of, especially from our own book collection. I plan on using these books from our collection:

  • Make Way for Ducklings (McCloskey)

  • The Ugly Duckling (Andersen)

  • Stellaluna (Cannen) (Mostly about bats, but also about birds)

The California Department of Education (CDE) website has a helpful list of recommended literature. This list is obviously not comprehensive, but it is a good starting point. The list does have a search category, but I prefer to go through the entire list for the appropriate grade level and look for books for all my themes all at once. I will keep my list of themes next to me (because I will forget some!) and refer to it as I look at the literature list. Additional information, including a summary of the book, is available by clicking on the title if I am not sure of its subject.

Here's what I wrote down from the CDE list (grades K-2):

  • The Ugly Duckling(Anderson)

  • Baby Bird's First Nest(Asch)

  • Beautiful Blackbird(Ashley)

  • Urban Roosts(Bash)

  • Chick and Duckling(Gingsburg)

  • Ducks Don't Get Wet(Goldin)

  • Bluebird Summer(Hopkinson)

  • Song of the Swallows(Politi)

  • Dancers in the Garden(Ryder)

  • Birdsong(Wood)
My final stop is a search of our local library's online catalog. I'll start by searching for the books I found on CDE's website. Then I'll do a general search for my topic. When I find a book I want, or even think I want, I'll put a hold on the book. this is the key for me. By putting a hold on the book, the library will find it, even it's at another branch, bring it to my library, and put it on a shelf for me with my name on it. This way, I can walk in, pick up my personalized pile of books (and sometimes movies), check them out, and be done in 5 minutes in the most calm and peaceful manner, no matter what kind of mood my kids are in.

When I look at the library website I can see from reviews and summaries that some books are more fitting than others, and some books are just not available. Here are the books I ended up taking home with me:

  • Urban Roosts(Bash)

  • Birdsong(Wood)

  • Ducks Don't Get Wet(Goldin)
  • Song of the Swallows(Politi)
  • Dancers in the Garden(Ryder)

  • A Poet's Bird Garden(Montenegro)

  • Bird, Bird, Bird! (A Chirping Chant) (Sayre)

  • Feathers for Lunch (Ehlert)

  • Bird (Eyewitness Book)

  • Bird(Eyewitness DVD)

4. Find other resources

As I go about the Internet I often run across a good idea or activity on a topic I'll be covering, so I'll save it to my Favorites file. I organize my Favorites by theme , so when it comes time for that unit, I can go to my favorites list and have several ideas ready and waiting for me.

I also use Netflix for appropriate movies. Instead of searching my theme topic (i.e. birds) I seem to find more relevant movies by going through the entire educational section. I use a method similar to how I use the CDE's list of recommended literature. This does take time, but I only do it once or twice a year. At the beginning of the year or semester I go through the list of educational movies and add the ones I want for all my themes to my queue. When the appropriate theme comes up, I'll bump it to the top of my list. All that to say, I didn't really find any relevant movies on birds through Netflix.

Lastly, don't forget to check for resources you may have at home. We have binoculars, an owl pellet dissection kit and the book Birds, Nests, and Eggs from our charter school curriculum. We may or may not be able to check out a box of bird resources from the local library, so I have not included any of those resources in my plans.

5. Choose activities, lessons, field trips, learning opportunities

On of the reasons I chose this theme was our amazing local resources. The San Bernardino County Museum has on of the largest collection of bird eggs in the world, as well an extensive collections of birds. We also have a local bird farm which we'll be visiting for the first time.

I also wanted to get out do some real birdwatching in our National Forest, so I saved this for the spring, when the weather would be a little more cooperative for us.

6. Create main learning topics

I do this last because I want to prevent being disappointed if a certain book or resource is unavailable. I don't want to plan two days dissecting owl pellets if the owl pellets haven't arrived yet!

First I wrote out a rough schedule with the main topic or activity to be covered each day of our two week unit:

1 day eggs
1 day field trip to museum
1 day field trip to Bracken bird farm
1 day habitats
1 day bird beak adaptations
1 day predator/prey & owl pellets
1 day nests
1 day migration
1 day field trip to birdwatching
1 day Bible story

7. Create a schedule

Next I'll put days in order, putting things in logical order and working around set field trip days.

Monday: habitats
Tuesday: eggs
Wednesday: field trip to the museum
Thursday: nests
Friday: Bible story
Monday: field trip to Bracken bird farm
Tuesday: migration
Wednesday: bird beak adaptations
Thursday: predator/prey and owl pellets
Friday: bird watching

Finally I'll list the books and activities that go along with the topic of each day.

Monday: habitats

  • Read Birdsong and begin Urban Roosts.
  • Make categories of different bird habitats and list a few that belong in each category. For example flamingos and pelicans are water birds, penguins are arctic birds, and macaws and parrots are tropical birds.

Tuesday: eggs

  • Finish Urban Roosts and refer to Birds Nests, Eggs.
  • Make the egg book and talk about differences in eggs from various birds.
  • Break open and egg and discuss the parts of the egg. Draw a picture and label the parts in science journal.

Wednesday: field trip to the museum

  • scavenger hunt for certain birds, eggs, and nests at the museum.
  • Draw picture of student's favorite nest in science journal.

Thursday: nests

  • Read more Birds, Nests, and Eggs.
  • Discuss bird nests seen at the museum and nest drawing in science journal.
  • Make a nest.

Friday: Bible story

Monday: field trip to Bracken bird farm and feathers (I added feathers as an afterthought on this day because I didn't have a better place for it.)

  • Collect feathers on the ground at the Bird Farm.
  • Read Ducks Don't Get Wet.
  • Feather & oil experiment
  • Feather painting. Use a feather as a paint brush for interesting patterns.

Tuesday: migration

  • Read Song of the Swallows or Make Way for Ducklings.
  • Look at the migration route of different birds on a map. Find routes here.
  • Have student write or dictate a simple story about a migrating bird and what he saw. You can follow this pattern or create your own.
A swallow was flying to his summer home. First, he
saw__________. Then, he saw _________. Next, he saw
___________. Then he was home.

Wednesday: bird beak adaptations

  • Birds (Eyewitness).
  • Do one of the bird beak activities listed above.

Thursday: predator/prey and owl pellets

  • Read Feathers for Lunch.
  • Define predator and prey and examples of bird predators (owls, hawks, eagles) and their prey (mice, small birds, snakes).
  • Dissect owl pellets and glue recreated skeleton with the bones onto construction paper.

Friday: bird watching

Finally I'll check to see if anything is lacking. Are we doing something from each subject (reading, writing, math, social studies, science, PE?) I don't always have lessons for each subject, but I try to be fairly balanced. In this case I added the story frame to migration day. We really don't have PE, but we'll be doing some walking when we go birdwatching. This theme is obviously very heavy on science, which is just fine.

There's a few books that I didn't find a specific place for during our lessons, but I'll leave them out, and they'll probably get read. If not, that's okay, too. I like to over plan and have an abundance of books on a subject so that my kids are immersed in a topic. I don't want them to close the books when we're done with school and forget about until the next day.

This plan is NOT set in stone. I definitely like to capitalize upon teachable moments, but having a plan is a good way to keep me on track. It does take some work to make your own theme unit, but it's also a lot of fun and a great way to personalize your child's education!


  1. Thanks for such a complete description of your planning process!

  2. Such a great post! I've been so scatterbrained lately -- I needed to read something like this to get back on track.

  3. I used to do unit study lesson planning in a similar way, but kind of backward. I usually started with a favorite fictional book and went from there.

    I've gotten away from unit studies, my daughter and I both miss them. I think we'll do them throughout the summer.

  4. Beth, you've done a fantastic job on this how-to post. I'm going to bookmark this one! Especially good for newbies.