Teaching Theme

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Literature Anchor Standard 2:
Determine the central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; 
summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

     Standard 2 is a critical standard, in my opinion.  Not all common core standards are created equally. I feel that standards 1, 2 and 3 provide the foundation necessary for our students to be independent learners.  They learn the skills necessary for later standards in the first three (text support, main idea/theme, character).  Standards 4-6 focus on Craft and Structure, and Standards 7-9 on Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.  If students know standards 1-3 and use them to support standards 4-9, we really start to see deeper thinking.

     The literature half of standard 2 talks about central ideas and themes in a story.  I like to call them the Big Ideas, because then you start to cross the literature/ informational border.  Just like we did in character trait development, I think the first place to start theme is by helping our students create the vocabulary they need.  They won't have the terms for big ideas/ themes just waiting for us to ask.  They need to be modeled at first.  We need to help them build single word themes as a starting point.

     One way to introduce themes is through read aloud.  If you have read your book as usual, but start and end the lesson with a theme board visible, it starts to focus the kids on the new terms.  Start your theme board off with just one or two themes, and then each day, as you read, slowly build the list as the stories you read reveal them.  I often like to add themes in pairs, like love/hate, life/death, etc., because many books actually have both visible in the text.  The theme board below is one we used with our study of fables.  Fables are short, yet filled with big ideas and themes to explore.

     You can see that some of the themes are nouns, but some are almost lessons learned.  Theme is sometimes seen as single words, and sometimes seen as almost the lesson or moral learned.  I think a good starting place is to give the kids the vocabulary of the single word themes, because they can always be turned into a lesson/moral learned.  My 2nd graders were able, by the end of the year, to come up with the big ideas/ themes but still struggled with creating generalized lessons from them.  Your students will determine what they are ready for.  

     The anchor chart above hangs in 5DEAV.  Mrs. DeCaire and Mrs. Avila had the students create cards with the themes they found in their independent reading books to create the chart.  When they came back to the meeting place after the lesson, they discussed the themes as a class and grouped them near each other on the chart.  The categorization process can really help move the students along in their thinking and start to see patterns and relationships in their books.  

     There is a good video from the Teaching Channel that also shows a possible progression of theme instruction.  It is a middle school class, but it gives some good opportunities for students to discuss theme, write themes, and even act them out.  They used excerpts from their past read alouds, and then used fairy tales as well.  I think teaching the theme using real texts to model them is a great way for the learning to happen.  The scaffolding they do can be modified for younger grades just by changing the texts and the delivery of the material.  Their use of cooperative learning and discussion would be great for our students in D100.

     I found one teacher's (Angela Bunyi's) way of teaching the theme as "THE MEssage", where she has the students turn that single key word into a message that you can apply to your own life.  Many of my students struggled with this part of theme, because they tried to make the lesson very specific to the book.   If they can learn to be less book specific and more generalizable, our students will really start to be able to see themes across books and compare them.

     One other great piece from Angela Bunyi's post was her chart about how to connect their work with character traits to the theme.  Like I said earlier, the common core standards work TOGETHER.  When our students notice character traits and use them to determine central themes, we are moving closer to independent close reading.

Here is her article from Scholastic:

     Here is a list of possible themes to consider when making your theme board.  I struggled a bit last year determining what was a true theme, and what wasn't.  Honestly, my board above has things that I don't think I would actually classify as a theme.  However, my children created the board with me, and it validated their thinking.  It is a work in progress.  Hopefully this document will help you on your theme journey.
List of Possible Themes in Literary Works.doc - comp colts

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