The language of the definition has to be consistent. A Google search for the concept of “theme” reveals almost as many definitions as it does results hits. When teaching theme, I use the definition put forth by the Georgia Department of Education when we were implementing the initial Georgia Performance Standards. The definition all kids in Dr. Winfree’s class hear:
Theme is an author’s universal statement on a topic/subject.
I love this definition because it breaks down into three components that help students understand the concept of theme:
Universal – it can be applied in more than context.
Statement – it has to be a sentence.
Topic/subject – a big idea or concept, limited to a word or a phrase.
Start at the Right Point
The beginning of a novel is not the right point to teach theme. Students, especially middle school kids, need a grasp of the whole work in order to wrestle with theme. With my eighth graders, I always tell them we will be discussing theme at the end of a work and I give them hints to help them pay attention to characters, symbols, etc., that will lead them to theme, but I am not asking them to begin figuring out the theme of a novel at chapter one.
Focus on the Formula
I always hang out with the math teachers because, well, they are just the coolest. After struggling to teach theme to ninth graders yet again, I walked into the cool math next door . . . where there was a formula and a geometry proof on the board. Total epiphany as I realized I could use that same concept to help my students consistently find a work’s theme.
Remember how I said I loved the Georgia DOE’s definition of theme from the GPS days? The components of the formula for theme are embedded in the definition. Theme is an author’s universal statement on a topic or subject. That becomes the following formula:
- What is the topic of the work?
- What does the author seem to be saying about the topic?
- Is this commentary universal?
For a detailed breakdown of how I teach this, see the linked Theme in a Movie! handout.
Use the Familiar
When teaching, I use certain examples over and over and over again – “In Lord of the Flies, Jack is power-hungry . . . In Macbeth, there’s this guy who wants to be king and he’ll do some crazy things to make that happen . . .” I format my examples this way so students become familiar with concepts about pieces they haven’t read. Familiarity provides a gateway to new learning.
Because theme can be so tricky for kids, I've found that using the familiar – what they know – can be a great gateway to build understanding. The first time we work with theme, before students even attempt theme with the piece we've read, I have them work through Theme in a Movie! This lesson, which takes one class period, takes them through the theme formula, including providing textual evidence. The familiarity of a favorite movie (or novel or television show) eases them into the intellectual work of figuring out theme. Being successful with this task also encourages them to take risks as they approach theme with our class reading.
Help Them Find the Way
If students will be working with theme at the end of a reading, I align our work with the literary piece to help them determine that theme and analyze its development (CC8RL2). For example, during a recent unit with Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion as the anchor text, my students and I spent a lot of time working on analyzing characterization. I knew we would circle back to theme at the end of the book. I knew some of Farmer’s topics in the novel include life, death, and rebellion. As students read, they collected evidence of the characters’ interactions with life, death and rebellion. When we finished the book, they had a cornucopia of evidence to help them determine what Farmer might be saying about these topics. Further, the evidence, collected during reading, would aid in showing how the theme unfolded throughout the novel.
Trust Them . . . and Yourself
Theme is tough. Sometimes, you and your students will feel like they will never master it; however, when provided with great teaching (that’s you!), the proper tools, the right practice, and time to practice, they get there.
How do you approach teaching theme?