Theme Song

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R6; CCRA.R7

What To Do: Nicole Shelby, a teacher at Benton Elementary in Kentucky, uses song lyrics to help her fourth graders understand the relationship between medium, artist, and theme.

First, Shelby distributes the lyrics to “Am I Wrong” by Nico and Vinz, which is about individualism. “I read the lyrics aloud, like the song is a poem,” says Shelby, who blogs at Teaching with Blonde Ambition. Then, she asks each student to write down the meaning of the song, or the theme, and discuss their interpretations in pairs. “Once the students return to their seats, we watch the music video. At this point, I want them to use both visuals and text to determine what the song means,” says Shelby.

After watching the video, the class records new interpretations of the theme before discussing how these ideas differ from their initial reactions. Then, Shelby screens a video of Nico and Vinz discussing “Am I Wrong” (available on YouTube). The class completes the lesson by analyzing the ways people’s backgrounds and differences, as well as methods of story-telling, affect interpretations of songs and other works of art.

Great Adaptations

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R2; CCRA.R6

What To Do: Teach the importance of theme by having students carry a theme from one genre or format to another. This lesson involves a few stories of your choosing; try an assortment of myths and fables from sites such as Mythweb.

First, divide your class into groups of three to five and assign each group a different story. Have them read it individually and as a group, looking for clues to the theme. Once each group has settled on a theme, introduce the word adaptation. Explain that when a story is adapted as a movie or a play, the authors make changes to the narrative to fit the new format. Challenge the groups to write an adaptation of their assigned story, focusing on keeping the original’s theme intact. Adaptations can be written, drawn, danced, or acted out. Walk around the classroom as groups work, guiding them back to the original story’s theme if they veer too far off course.

Next Chapter

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA--Literacy.CCRA.R1

What To Do: Introduce the idea of inference with a riff on Choose Your Own Adventure books. Select an age-appropriate book, such as Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, and choose a scene that sets up the novel’s climax. Before class, have students complete all of the chapters prior to this scene as independent reading. Kids should be left in a state of suspense (you want to choose a scene that will create a cliffhanger). Then, ask students what they think will happen next and why. The why here is key—reasoning should reflect an understanding of the story’s themes. Challenge students to use clues from the text to support inferences based on what they believe the theme to be. (For example, in Wonder, the first precept Mr. Browne writes is: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” Students might infer from this that kindness is a key theme in the book.)

Break students into small groups and have them use their combined inferences to write a script for the next scene and present their ideas by acting it out. After the lesson, assign the next chapter of the book as homework.

Unraveling Theme

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA--Literacy.CCRA.R1; CCRA.R2

What To Do: Amber Thomas, a fourth-grade teacher in Massachusetts, found that teaching kids the difference between a story’s theme and its subject was a challenge. So she created an anchor chart on theme with four sections: the definition, steps for summarizing a story, common themes, and inference clues associated with each theme. Since the chart is organized horizontally, she unrolls one section at a time, teaching in “chunks.”

To create your chart, use themes from Thomas’s (growing up, courage, family/friendship, perseverance, acceptance, and compassion), or have your class brainstorm their own based on things they’ve read or watched.

After unraveling her chart, Thomas, who blogs at Shut the Door and Teach, has the class model it. During independent reading, each student creates his or her own minichart outlining the story’s summary and identifying inference clues to determine themes. Add recurring themes to your list.

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Photo: Roger Hagadone; Styling: Shelley Rosario