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Friday, April 3, 2015

Teaching Theme in Literature

Q: My students struggle with identifying the theme of a story. What resources do you suggest?

Theme is an important concept for understanding texts of all types. Too often, however, students (and teachers!) confuse theme with topic, main idea, or author's purpose.

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 generated by first identifying a single word. "Determination," for example, is a common theme of many movies, television shows, and of course books. But we 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:

Theme: 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. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • 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):

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.

In Dan Gemeinhart's The Honest Truth, the reader is hard pressed to find a single sentence that expresses the theme of the book. In this powerful novel, Mark's cancer has returned after everyone thought he was finally healthy. Mark decides to make one last meaningful move in his life, which is to climb Mt. Rainier as he had promised his late grandfather. He leaves home without telling his best friend Jessie or his parents, armed only with a backpack full of supplies and his faithful dog Beau at his side. We alternate between the heart-breaking challenges of Mark's journey (told in the first person) and the helplessness of his friend and family at home (told in the third person). 

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. 

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) 

Or the use of sentence fragments:

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)

Or action:

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)

Or emotions which are difficult to put into words:

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.