Let's agree that by theme we mean a universal lesson about life that one can learn from a given text. The theme of many a Lifetime movie, for example, has been "Love conquers all."
In its simplest sense, a theme might be identified by a single word. "Determination," for example, is a common theme of many movies, television shows, and of course books. But we typically want students to express the theme in a complete thought, leading to more developed ideas such as
- Through hard work and determination, one can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
- Determination in the face conflict can reveal a person's true character.
- Determination is necessary to overcome adversity.
- To one who is determined, every problem is another opportunity to succeed.
In my own class, each common novel is centered on at least one theme, which in turn is used to generate essential questions. For the novel Holes, our central theme is Identity:
Identity might be defined as uniqueness, distinctiveness, individuality, or personality. The identity of a person or group is rarely static, but instead is constantly being changed by internal and external forces.
- How do we form our identities?
- How does what others think about you affect how you think about yourself?
- How is identity shaped by relationships and experiences?
- What can you learn about yourself by studying the lives of others?
- When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?
Why teach theme?
Identifying theme is more than an academic task on a standardized test. By understanding theme, students can
- better understand connections between diverse text types unified by a single theme;
- practice strategies and skills within the same theme, while increasing text complexity and decreasing instructional support;
- connect prior learning to advanced topics,
- access familiar themes to inspire their own writing, and
- make connections between disciplines beyond language arts.
A novel study of Because of Winn Dixie, for instance, might spark a fourth grade unit on Identity which encompasses many other subject areas (click for full view):
(from the How to Teach Novel Workshop Packet)
What's the best way to help students understand theme?
Often, the theme of a story or novel is stated overtly. We see this all the time in movie trailers. A voice over informs us that "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" in the trailer for Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Watch the trailer and you'll likewise hear nearly a dozen similar statements which could easily serve as theme sentences for this story.
In Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord, our narrator Lucy frequently shares thoughts which might serve as themes for the text. In the book's first chapter, we read:
Dad always promises me things before he leaves and then forgets by the time he's home again. I couldn't help have a little bit of “I hope so” that this place would be different. That's the thing with new beginnings - sometimes they’re more than just starting over again.
Sometimes they change things.
Is that the book's main theme? We don't know yet, but we now have an anchor statement to which many of the book's events and details may be tethered.
As we read the book, we discover that the family moves frequently and it is the nature of her father's career as a photographer that he isn't home as often as Lucy would like. Lucy does feel a connection to her father, however, in that she also enjoys photography. She explains that when they first move to a new place, she takes a picture as soon as they arrive. "It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."
In our search for other possible overt themes, we hear that Lucy's father believes that "it's just as important to show the hard things in the world as it is to show the beautiful ones. Even in the midst of horrible things, there are bits of wonder, and all of it's true." Lucy later shares her own philosophy, explaining, "One thing I learned about moving was that once you were there, it was better to just look ahead. Because even if you went to visit the places and people you left behind, it was never the same - except in photos." Either one of these philosophies can be supported with later events in the story. It's a wonderful piece of realistic fiction, perfect for grades four to six, and fans of Cynthia Lord won't be disappointed.
But what about those books where theme is more covertly expressed? Here it's necessary to pluck out specific details and events which somehow, reflected upon as a whole, seem to express a lesson we can learn about life.
Throughout the book both Mark and Jessie express their feelings in haiku, a favorite poetry form learned from a third grade teacher, which the two had written in and spoken in as a form of code. Jessie, for example, writes:
"Across far, dark miles
a friend can still hold your hand
and be there with you."
These haikus provide hints of the book's many themes (such as friendship), but a single haiku alone fails to fully express the book's overall message about living one's life.
Extensions for the Classroom
If you've ever seen the throwback game show called $100,000 Pyramid, then you already know how to play the Theme Game. In the Theme Game, one student (the Guesser) sits with her back to the projector screen. If you don't have a screen, then placing a computer out of the Guesser's line of sight works just as well. The Hint Giver stands in front of the Guesser, and the Hint Giver (and the Audience) can see the screen or projector on which theme words will appear. As a theme word appears, the Hint Giver can provide action clues, clues from books, nearly anything imaginable that will help the Guesser figure out the theme word being shown.
The Theme Game (see download options below) contains 11 sets of five words each, and you can certainly add more. What makes it challenging is the amount of time you allow the pair to correctly guess their five words. For my sixth graders, 90 seconds worked well for most pairs to be successful. Keep in mind, however, that they had read many books, stories, poems, and articles in common, and so were able to provide clues rooted in those text sources; this may not be the case in all classrooms.
The Theme Game is available free in PowerPoint or in Google Slides.
I've provided a simple Theme Exercise using an original short story called Cheerleading Challenge. I've provided the story in Word format, Google Docs format, and PDF format, should you wish to change the formatting, add additional questions, have students annotate the text Google Docs, etc. All versions include a simple chart at the story's end to help students organize their thinking, and this chart can be copied and added to other texts with which students work.
Finally, if you want to infuse your own texts into an exercise, then check out the Themes Statement handout. Substitute your own poems, short stories, nonfiction articles, books, etc. for the titles included there. The handout mentions a simple list of universal themes which may prove useful as an ongoing reference.
More About The Honest Truth
Fans of Counting by 7s and Wonder will love The Honest Truth. Teachers will as well, not just for its complex and compelling story line, but its models of exemplary writing.
The book contains many fantastic passages, but I found a few to be especially compelling. Students will come to understand the power of repetition in passages such as this one:
Jess sat down and, after a few false starts, Mark's mom told her everything. She told her about the last call from the doctor and what he'd told her. She told her about how Mark had taken it...
Mark's mom sat looking down at her hands, at her fingers tied tight together. They were a mom's hands, soft, with only small wrinkles, and chipping polish on the nails. They were empty with only themselves to hold. (pp. 69-70)
While we waited in the gloomy afternoon, several more people showed up and joined us. An older couple with no climbing gear but three cameras and a pair of binoculars. A family with two little kids that ran around and screamed. An old guy with a walking stick who was so lean and healthy looking he looked like he could walk a thousand miles without hardly noticing. (p. 96)
At the last second, just before my body hit the black water, I gulped one great big breath of air. I filled my lungs, and then the freezing water grabbed my body and did its frigid best to stop my heart.
The water was more than cold. It was ice that moved. It was strong and fast and there was nothing I could do. I would have screamed,but the cold was squeezing my lungs like a black fist. For one second I saw Beau looking down at me from the log, getting smaller as I rushed away, and then the water spun me and I was gone. The last I saw of him, his front legs were already in the air. He was jumping in after me. (p. 123)
But worst of all: It would all be without him. He was who she walk to school with. Who she sat next to in class. Who she shared lunch with. There, with all those eyes and that one little space next to her where he was supposed to be, he would feel so much more gone. And she would feel so much more alone. (p. 135)
All in all, it's a memorable novel which you can confidently recommend for independent reading, or use as a class read-aloud.
Every year libraries, newspapers, magazines, and bloggers put out lists of the BEST BEACH READS or SUMMER READING BESTS. There is something festive and exciting about summer reading. Why is that? Sometimes people admit that they choose different books in the summer. They confess to loving “trashy” books as a “guilty pleasure”.
Hey, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!!
Summer reading shouldn’t be judged as less than acceptable. It’s a time when people seem to read what they want to read. We reflect on our tastes and preferences. We look for recommendations from others. We often experiment with new books and genres. We associate books with the places we read them and special times in our lives. We contemplate our reading identities.
I want that for our students, too. Sadly many will not read over the summer for a variety of reasons. Many educators, libraries, and schools try to promote, incentivize, and encourage summer reading but ultimately we cannot create the conditions to make that a reality for all. We can’t be there with them to help make it happen. Or can we?
If we want our students to experience the joys of summer reading we can look for ways to create that experience in our classrooms (where we do exert influence). We can ask ourselves: what makes summer reading special?
- Enticing Book Lists of “Must Reads”
- “Free” time to read
- Choice in what we read
- Fun places to read
- Conversations about what we read
- Festive atmosphere for reading
That’s easy enough for most of us. We create many of these conditions in our classrooms already. But what if we just declared a Summer Reading Break a few times during the school year and bring that magic into our classrooms.
Announce an upcoming Summer Reading Break. Really play it up to generate the buzz and excitement many feel for real summer. In anticipation students could:
- Create summer reading lists/ ‘must reads‘ compiled by students.
- Create or collect book talks or book trailers to entice readers
- Get their TBRs (To Be Read) ready for the week
- Talk to librarians about book recommendations
- Plan a summer reading corner by bringing in beach blankets, umbrellas, towels, etc.
- Discuss their perceptions of ‘summer reading’ and how it could be good for them as readers.
Then for a week you could carve out 30 minutes a day to :
- Take a school “vacation” and simply read!
- Put on background sounds of surf, loon calls, bird songs, thunderstorms, etc.
- Project a summer video or scene onto a SmartBoard/whiteboard.
- Share some summer snacks.
- Provide kids time to talk about their reading/books.
- Write about/Blog/Tweet/Instagram their “summer” reading.
- Continually make references/connections to how this would look for them during their summer vacations.
- Reflect on our reading identities!
By the time real summer rolls around, these students will have some schema for summer reading that they may have never had before. They can associate summer reading with a pleasurable experience. We can continue the conversation about reading and books with our students via a class blog, google doc, email, social media (if students are old enough) during the summer. We could have a mid-summer ‘meet up’ (in person or virtually) to bring favorite books to talk about.
We can’t expect our students to take on new behaviors away from school that haven’t had scaffolding at school. For something to become a habit, it needs to have repetition and opportunity. If we want our students to be summer readers, they need opportunities to practice and experience that behavior! When your students come back from summer break this fall, think about who was a summer reader and who was not. Think about why that might be. Then think about how you can create a few summer reading breaks during the school year that address those conditions/issues. You might not see the bump during your teaching year, but…
We plant the seeds so that others may enjoy the shade.
What’s On My Book Radar?
Towers Falling is the 3rd book I have read this summer that deals with 9/11 and like Nora Raleigh Baskin’s nine, ten: a September 11 Story and Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things, this book is a gem. On the 15th anniversary of the tragedy, Deja’s 5th grade teacher presents some lessons on the history of this date. Somehow Deja is the only student who has never heard of 9/11 and yet she will find she is the one student in her class who has a personal connection to that date. Jewell Parker Rhodes has created a story of friendship and compassion as she introduces us to Deja (a homeless girl) and her two friends Sabeen (a muslim girl) and Ben (a child of divorce) who band together to try to understand why recent history is important and relevant and how it can influence our lives today. I think this is an essential read for students who weren’t alive on that date and are trying to understand why it is so important for our nation (and perhaps their families’) history.