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Thematic, Integrated Unit Planning: Immersive Academics Harness Imagination

Katie Warden, Max Honch and Maddie Rawding – 4th/5th grade teaching team

The Dust Bowl – Balloons – Stories of Survival – Dakota Access Pipeline Protests – World Records – Athletic Endurance – Literary Classics – The Black Lives Matter Movement – Erosion – Monuments – Brain Elasticity

These seemingly disparate ideas are just a few that came from the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers’ beginning-of-the-year brainstorming session. What do they all have in common? Resilience: the year-long theme that will guide our curricular-content choices.

Many teaching teams at The Little School choose a thematic word to guide our integrated approach to academics. Past themes include voice, symbiosis and impact. Teachers choose words that harness the spirit of the age group. For fourth and fifth graders, there is a natural inclination toward conquering injustice and a transition from an ego-centric world view to one that is more empathetic, broad and inclusive; therefore, we choose words that will invite topics of environmental and social justice. There are always skills that we address each year: the writing process, multiplication strategies, the engineering process, anti-bullying strategies. These essential skills, and dozens more, are always part of what we do in the oldest classes, and our theme is the lens we use to approach the skills. Teaching thematic, integrated units allows the students’ needs and interests to guide our planning, provides teachers with a structure for collaboration using backwards design, and gives students an immersive experience which taps into their imaginations and creativity.


Fourth- and fifth-grade teachers’ brainstorm for last year’s voting and elections unit.


Once we have chosen our theme, we take a pause. It’s important that we meet the students, establish our class community and learn a bit about what interests them before moving further. One year, a class’ passion for the ancient world was the perfect foray into thematic studies; other years, students’ interest in the campus woods have provided the backdrop. Last year, with the theme impact as our guide and an election in our country, we created a unit around voting rights and voting justice. From the first day of school in 2020, students were talking about the election, whether asking questions or sharing opinions about our country’s leadership. We knew that a voting unit would give them greater context to understand the present state of our nation, as well as capture their imaginations and hopes for the world.

To begin planning this kind of unit, the teachers always start with a “yes” session. We gather in a room, put the unit topic at the center of the board and create a map that connects that topic to different subjects: math, social studies, literature, art, STEM and music all have an arm of the map. Then we generate as many ideas as possible from each subject. Maybe we could explore the psychology of voting ads? How about colors that represent the two main political parties? There are all kinds of math in poll data collection! Maybe we make a connection to the origins of democracy? We could all wear togas! Everything goes on the board, without judgement and without question. Often the ideas that seem the strangest in the moment (e.g., togas) are also the ideas we pursue in unit planning.


Voting and elections unit launch, where we wore togas and did a reader’s theater production of an ancient Greek election.


Once we feel confident that we have enough ideas to build a unit, we move into a process called “backwards design.” We determine the skills and knowledge needed to accomplish the end product first: perhaps a fictional story that the students write and illustrate, a presentation they give to peers or a website that they build. In the case of our elections unit, we knew that we wanted the students to organize an election, but we also knew that it had to be related to something authentic. Yes, a class pet naming election might have been exciting for a moment, but we wanted something that connected to the broader community. Assuming the answer would be “no,” we called our head of school, Julie Kalmus, to see if our students could name the new building, that had yet to open to anyone. Well, of course they said, “YES!” and with that affirmation, the project could really take shape. This election would be a legacy for our students to leave at the school for decades to come. It was an authentic goal for them to work towards, something that would spark passion and excitement in each of them.

Backwards Design for Voting and Elections Unit: Final Project – An Election to Name the New Building!

The final project would be completed in three teams:

  • The Get Out the Vote team would advertise the election and motivate people to vote.
  • The Learn About the Vote team would share information about the options on the ballot.
  • The Count the Vote team would count the ballots as they arrived.

For everyone to be prepared and to know which team they would like to work on, we needed them to have the following skills and knowledge.

Skills Knowledge
Non-fiction reading and research Voter suppression history
Discussion and debate skills Suffrage
Persuasive writing strategies Voting songs and history
Descriptive writing strategies Types of voting, including ranked choice
Organizational skills related to vote counting Poster design strategies


A student moderating the debate between class president candidates.


We worked as a teaching team to share the lesson planning for each strand, and students spent three weeks immersed in this information-gathering portion of the unit, gaining the knowledge and skills they needed to run their election. We saw their inspiration for the unit instantly, as students began incorporating the content and vocabulary into their play, of their own initiative. For example, the students arranged their own mock election, for a “class president,” complete with a debate, moderator and polls, and our building began filling with “Vote for Bobby!” and “Vote for Lucy!” posters. While this election was in good fun, we saw how much they were gaining from the unit in how they explored it through play.

After establishing their background knowledge, students worked in their three teams to execute the election and name the Rivers Building! The way that this kind of immersive learning captures the imagination of preadolescents is its most shining success. Tapping into their inclination to fantasy, roleplay and world building, while giving them authentic knowledge about democracy, history and justice alongside so many academic skills is the best of all things for children this age. This kind of thematic, integrated planning allows teachers to put students’ interests, big ideas, real-world experience and individual skill building needs at the forefront.

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