In Hui-Chen Hsiung’s third grade class at Jing Mei Elementary students gather for a story about a bakery, then disperse to different tasks where they are practicing vocabulary and writing around the theme of entrepreneurship, learn about starting their own business in social studies, and do math problems about the cost of supplies and profits. Meanwhile small groups take turns helping in the class garden, where they are growing vegetables that they will turn into dishes in their class café later this spring. This is thematic learning.
At Jing Mei Elementary instruction is delivered in thematic units like this one, connecting the various subjects of study like English, Chinese, math, science, social studies, and art.
“Students are exposed to a specific content area in multiple settings,” Principal Tina Bogucharova explained. “If they are learning about animal features in the science curriculum they will be able to write about it, read about it, sing about it, and solve math problems related to animals.”
When Jing Mei was founded the school leadership team opted for a thematic approach to help students in their language acquisition. It also allows for more creativity in lessons, capitalizing on teacher and student interests.
“Everything is interconnected,” Hsiung said.
Hsiung takes integration a step further with her third grade students, leveraging the use of laptops and digital resources to further engage students in lessons and allow them to have a differentiated experience, learning at their pace in the way that works best for each of them.
On a recent morning students used laptops to work on their choice of three language arts and social studies activities they were tasked with completing: practicing writing sentences in Mandarin, utilizing Google’s Cultural Institute to research art and write a story, and using Junyi Academy for additional Chinese language practice. Hsiung also gathered a small group of students to work with on math, and as they practiced working problems she moved through the room answering student questions and providing direction. When a student completes a task or needs a break from a subject, they can simply pick up working on one of the other options.
“I am a huge believer in personalized learning,” Hsiung said. “In the real world you have people learning through different approaches. What are we preparing our children for? Problem solving. Critical thinking. Learning independently. I am trying to promote that personalized learning so that they can go on to learn on their own.”
The district curriculum and Jing Mei’s thematic style, plus the resources provided by the technology department makes such teaching possible.
“My hope is for every student to have that personalized, hands-on learning in the traditional classroom,” Hsiung said. “I thought if everyone is doing something different it would be chaotic, but there has to be a way, so I jumped into technology.”
Working with Director of Instructional Technology Eric Ferguson, Hsiung was able to maximize her use of tech in the classroom.
Currently, each elementary class has a few in-classroom computers for students to share and each grade level shares a laptop cart. By the fall of 2020 the technology department plans to have completed rolling out one-to-one laptops to elementary students in grades 3-5 and two-to-one being for Kindergarten, first, and second grade students.
“This type of personalized and integrated learning allows us to adjust instruction on a kid-to-kid basis,” Bogucharova said. “Because technology is so fast and readily available nowadays, it’s really easy for teachers to find and push out tools.”
Giving students the freedom to work at their own level and speed allows each to get more out of the day’s lessons.
“They know they don’t have to wait or they don’t have to be rushed by someone and get nervous, frustrated, or stressed and deal with their emotions instead of learning,” Hsiung explained.
The technology also allows for teachers like Hsiung to provide a greater number and variety of resources and platforms – especially valuable in a dual language classroom where instruction takes place in two languages.
“It gives children an in-depth education,” Hsiung said.
There’s benefits for teachers, too. Using online learning platforms Hsiung can get instant feedback about a student’s performance and can dialogue with them about their work, seeing how long they spent on an activity, where they excelled, and where they were challenged. This allows her to tailor her teaching to each student and the broader trends within the class. In OneNote students can work together in the collaboration space and share ideas and resources.
“I use technology to help them engage,” Hsiung explained. “With OneNote I can do a lot of interactive, fun, and hands-on activities. It collaborative learning. My ultimate goal is that everybody can learn at their own pace to honor different types of learners.”