With state testing fast approaching, I have found myself carefully analyzing our benchmark assessments for instructional focus. One of our identified areas to address includes identifying the theme of a passage. Being new to the grade level, I wasn't sure if this went beyond my familiar 3rd grade goal of understanding a fable. After some work and research, I'm ready to share how you can teach theme in the upper grades. This post includes SMART Notebook files (also in PDF form), a project idea, and printable graphic organizers and posters.
One way you can help your students decipher the difference between a theme and a summary is to start by simply labeling any charts you create for theme as "THE MEssage." This helps students remember that a theme is a message that you can find and apply to your own life. It can be more complicated than the moral explicitly stated at the end of a fable. Also, a story or novel can have multiple themes woven throughout and go far beyond a word such as "friendship," though identifying a key word is a great first step in identifying a theme. Taking the key word of friendship in the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, you can develop a theme. Start with the question: "What did the main character, Rufus, learn about friendship?" Exploring this question can help you explore a potential theme.
So, what are some common themes that are found in literature? Beth Newingham addressed this in her post, geared for 3rd grade, while I am offering a more complex list of common themes found in literature, from young adult literature through the classics.
Beth also provided this "Common Themes in Books" handout.
You may also want to use this "12 Common Themes Found in Literature" handout with your class.
One way to track themes is to create a T-chart, with one side dedicated to identifying a theme, the other for recording supporting details that "prove it."
And which books should you use to demonstrate and discuss themes? I recommend, even in the upper grades, first using picture books.
Picture Books for Discussing Themes:
I believe it is also important to help your students understand that themes expand beyond books. Themes can be found all around us. Artists, for example, think carefully about portraying a theme for their audience. There are entire sites dedicated to discussing themes found in movies and music. Try this in your room: Listen to the lyrics of a carefully selected song, such as "Cat's in the Cradle" to discuss theme, or try a familiar movie. Below I have listed a few movies that can get your class started.
Familiar Movies for Discussing Themes:
Songs for Discussing Themes:
One of the best ways to really dig deep and teach the concept of theme is through a novel study. We are currently wrapping up The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 in our room. When I was searching for some themes online I was able to find a complete teacher reading guide through Scholastic to support our talks (see pp. 32–39 for theme support). From racism to humor to growing up, this teacher guide includes supporting details to expand the message we take away as a theme.
Authors that I recommend for investigating common, recurring themes include Kate DiCamillo and Gary Paulsen. Kate DiCamillo, for example, often tackles themes such as redemption and family relations/abandonment. Gary Paulsen strongly demonstrates the struggle of man vs. nature or man vs. societal pressure. If you read Paulsen's autobiography, My Life in Dog Years, it makes sense that he often incorporates these themes into his novels.
One thing I enjoy doing in our theme lessons is tying in skills taught previously. For example, it helps to think about the characters, setting, and plot before identifying a potential theme. We also use the concept of main idea and supporting details to "prove" our selected theme.
Download this Searching for a Theme (PDF) graphic organizer.
Download the What's the Big Idea? (PDF) graphic organizer.
I am fortunate enough to be working in a school where a SmartBoard can be found in virtually every classroom. Like many teachers, I can't remember life before my board was installed. I have created a SMART Notebook file that supports the teaching of theme through a novel study of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Download the SMART Notebook file "Identifying Theme."
So you don't have a SmartBoard in your classroom? I was able to create a supporting PDF slide show as well. It does not have the same interactive elements found on the theme web in the SMART Notebook file, but it has a page gallery on the side that can help you navigate the pages with ease.
Download the PDF slide show "Identifying Theme."
Looking for an interesting project that showcases this learned skill? Here's one of my favorites, which has students writing letters in a bottle from a character's point of view!
Photo Credit: travis manley/Istockphoto
Please share your questions and suggestions for teaching theme in your classroom.
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