From the National Middle School Association
Because of these convictions, we believe the following conditions should be evident:
  • all areas of knowledge and skill are viewed as important and are integrated throughout the student's school experience
  • students explore integrated themes which engage them in serious and rigorous study
  • curriculum is developed by careful and continuing study of students, social trends and issues, and research-supported school practices
  • flexible learning groups are based upon students' needs and interests
  • active collaborative, self-directed learning is used
  • a variety of educational materials, resources, and instructional strategies are used
  • staff development promotes and supports developmentally responsive practices
  • the staff is organized in ways that encourage ongoing collaboration
  • all staff help plan and participate in long-term professional growth opportunities
Because of these convictions, we believe the following conditions should be phased out:
  • the curriculum consists of separate subjects and skills taught and tested in isolation from one another
  • content is judged to be more important than the process by which it is learned
  • students are labeled and tracked into rigid ability groups
  • lecturing, rote learning, and drill are used excessively
  • textbooks and worksheets dominate
  • faculty is organized by departments
  • staff development efforts are short term and non-productive
From: NMSA Middle level Curriculum: A Work in Progress: http://www.nmsa.org/AboutNMSA/PositionStatements/MiddleLevelCurriculum/tabid/288/Default.aspx

From the blurb at the Harris County Library: Improving Elementary Student Engagement in the Learning Process through Integrated Thematic Instruction. . By: Brooks, Sandra R.; Freiburger, Susan M.; Grotheer, Debra R.. 1998 77 pp. (ED421274)
This action research project devised and implemented an intervention for increasing student engagement in the learning process. The targeted population consisted of elementary students in an urban area in north central Illinois. The problem of non-engaged learning was documented by means of observation of class participation, a student attitude survey, and assessments of student academic performance. Analysis of probable cause data revealed that deficits in motivation and thinking skills contributed to non-engaged learning, as well as current teaching strategies that may not provide opportunities for student ownership. A review of solution strategies resulted in an intervention focusing on a thematic integrated unit, student assignment choices, and problem solving. Post-intervention data indicated that targeted students demonstrated marked improvements in remaining on task and following directions. Students became more aware of their responsibilities as learners and members of a group. This was evidenced by their enthusiasm for selecting their assignment choices and integrating the problem-solving model in their learning. (Five appendices include sample student survey, observational checklist, and the thematic integrated unit. Contains 34 references.)

From: http://www.nmsa.org/Publications/MiddleSchoolJournal/Articles/May2005/Article2/tabid/122/Default.aspx
An article about parents, teachers, admin all getting together to do standards-based thematic units to crate a coherent approach that brought about higher student engagement, and parental enthusiasm. They started with Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, realizing that the more traditional approach leaves out several of those intelligences. They looked at their strengths - racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity and their music and drama programs. They then use Jensen and Sylwester's brain research to support an arts component integrated into the core curriculum.

"Ultimately, district stakeholders envisioned a middle level program that would:
  • apply Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
  • include the arts as a cornerstone
  • transfer current middle level educational research and theory into practice
  • involve community partnerships
  • employ integrated thematic units
  • authentically assess student learning
  • create teams for program planning and implementation
  • choose from a variety of appropriate teaching models
  • provide professional development opportunities.
The thematic units would integrate content from the core academic areas and extensively use four arts areas to support learning. The state content standards and benchmarks in language arts, social studies, science, and math—integrated with the national standards in arts for music, creative movement, visual arts, and drama—would be the starting point for planning. The selected standards would be clearly referenced. Student outcomes would be measured by:
  • rubric assessment by students and teacher
  • teacher-made tests
  • personal reflection by the students
  • national norm-referenced tests.
After much discussion and refining of vision, we presented our plan to the Board of Education as a new district program for middle level students that would incorporate a broad range of educational goals."

"The final unit design was a tapestry of interwoven learning experiences, using all eight of the intelligences to provide an array of situations in which students had the opportunity to learn required content. All students would participate in a culminating event that demonstrated their understanding and mastery of the concepts studied. In the case of the "Exploring the Universe" unit, the culminating event involved multiple simulations of scientific concepts related to space travel and research. For example, students engaged in a simulated docking of the Hubble space telescope without using verbal communication. After a loss of visual orientation, they charted their course with a compass. Appropriately attired and by responding to "virtual" technological prompts to solve problems of working and living in space, they experienced some of the rigors of life in space."

"At the end of the year, standardized test results showed encouraging improvement, especially from students with the poorest test records. On the Stanford Achievement Test, a national norm-referenced test, students' achievement scores rose by 15% in reading and 18% in math, compared to the previous school year. Our assessment results were consistent with the research on the benefits of integrating multiple intelligences into curriculum design. The Project on Schools Using Multiple Intelligences Theory (SUMIT) was a three-year investigation of schools using multiple intelligences. For this investigation, educators at 41 schools were asked about how multiple intelligences were implemented in their schools and also about their schools' general make-up with regard to organization, curriculum, and assessment practices. Twenty of the 41 schools had improved standardized test scores, 22 had improvements in discipline, and 25 had improvement with parent participation (Harvard Project Zero, 2000).
The arts-integrated program pilot was a success, and plans were made to expand the program into the newly restructured middle school. Our experience in designing and implementing a program that integrates the arts with the core academic curriculum demonstrates that it is possible to energize teachers to provide instruction that engages students, keeps them excited, and keeps them learning. We had come together to dream of a better way to educate our middle level students and discovered that dreams really can come true."

This success story shows the reasoning behind integrating topics around unifying themes.