Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Theme-Based Learning Environment in an ECSE Classroom

As many of you who have visited our classroom know, we are a theme-based learning environment.  I use relevant themes, seasons, and holidays as the foundation of my classroom instruction.  Each theme can run anywhere from a week to three weeks.  Most of our themes are the typical preschool themes.  

I try to teach in themes that are relevant to our students and of their interests.  I change up what themes we study from year to year depending on student, family and staff interests.  For example, one year we had a parent who worked at Pizza Hut so I created a unit about pizza.  We ended the unit with a field trip to Pizza Hut. Yet another year I had a group of boys very interested in trains so we did a train unit, complete with building and painting a cardboard train for our pretend play center.

That said, we do have certain themes, like holidays, seasons, dental health, and fire safety, that are covered every year.  So the big question is "How do I store all of this?!".  Well luckily, we have a large unfinished room in the basement of our home where my husband has graciously built heavy-duty shelving.  

It's nothing special...just heavy duty shelves from Home Depot.  On them I use large Sterlite containers from Wal-Mart to store each theme.  Some are big and some are small depending on the theme and materials I have accumulated. 

Please know this is an accumulation over 11 years.  For those of you who are just starting out, there was a time when I simply had four bins (one per season) in the top of my closet.  Since that time I have "garage saled", received donations, and inherited lots of things from one of the most amazing preschool teachers ever, Louise Younger.  (I worked at her preschool during college and attribute so much of my success to her.  She taught me so much!!)    

My mom and mother-in-law are also a big help.  When shopping for our boys, they often pick up items here and there for my students.  My mom has been known to buy things for the boys and say, "I figured when the boys out grow it you can take it to school."  I love you, Mom!  You are the most generous person I know!
Here is a pic of all my theme tubs.

I store them in sequential order based on what we study throughout the year.  My current school year themes are as follows:  Bears, Zoo, Friendship, Safety, Transportation, Fire Safety, Apples, Forest, Leaves and Scarecrows, Halloween and Pumpkins, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Gingerbread, Winter and Polar Animals, Dental Health, Nutrition, Valentines, Dr. Seuss, Dinosaurs, Spring and Gardening, Farm, Bugs, Weather and Earth Day, United States and Careers and Community Helpers.  When I first started out, I got a lot of my ideas for each theme from Mailbox Magazine, Makinglearningfun.com and KidsSoup. 

Also on my shelves are tubs for random materials related to each subject area.  For example, I have a large tub full of math things, science things, and literacy things.  Ideally, these tubs would be stored in the classroom as I access them often. However due to storage limitations, they are at home.  I am always lugging things to and from school...but I guess that just comes with the job! :)  

That being said, I always have the tub for the theme we are currently studying and possibly the theme we are getting ready to study at school for easy access.  This makes it nice so as I am planning everything is at school and I am able to put it back in the tub as we finish that theme.  (Refer to my classroom organization post for more details about my classroom storage.) 

The tubs are actually stored here...

Yep, that's right...the staff bathroom!  When I moved to my new classroom two years ago, storage was definitely an issue.  We had two large handicap accessible bathrooms so I decide to use one as a staff bathroom with a little area for storage and one as a student bathroom. 

Tub Storage Under the Staff Bathroom Sink
The student bathroom is also labeled.

At first I was a little nervous about this setup because I feared I may be confusing our students by not having both girl's and boy's restrooms.  But then I realized that most of our students need support with restrooming anyway and only one of the two bathrooms is equipped with a changing table and child-sized steps to reach the sink. Therefore, it made perfect sense to have a staff bathroom and student bathroom.  In hindsight, I wouldn’t want it any other way.  The staff bathroom is a nice, clean place for staff to keep their personal belongings and on occasion it has served as an area for me and our school psychologist or other personnel to meet briefly and confidentially.  A little odd I know, but we do what we have to do!  My staff often jokes that it is our ‘office’!  :)
Okay enough with the little side note, now let's move back to my basement storage.  I also have a tub full of fabric and two large tubs full of Conscious Discipline materials and other materials I like to train my staff with.  Then to the right of that, I have a smaller shelf that holds all of my children’s books.  

The books are grouped by theme moving from the beginning of the year to the end with a few random themes interspersed. 

Lastly on top of my book shelf, I have recently added two tubs that store past visuals, schedules, social narratives and other items that have worked for our students. 

The purpose is easy access to share them at presentations, these posts, and to search through them when I get stumped.  Sort of like a toolbox of techniques that I can look through to reenergize my brain and come up with the best strategy for a specific student.

So there you have it folks...an inside look at my theme-based storage and unfinished basement.  Next week, we can look at Doug’s golf storage on the other side of the unfinished room.  Just kidding!!  Instead, I will be sharing organizational tips that make our home run smooth and help my boys, including my husband, be responsible for their belongings! :)


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