Upend Convention to Construct Thematic Units


By Heather Clydesdale

“We still seem to be taking our first steps in the field of Chinese language, in terms of sophisticated integration of content,” observes Chris Livaccari, director of education and Chinese language initiatives at Asia Society. "It’s a priority for the field, and it’s an exciting time to dive into thematic units.”

Creating thematic units is a challenge for many teachers, but the results are worth the effort. Yu-Lan Lin, senior program director of world languages of Boston Public Schools, explains: “Traditional language teaching is hierarchical, whereas a thematic approach is circular and connected. It reflects the human mind.”

At the heart of the thematic unit is an enduring understanding, an unchanging concept that is derived from standards and essential for students to know. Carol Chen-Lin, head Chinese language teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, characterizes an enduring understanding (commonly referred to as an “EU”) as being broad and deep, and demanding higher-level thinking. With it, she explains, “You uncover something new. It represents a big idea that has value beyond the classroom.”

For instance: “While the essence of tradition remains constant, the practice of it changes over time.” This EU is a lens for interpreting the world. It provokes curiosity about the familiar as well as the novel, and can be wielded by students to investigate the inner mechanisms of culture.

Enduring understandings are supported by essential questions that both encapsulate what is important to do and know, and engage students’ own perspectives, experiences, and imagination. For instance, Lin says if the EU, “Everybody has a responsibility to make this world a better place,” can be supported by the essential question: “What is my role in bettering the earth?”

Once the enduring understanding and essential questions are conceived, teachers may prepare performance assessments to evaluate students’ mastery of key content and skills. Chen-Lin distinguishes these from tests: “In an assessment, students learn. It shows what they can do.”

Assessments may be formative—quick and frequent checks—or summative, tying everything together. For the former, holistic rubrics, general impressions to gauge accuracy, and content, are sufficient; but the latter require analytic rubrics that clarify what will be measured (for instance: comprehensibility, creativity, pronunciation, relevance, syntax, fluency, and mechanics). Teachers should explain the rubrics to students before the assessment.

Lucy Lee, a teacher at Livingston High School in New Jersey, cites how her students interpreted and synthesized their learning through summative assessments. One student, working on a unit centered on the responsibility of people to the environment, wrote new Chinese lyrics encouraging sustainable practices, and performed these to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land.” Another created a Facebook page for the May Fourth writer Hu Shi to sum up a literary unit.

Lin recommends referring to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) performance guidelines to calibrate assessments for language levels. For example, novice learners might track temperature fluctuations, while advanced students generate and present solutions for protecting the environment.

Only after an enduring understanding, essential questions, and assessments are formulated, should teachers design activities and stock them with grammatical patterns, appropriate vocabulary, and pertinent cultural information, all of which should intuitively flow from the theme.

The magic of thematic units is that teachers can collaborate and articulate learning from year to year, deepening a single enduring understanding and increasing the complexity of language surrounding it. Thematic units moreover can and should be connected to one another.

Lin also serves as executive director of the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools (CLASS). She, Chen-Lin and Lee, are all part of the CLASS Curriculum Development Team that is creating a series of thematic units, which will eventually be available to CLASS members via their website. They admit that crafting thematic units is not straightforward. “It’s an ongoing process,” Lee explains, but one that is rewarding. “Students see the purpose of thematic units, and in the end they can talk about something meaningful to their life.”