How to Design a Thematic Unit for "The Summer of the Swans" by Betsy Byars

How to Design a Thematic Unit for "The Summer of the Swans" by Betsy Byars
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  • Science

  • Social Studies

  • Language Arts

  • Math

  • Physical Education

  • Art

  • Music


This literature-based thematic unit will revolve around the Newbery award-winning novel The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars. The plot illustrates the story of fourteen-year-old Sara and how she is plagued by issues that kids her age normally fuss over–how different she is from everyone else, how everyone else seems to be so much better than her, and how her life has winded down to the level of boredom without knowing why. She makes a big deal out of these worries, until one day, her mentally handicapped brother goes missing. As she struggles to look for her dear brother, her thoughts keep her company and she realizes that there are so much more important things in life than just worrying about the mundane stuff.

This is a story that any young student can easily relate with since the issues of love, acceptance, and the power of sacrifice are all universal themes that everyone can empathize with. This is a novel that your students are sure to want to know more about.


The purpose of this unit is to introduce new concepts to students using familiar tools. These new concepts would be the geography and geometry of the novel’s setting, a scientific discussion behind being mentally handicapped and the symbolism successfully depicted by the mute swans, and how to monitor one’s own comprehension as s/he reads a literary text. In this thematic unit for The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars, students will also be exposed to the widely rampant issues of self-acceptance and the incredible power of family love. Students will also be made aware of the kinesthetic and artistic ways by which they can express their thoughts and emotions about the characters and events in the story.

Possible Titles:

Of Swans and “Silly” Brothers

Big Feet, Awkward Height, and a Lost Brother

Swans and Sacrifices

The Summer of the Swans

General Objectives:

1. The students will acquire a deeper understanding of the sacrifice, self-acceptance, and the power of love.

2. The students will acquire the necessary (a) cognitive skills to calculate land areas based on the geographic locations in the novel and (b) metacognitive skills to monitor their own understanding of the novel as they read through the story.

3. The students will express their own thoughts and feelings about the story elements using kinesthetic, artistic, and musical means.

Main Materials:

  • LCD projector
  • document camera
  • audio speakers
  • pictures of mute swans with profile description (to be flashed via SMART Board or PowerPoint)
  • maps of West Virginia, highlighting mountainous terrain
  • audiovisual presentations (video clips, 3-D animation) of brain damage caused by high fever)
  • SMART Board (if available, for Art output modeling and Math geometric images)
  • colored paper and scissors (for Art mosaic)


1. Activate your students' prior knowledge and build schema by first introducing them to four things: (a) types of swans (b) the mountainous terrain of West Virginia and (c) brain damage and its effects and (d) (re)orienting them to the feeling of feeling different, left out, alone, and unaccepted. To do these, use audiovisual presentations and maps for the anatomical and geographic part, and a literary circle discussion that will allow them to open up about how it feels to always think that they are different and hideous.

2. Read the novel, making sure that all the necessary vocabulary words are unlocked. While they are reading the novel, teach the students the practice of metacognition (thinking about thinking) and how this helps in their monitoring of their own understanding of the novel. When they use metacognition, they (a) plan strategies and purposes for reading before the actual reading (b) monitor understanding and confusion while reading and (c) evaluate how they understand the text after reading. A link is given below to aid you in the main concepts to discuss in metacognition.

3. After reading the novel, process their comprehension by starting collaborative groups activities with the following tasks: (a) doctor-to-patient interview about brain damage and mental retardation (b) a digital (audiovisual) diary entry reading having Charlie as the author/speaker, with the assumption that everyone can now hear whatever Charlie is thinking (c) reading a letter from the future Sara to the present Sara, telling the latter how she doesn’t need to worry about the things that she is obsessing over now and (d) a live video feed from heaven, with Sara’s mom talking to Sara about Charlie–how beautiful and well-loved he is and should be.

4. Present videos of people dealing with mentally-handicapped loved ones and how special their lives have become because of their equally special relatives.

5. End the reflection part of your literary comprehension discussion by having them create appreciation note cards for each of their classmates. The notes should highlight what is special and unique about their classmate and why s/he should be proud of who s/he is.

Please see page 2 for further learning stages in the thematic unit for The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars.

Thematic Unit for The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars continued.

Descriptions of Other Lessons and Activities:

Science - Include a detailed discussion on the kinds of swans, especially what are called “mute swans,” the kind of swans found in the book. Mute swans are considered to be the most beautiful types of swans–so majestic even in their silence. Relate the grandeur of these swans to the beauty of Charlie, who is silent, too. Also, include under Science a simplified discussion on Charlie’s disability approached from a scientific/medical point of view. Present a number of videos and resources to which they can refer, to adequately understand how it is to have a mental disability.

Social Studies - Include a detailed discussion on geography: the mountainous terrain of West Virginia and the coal mines that greatly figured in the lives of those who live in the area. Discuss how the terrain dictated the sources of income and the economy of the area, and how the coal mines became an integral part in the lives of the people of West Virginia. Also, present the several mining accidents that happened in the area and relate these to what Aunt Willie in the novel experienced when she lost her loved ones to coal mine accidents before, making her the “nag” and “overprotective” aunt that she is in the novel.

Mathematics - Present a lesson on computing land areas, using geographic examples from the novel. Modify these land areas, though, by establishing a limit to only exact shapes like the circular, triangular, and square pieces of land.

PE - Teach and guide them in executing the proper breathing and limb exercises to prepare for a brisk walk. Initiate a recall among your students about the long walk–almost hike–that the main characters in the story did in relation to Charlie’s being lost and the people’s search for him.

Art - Using small, cut-out squares, make a mosaic of the pong with the beautiful mute swans. Model how to do this by using the document camera. Present a finished output using PowerPoint or SMART Board.

Music - Organize your class into presenting a choral singing (in two voices only) of a song on acceptance and loving someone for who they are. Allow the class to deliberate and choose the song that they like to perform best. You can also give them a set of options to choose from, based on the profile of students–their interests, likes, and dislikes. Consider the genre (pop? classical? RnB?) in choosing the song that would appeal to their emotions the most.


Their literary circle inputs, collaborative and differentiated group activity performances, and notes to classmates may be compiled in a portfolio that will be evaluated. After finishing this thematic unit for The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars, end the discussion by giving a long exam that includes literal, inferential, critical, integrative and creative questions about the concepts you discussed in class. Also include an essay question that would allow them to reflect on specific issues presented by the book.

Online Teacher’s Resources:

BBC Wildlife Finder -

Health Lessons Online -

Geology -

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory -

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