Theme is a concept that middle school students usually struggle to grasp. Whenever I ask students to discuss the theme of a text, they stare at me with a glazed-over expression. In my experience, students grapple with theme because it requires critical analysis of a text. It also requires that they have closely read a text and have the ability to identify character motivations.
Many students want to relate the theme to the text. They want to include character names, actions and settings. I want to pull out my hair when they do this. (Because they do it every. darn. time.)
In an effort to teach theme in a meaningful way, I modeled my lesson from a gem I found on the inter-webs: Teaching Theme: The last lesson you’ll need. Excited about the possibility of students finally grasping theme, I went to work.
First, I grouped students into fours and gave them themes. They had to discuss movies, books, TV episodes, etc. that displayed the given theme. My co-teacher had the brilliant idea of turning the lesson into a competition – groups had a set time to generate a list of works that supported the given theme. Then, they had to explain each work and how it supported the theme. If their explanation was sufficient, their group was awarded points (we gave 2 for books and 1 point for other works). The group with the most points won a prize (ummm, candy, obviously!)
The students loved it and I thought that finally, they were on their way to understanding theme.
We then took the challenging task of applying theme to our class novel. Luckily, I have theme posters with “big ideas” listed at the top and theme statements listed below. These are a game changer. It is very difficult for middle school students to think of their own themes, but given a list, they slowly begin to understand the concept. I had students do a gallery walk around the room so they could look at the posters and decide on themes that would support the novel. Then, they had to locate two pieces of evidence from the text to support the theme.
Selecting evidence was difficult for many students, as most wanted to write their opinions. For instance, if the theme was “Family comes first,” a student might write, “You should always put your family before friends.” Upon seeing this trend in my students’ work, I chose to take a step back and re-teach/model how to cite evidence from text to support a given theme.
To put more of the work on the students, I had them discuss their themes and evidence in groups, socratic seminar style. Many groups charted everyone’s thinking, which allowed students to see that similar themes could have different pieces of evidence. My students often think there is one right answer – this is a tough method of thinking to undo!
While my students definitely need some more practice with theme, I am more confident that they will remember what it is and ways to locate it based on this lesson. It’s likely not the last lesson I’ll ever teach on theme, but for some students, it has changed the way they think about it.
How do you teach theme? Let me know in the comments!