Imagine learning about today's endangered species during a history lesson on Columbus. Or imagine learning about the dietary habits of mice during math class.
Sound confusing? Students and teachers at Hillcrest School don't think so. In fact, they say it makes learning a lot more fun.
As part of a $202,000 grant to develop an innovative school, Hillcrest has been experimenting a lot with "thematic units," in which a topic is selected and then covered in all areas of the curriculum.
Since the start of school four weeks ago, Helen Tuley's fifth-grade class has been studying Christopher Columbus, but the subject hasn't been confined to the class's social studies or history lessons.
For instance, study of the explorer can spill over into science. Columbus used the stars to guide his travels, so Tuley's students are developing a huge map of the sky showing the positions of the constellations. The thematic unit also looks at water density and restrictions on how much mass a boat can carry.
FIFTH-GRADER Anne Buhler said the class continued to study Columbus as part of their English lesson.
"We did paragraphs on Columbus with the librarian and learned how to put those together," Anne said.
Tuley said that during his sea travels, Columbus encountered manatees.
"He called them sea monsters. Now the manatee is an endangered species, and we tied the lesson into that," she said.
The class also has been doing a thematic unit on insects, and the students have been growing their own mealy worms. Next week, the class will wrap up the two units with a rather unique home economics lesson: They'll fry the worms they've been growing, and they'll eat squid like Columbus did during his travels.
Tuley said thematic units help prepare students for the real world, where they will be required to put a variety of skills to use in solving a particular problem or doing their jobs.
"IF YOU integrate the topic through all the subjects, it shows you the importance of reading, writing, math and science," Tuley said. "We do a lot of cooperative learning where children have to work together, and that's real life also."
Tuley also includes a lot of hands-on activities in her lessons: The students have created model boats, model honeycombs and three-dimensional models of insects.
"What I think it does is make education exciting. It makes kids want to come to school," Tuley said.
Other teachers are using thematic units as well.
Second-grade teacher Kathy Davis is doing a thematic unit on mice, and in conjunction with the unit the class has a pet rat. A pertinent math problem: If the class's pet rat eats a certain amount of cheese a day, how much cheese will the class need for the entire week?
The class of second-grade teacher Coyla Ezell just finished a unit on bears. Some students did reports on certain types of bears and created maps showing the parts of the world where they live.
SECOND-GRADER Mary Beth Moddrell said she learned quite a bit about bears.
"They hibernate in the winter, and they eat a lot of fish," she said.
And as part of a celebration culminating the unit, Mary Beth and a few of her classmates performed a short play Thursday for other Hillcrest classes. Other students performed skits and read poems about bears.
Hillcrest librarian Donna Decedue, a member of the school's thematic education committee, has been impressed by the effectiveness of thematic units.
"It really gets the kids excited," she said. "It's a more fun way to learn when you can solve a problem in a context."
Tuley added that the district's educational objectives can be met at the same time.
"I know what the district goals are, and my children will get all of the district goals by the end of the year," Tuley said.