If your students are anything like mine, teaching the concept of theme to their young minds is a daunting task. And over much of the first few weeks of school, I skirted the idea of identifying the theme of practically everything.
After the fifth week of school, I decided to put my big girl pants on and tackle teaching theme. After a brief discussion about what “theme” means, I modeled determining the theme of our novel study, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” while they found the theme of their weekly story. I wish my first try had worked perfectly, but first tries are rarely fruitful and mine was not in this case.
Take two was a few weeks later, as the need to teach this skill spirals back into my life in the form of the curriculum. I try not to panic, remembering my first attempt. I take a deep breath and call to my inner teacher. Then, it dawns on me: my fifth graders hardly have the life experience to find the theme of a story, a poem, or any form of fiction.
After 40 years, I can determine theme because I’ve lived a full life. So what can I do to scaffold my learners? While I can’t provide them with 40 years of experience, I know I can do something. I settle on a tool that will help them on their journey to mastering all the elements of story structure.
If you’re facing a similar challenge, follow the steps below and you’ll be teaching theme like a master.
1. Get Thee a Common Themes Poster. There are only so many themes in children’s literature, such as “friendship helps you through difficult times” and “always be truthful.” Listing many common themes on a reference poster or document is like equipping your students with a compass and a map before a hike. I created a common themes poster on chart paper or you can download one here. Display the poster.
2. Model, model, model. Model using the common theme poster through a detailed think aloud. Read a poem the children already know well. Make your thinking visible, saying things like, “I know this poem is about cats and how much fun they are.” Then, go through a few common themes to make connections. Would “always be truthful” be the theme? No, that doesn’t make sense. Then talk through more common themes from the poster until one makes sense.
3. Step Out. The step-out is a highly effective, yet little-used teaching strategy. Step out of your role as teacher and ask your students, “What did I do to find the theme”? Have them talk to their shoulder buddy or a small group about it. When each of them discusses what they saw you do enables them to gather all the essential elements of the thinking process.
4. Partner Work. Next, engage students in working with partners to determine the theme of a story or poem they’ve already read. Determining theme needs to take place after they’ve read a passage once or twice already. Having them read and then find the theme after only one reading is too much information to digest for young minds.
5. Independent Work. Then it’s time for students to determine theme on their own. Again, choose a poem or story they already know. Have them read it again the day before or, if it’s a short passage, as part of their morning work. You’ll notice students looking up at the common themes poster. If you don’t see that, prompt them to do so.
A few weeks later, I’ve noticed my students know common themes without needing the poster. Many will create extensions of the themes I’ve provided, and some have added their own. You’ll find that after a few attempts, your students will be thematic masters and you’ll feel like the best teacher in the world. Who doesn’t like that feeling?