Thinking about Theme Pays Off


Last week I started thinking more about theme after spending time in a 2nd grade reading workshop.  In my previous post I shared a helpful video clip that helped me think about teaching this abstract concept to young readers.  Well, that thinking paid off yesterday when I was hanging out in a 6th grade writing workshop.  The students were in the middle of a unit on literary essay. They were writing a practice essay about the short story “Papa’s Parrot” from Cynthia Rylant’s Every Living Thing.  This is a story about a boy named Harry who was once very close to his father, but as he approached adolescence, began drifting away from his father to spend more time with his friends.  When his father bought a parrot and began talking to it, Harry became embarrassed of his father.

As I walked around reading over students’ shoulders, I was especially paying attention to the themes they had chosen in order to craft their thesis statements.  I noticed that one girl had quite a lot written, but when I skimmed her piece, she was writing about the main idea of the story—not the theme.  Another student was writing a summary of the story. He, too, was unclear about theme. I immediately thought about some of the key points from the video and decided to use them as I conferred.

I pulled up alongside Ricky, the boy who was summarizing and asked him what he working on today. He said he was writing about the story and a thesis and finding evidence.  He seemed to know the lingo of literary essay, but he hadn’t settled on a thesis statement or big idea to prove. This was going to make it difficult for him to write a well-developed and properly formatted literary essay.  I explained to him that the theme of the story was not just about this story, but rather a message the author was trying to tell us about life, like a life lesson.  I shared with him that one way to figure out a theme is to study the characters by asking questions such as,

  • What does the character want?
  • What does the character struggle with?
  • Does the character change throughout the story?

While Ricky and I were discussing the characters, Lucas was eavesdropping and wanted to get in on the conversation. As we talked about Papa and Harry, the two characters in the story, these two sixth grade boys started changing their opinions about Papa.  At first they thought Papa was kind of crazy for talking to a parrot all the time. But then they started to realize that maybe Papa was just lonely and needed companionship from his son. They seemed to have an “aha moment” and were then able to reflect more on what Cynthia Rylant was really trying to tell us.

As we talk to our students about theme, it is important that they know not only what it is, but also how to find the theme.  In other words they need a strategy (or multiple strategies) for finding the theme. Studying the characters is one way to do that.  It is also important that they realize that a story can have more than one theme. The reader interacts with the text to determine a possible theme. As long as they can support it with strong evidence from the text, it is a valid theme.

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