The Philadelphia School uses a thematic approach to learning, enabling students to experience the interrelatedness of disciplines and to see how these disciplines apply to their world.

What Is a Theme?

A theme is a concept or topic around which learning and teaching are structured during a period of time ranging from several weeks to a year. It is the "glue" that holds the discourse of learning together.

The use of themes to provide the focus of learning gives purpose and meaning to the educational experience. An effort is made to connect children's concerns and experiences to broader issues and concepts. Although theme classes may, from time to time, have little to do with areas traditionally regarded as social studies, most themes are comparable to the topics studied in social studies classes in other schools and involve history, geography, anthropology, and current events. 

Our thematic approach is organized according to

  • big ideas or concepts,
  • specific content or questions,
  • data collection, and
  • academic and social skill building. 

Core concepts around which we build content include cultural change, cooperation, interdependence, causality, and differences. They thread their way through the topics on successive grade levels.

  • Our youngest learners explore topics they can see and touch through in-depth studies of their families, school, neighborhoods, and the City of Philadelphia.
  • A foundational look at the history of the United States is the focus in third grade
  • Fourth and fifth graders go further back in time and study ancient Greece and China.
  • Looking through the lens of cultural interdependence, sixth graders' year-long study of Africa bridges the ancient and modern worlds and focuses on rites of passage.
  • In seventh grade, the thematic curricular journey continues with the study of cultural interdependence launched by the Columbian Exchange in the late 15th century.
  • Eighth grade students conduct a deep investigation of constitutional issues in the United States, focusing specifically on civic ideals and practices of citizenship in a democratic society.  

All-School Theme

All-school theme is a common unit of study that unites the whole school as a community of learners. It is an organic, ever-changing part of the curriculum. We appreciate the opportunity to try out new ideas. Over the years, we have chosen many different kinds of themes, and we have experimented with a variety of structures regarding use of time and types of groupings.

The process of selecting an all-school theme usually begins in the spring of the previous year, when our rising eighth graders brainstorm possible themes. Students must take into account certain considerations: 

  • We try to vary the type of theme each year.
  • A key requirement for an all-school theme is that there be opportunities for cross-grade and interdisciplinary sharing. 
  • We try to make use of The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and our urban resources.
  • We try to connect this study with ongoing curricular and social concerns. 
  • Because we are an urban school, a Philadelphia school, we return to Philadelphia themes from time to time.

Student recommendations are presented to faculty and staff, who, after much discussion, members for the all-school theme that they feel best fits the needs and interests of the school community. All-school themes have included the Cosmos, Circa 1492, The Odyssey, the Forest, Fairy Tales, the Underground, Poetry, and City Hall. We invite you to read an alumna's perspective on all-school theme.