Create a Standards-Based Integrated Performance Assessment Unit Step-by-Step

Step 2: Select a Theme and Essential Question

Research shows that the brain learns and recalls learning through nonlinear patterns that emphasize connections and relationships. The brain’s desire to make connections and build relationships is one reason why thematic instruction increases student achievement (Beane, 1997; Kovalik & Olsen, 1994). The more teachers make connections and patterns and relationships explicit and accessible for students, the easier it will be for the brain to integrate and retain new information (Hart, 1983).

Authenticity is another important consideration in the selection of a theme and essential question. In selecting a theme, it is important that the theme allow learners to demonstrate their communication skills and knowledge in real-world situations. A well-chosen theme and essential question prompts the learner to investigate worthwhile topics in depth. The learner reads, listens to, views a variety of resources to learn more about the theme, searching for possible answers to the essential question guiding the unit. Learners can then come together to share their findings, ask more questions, and create oral and written presentations based on what they have learned. Giving learners the freedom to explore aspects of the theme that are interesting to them makes the learning personally relevant, increasing motivation and learning (Willis, 1995).

Thematic Planning

Questions for Thought Icon
Before watching the video


Think about how you choose a theme to serve as the "glue" that holds the unit together. What influences your choice of a unit theme: the textbook, a school-wide theme, student interests, interdisciplinary connections? Write your ideas in the space below:

Play Video Icon
As you watch the video


In this videoclip, the teachers will discuss the themes they selected for their standards-based integrated performance assessment unit.

Take notes in the box below the video in response to the following questions about the themes that the teachers selected:

  • What reasons do the teachers give for choosing their themes?
  • Are the themes valuable for understanding the target cultures and for building communication skills?
  • Do the themes represent real-world topics?
  • Are the themes age-appropriate?

 

What reasons did the teachers give for choosing their themes?

  • Feng-Yi Wang is responsible for reinforcing and, in some cases, teaching the Social Studies curriculum for third grade. She aligned her theme with the Geography Standards for grade 3.
  • Dayna Laber chose her theme based on middle school students' interest in what living in another part of the world is like. In this case she chose shopping at an open market.
  • Anna Olivero-Agney and Cristina Cocchi selected Italian cinema because of its importance in Italian culture.

Are the themes valuable for understanding the target cultures and for building communication skills?
The themes selected broaden the students' knowledge and understanding of the cultural products and practices of the countries where the languages they are learning are spoken. Through the use of images and videos related to the themes, students can use their skills of observation to ask and respond to questions, describe, give opinions about what they observe.

Do the themes represent real-world topics?
Yes, in all cases, the themes reflect the real world: geography, shopping, movies.

Are the themes age-appropriate?
Yes. The geography theme matches the grade 3 curriculum. Middle schoolers are curious about life in other parts of the world. Going to the movies is a popular pastime for young adults.


Type Your Response icon
After watching the video


Now try to identify a theme that you would like to use in developing your own standards-based integrated performance assessment unit. Consider the following questions that Dr. Helena Curtain asks teachers to consider when selecting a theme:

  • Is the theme cognitively engaging?
  • Is the theme intrinsically interesting?
  • Is the theme culturally connected?

Also consider this fourth question that Paul Sandrock and Donna Clementi added to Dr. Curtain's list:

  • Is the theme communicatively purposeful?

Once you have identified a theme, think about why the theme is worth pursuing. Referring to the questions posed by Curtain, Sandrock, and Clementi, write down your reasons for selecting the theme you have chosen.

Curtain, Sandrock, and Clementi suggest that a theme should be cognitively engaging, intrinsically interesting, culturally connected, and communicatively purposeful. Share the responses you wrote about your theme selection with a colleague and determine if your explanations are valid. Brainstorm with your colleague how you might introduce the theme to your students to build interest.

Clementi offers this definition of content for the world language classroom which could be useful in helping parents, colleagues, administrators understand the value of the theme you selected:

World language teachers need to carefully consider the content choices they make in order to maximize the opportunities for meaningful communication. Content represents important topics and ideas that help students understand the world in which they live and who they are. It helps students respond to important questions about their own culture and other cultures, questions that extend learning beyond the classroom.


Essential Question

Now let’s consider how the theme you selected can be connected to an essential question. Connecting the theme to an essential question is a concept based on the work of Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design Expanded, 2nd Edition (2005). For world language educators, an essential question encourages learning to go beyond the memorization of vocabulary and manipulation of language structures. Donna Clementi shares the following goals for world language classroom instruction:

Preparing students for meaningful interactions with people around the world, helping them understand their own culture, and preparing them to be explorers: being curious, asking questions, being open to sharing new experiences and new ideas, ultimately with the goal of creating networks of collaboration to address the problems facing today’s world.

An essential question related to the unit theme challenges students to search for possible answers, to reflect on the various dimensions of the theme, to discuss their findings with others, to share insights and perspectives, to make judgments, to think critically about the theme and how it helps them understand other people as well as themselves. In this videoclip, listen as the teachers discuss the essential questions that the learners will explore during the unit.


Play Video Icon
As you watch the video


Take notes on the essential question that is posed for a group of middle schoolers, and the essential question that university students explore.

 

Essential question for middle schoolers: How do I ask for what I want or need?
The teacher could have simply modeled the appropriate question for the students and given them several situations where they practiced asking the question. However, she tied the question to the Hispanic cultural practice of bargaining in a market. Being able to ask one simple question was no longer sufficient because of the cultural context. The ability to bargain successfully sometimes helps determine the difference between “want” and “need”.

Essential question for university students: How do movies reflect society?
The Italian instructors considered the age and language level and past instructional units of their students when they designed a unit about Italian cinema. They encouraged the students to reflect on a second related question: How are Italian comedies used as a coping mechanism to deal with difficulties or problems in society? In prior courses the students had studied Italian history which prepared them to examine Italy after World War II through the lens of its cinema. How do these questions elevate the discussions related to Italian cinema?

Hearing the teachers discuss the questions they chose to guide their units highlighted how the addition of an essential question to the theme encourages deeper exploration of the theme. It also serves as springboard to exploring resources related to the theme that could be useful in formulating possible responses to the important question.


Type Your Response icon
After watching the video


Below you will see a list of possible themes on the left and essential questions on the right. Try to match each theme to a question. Depending on your instructional goals, a question may be appropriate for more than one theme, and one theme may trigger more than one question.

    Themes
  •   1. Daily routines
  •   2. School
  •   3. Calendar
  •   4. Clothing
  •   5. Food
  •   6. Art
  •   7. Houses
  •   8. Famous people
  •   9. Leisure activities
  • 10. Cities
    Essential Questions
  • A. How does clothing tell a story?
  • B. What makes a city a good place to live?
  • C. Who is a hero?
  • D. How much space do I need to live?
  • E. How does what I do define who I am?
  • F. Why can't all children go to school?
  • G. How does art reflect time and place?
  • H. How balanced is my lifestyle?
  • I. How much free time/vacation do I need?
  • J. What is hunger?

As you review these suggested answers, note that more than one question was connected to certain themes. Consider how a theme can be changed by the selection of an important question.

    Themes
  •   1. Daily routines
  •   2. School
  •   3. Calendar
  •   4. Clothing
  •   5. Food
  •   6. Art
  •   7. Houses
  •   8. Famous people
  •   9. Leisure activities
  • 10. Cities
    Important Questions
  • A. How does clothing tell a story?
  • B. What makes a city a good place to live?
  • C. Who is a hero?
  • D. How much space do I need to live?
  • E. How does what I do define who I am?
  • F. Why can't all children go to school?
  • G. How does art reflect time and place?
  • H. How balanced is my lifestyle?
  • I. How much free time/vacation do I need?
  • J. What is hunger?

After you complete the matching activity, reflect on the choices you made. Perhaps you connected a question to a theme that was not suggested. That is fine as long as you know how you would guide your students in their exploration of the theme and essential question. As learners become comfortable with the concept of an essential question, you may suggest a theme and let them brainstorm possible questions to explore. The class can then vote on the question for the unit or, you may choose to let students explore a variety of questions individually or in small groups.

 

CARLA Mailing List Signup Contact CARLA CARLA Events Donate to CARLA CARLA on Facebook CARLA on YouTube
Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) • 140 University International Center • 331 - 17th Ave SE • Minneapolis, MN 55414