Creating a thematic unit for the first time is a big deal. It takes a long time, and it's hard to know if you're "doing it right." I found it very, very helpful to copy from the masters while I was still learning the process.
Before you begin, read the thoughtful questions in this post from the Creative Language Classroom about what makes a great unit. There's a lot to consider! You might also visit the website I created for my summer 2016 EDCO Course, Extreme Makeover: Designing Thematic Units for World Language. There are lots of rich links to explore there.
Study the masters. Look at some carefully designed existing units, such as Living in the City, Wellbeing, or Biodiversity (all by Terrill & Clementi). These women know what they're talking about when they plan units - they literally wrote the book on it (see left).
Next, choose a template that you'll use to create your unit. I initially wrote my thematic units with the ACTFL template, but currently prefer Helena Curtain's because it's a bit cleaner. Be sure to take advantage of the notes she added below the template itself, as they'll guide through each step of the process. If all those boxes stress you out, try Greg Duncan's no-fuss Backward Design template with just 3 big stages.
STEPS TO CREATE A THEMATIC UNIT
1. Identify your theme. Start with your topic, and then think about interesting connections to other disciplines... and to global challenges à la AP. This lets you go deeper, even with Novice students, which is super-exciting! For example, I took "food" and turned it into "food and world hunger" based on this unit. "Clothing and shopping" changes when you introduce trends abroad and/or sweatshops. You'll know you're onto something when you see that your student will actually learn new information in your unit, not just words for stuff they already know ("What color is your shirt?" "It's red, you fool!"). Another promising sign is if you're learning new information and accessing new authentic resources.
2. Find some essential questions. I say "find" and not "write" because these are challenging to come up with, and there are already plenty of good ones out there. Borrow until you can write your own! While your students may never dive into these questions directly, essential questions are important in my mind as aspirational goalposts for the teacher.
3. Dive into the standards. Use ACTFL's benchmarks to devise appropriate learning targets according to your students' proficiency level. These are really general, but you'll be able to get more specific later. Make sure you're addressing the three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.
4. Zoom in on specific Can-Dos for the unit. Take your targets from Step 3 and get specific. Stay focused on communication, though. When I looked back at my first attempt at writing a thematic unit, I had Can-Dos like "I can use the verb aller + à la/au to say where I am going." Now I'm working on communicative goals such as "I can ask for and give directions from one point to another within a city." Again, stay balanced by including Can-Dos in all three modes.
5. Now that you know what you're studying, you need to define where you're going. Before you choose any resources or write any lessons, you have to create your assessments. These will be the guideposts that will determine how you go about your teaching. I hadn't realized how closely Understanding by Design/Backward Planning is linked to thematic units when I first began, and I paid the price. If you start by choosing your cool authentic materials, and then later on try to create assessments, you'll end up with students who are unprepared or mis-prepared...and stressed and frustrated!
I know IPAs are all the rage these days, but I shy away from having all my summative assessments at once. If you teach 100+ students like I do, you may understand my hesitation. Instead I space out one summative interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational assessment for the unit.
6. Only now are you ready to identify major activities for the unit. Choose an engaging kick-off that will draw students into the theme right away. I find pop song videos and children's books are ideal hooks. Pace your unit so that neither you nor your students have too much to produce/assess at any one time. Keep checking back that you are chipping away at your Can-Dos with your activities. Will everything you're doing help students succeed on the summative assessments?
7. You're almost there, I promise! Finally we arrive at the place where old-school units began: vocabulary & grammar. When I first created my thematic units, I referred back to my textbook constantly to make sure I was keeping up with departmental scope and sequence. What I didn't realize, however, was that I'd really need to change my vocabulary lists to suit the authentic materials I'd culled for the unit. This is still a work-in-progress for me. You may find it helpful to draft an evolving vocabulary list as you teach, which can become your starting point next year.
8. Wrap things up by considering culture (products, practices, perspectives), content connections, and a juicy resource list of all the digital, print, and realia resources you'll use. If you're using authentic materials and thematic units, I promise that you'll have loads of information for this section of the template.