Teaching Literary Elements: Theme

November 24, 2017

Theme is one of those concepts in literature that students seem to struggle with more than others. It's likely because there is no one right answer and it requires a higher level of thinking than identifying a part of the plot or a character type. Whether you are teaching theme as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, you'll find activities and resources below that will benefit all levels of students.

Terms to Teach
At the start of my teaching career, I taught primarily ninth grade students at an urban, Title 1 high school. My students came from a variety of K-8 schools, which meant they came with varying English Language Arts experiences. To ensure that all of my students started high school with a strong foundation in the literary elements, I found it best to give direct instruction followed by ample opportunities to apply terms and practice skills.

During my direct instruction, I introduced students to the following terms: theme (this has to be a complete sentence that is general and is a message about life), universal themes (these are the big ideas covered in literature like loss and coming of age), and common theme (a theme shared by two or more texts). Many of my students were unaccustomed to taking notes so I provided them with a guided note taking template. This three column sheet provided a structured space for the term, definition, and examples.

Activities for Reinforcement
Before applying these newly learned terms to a short story or novel, I like to give my students opportunities to practice using shorter texts or media. For theme, using short video clips provides great visual reinforcement. I have collected examples of short films in this playlist and use this same playlist when I'm teaching plot. Sometimes it's good for students to rewatch a short we analyzed earlier in the year and sometimes I show them some we haven't looked at before.

Another way I reinforce theme is by using a menu of activities based on Bloom's Taxonomy. Students choose activities from four different section of the menu: knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students determine the theme of short fables and can use their knowledge to complete tasks such as creating a poster with the theme of their life.

Texts to Read
Because students usually struggle with theme, I like to have them compare two or more short texts, so that they can determine a theme in each text as well as a theme that would encompass both (or all). To do this I often use two readings about names or a set of five interviews about being cut from sports teams.

Using “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros, an excerpt from The House on Mango Street, and the personal narrative, “Why Couldn’t I Have Been Named Ashley,” by Immaculeta Uzoma Achilike allows students to compare themes across genres (fiction and nonfiction). These engaging readings both focus on young girls' struggles to accept their unique names. After practice with determining theme, students reflect on the origin and meanings of their own names.

While the two readings about names focus on girls and can therefore be more appealing to my female students, "Cut" by Bob Greene definitely appeals to my males students. These readings are interviews focused on now successful men as they reflect on their experiences being cut from sports teams when they were younger. Because there are five interviews, students have five opportunities to determine theme before developing a common theme that encompasses the ideas of all five readings.

After Reading Activities
I have two go to activities that can be used to reinforce theme with any text. I call the first one a "theme collage." I have a generic graphic organizer that I use to help students to determine the theme of any fiction or nonfiction text. The graphic organizer includes guiding questions to help students to identify universal themes and craft a thematic statement. Then I reinforce the idea of theme by having students create a text-based collage with words, images and quotations from the text to accompany their thematic statements. You can read more about this activity and see student samples in this blog post.

The second activity, one I usually use with larger/longer pieces of literature, but would still work for shorter ones, is a project in which students design a literary theme park based on a recently read text. The theme of what students have read dictates the design of the park, the rides, concessions, entertainment, etc. The project reviews a variety of other literary terms, such as plot, setting, conflict, characters, and symbolism, and is perfect for any time of year, but definitely makes for a fun end of year project or summer reading assignment. After creating a poster of their literary theme park, students can also give a persuasive presentation. You can read more about this activity and see student samples in this blog post.

Creative Application
Once students seem comfortable with the terms or if students need a challenge, I introduce students to a digital breakout, "Theme Song Playlist" for additional practice. A digital breakout is an online scavenger hunt-like game where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a series of locks.

In this breakout, students are putting together a playlist of songs that fit the theme of the end of the year school dance. They used an online survey to find out what songs the student body wants to hear, but a glitch in the computer system has scrambled the results. They have to use their knowledge of theme and interact with a variety of text and media to solve a series of puzzles and figure which songs to play at the dance.

In addition to needing content knowledge to successfully complete the game, breakouts require students to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and use creativity. I also love breakouts because they provide students with many opportunities to fail and try again. Every unsuccessful attempt to open a lock forces them to reexamine their information and their thinking.

Assessment
While many of the activities described above allow students to show their understanding of skills and terms, as a summative assessment I use a set of text-based assessments, each with a reading or two passages, 7 multiple choice questions, and a short written response question to assess my students’ knowledge of theme. The variety of passages and text complexity levels allows me to retest students as needed and make accommodations for struggling readers. The variety was also helpful in the years that I had classes whose eyes tended to wander during quizzes or tests.

If I'm assessing students understanding of theme in a larger work, I often assign a theme analysis essay. Most of my students have never written a piece like this before and need to be guided step by step through the process. I first have students brainstorm themes and practice writing thematic statements before writing a thesis for their essay. Then, students complete a graphic organizer of the connection between plot and theme to help them identify events connected to their chosen theme and supporting evidence (quotations) from the text. This step must be completed in class, which prevents students from relying on a SparkNotes or CliffNotes type website for quotes.

When students are ready to begin writing, I guide them through each part of each paragraph with choices of openings and closings, examples of each step, and suggested transitions. Finally, students engage in self and peer review before submitting a final draft. I do lots of check-ins throughout the process, and students who work through each step as they are supposed to can't help but turn out a tight, well-written essay.

You can find all of my resources for teaching theme here.

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