Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Teaching Theme: Anchor Chart



I've seen two different definitions for theme floating around instructional resources, including Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and yes, our "real" reading program. 

The first definition likens theme to the lesson the character learns in the story.  For example, "The theme of this story is to believe in yourself."

However, the counterargument I've seen is that that's the lesson, and the theme is something different.  Theme is what the story is about in one word. 

It's a lot harder to get kids to sum up the heart of the story in a single word.  For one thing, fourth graders don't usually have the vocabulary to do it.  They don't have words like innocence, ambition, optimism, or sacrifice in their productive vocabulary.  If you ask them to sum up the story in a single word, beginning theme-finders are going to mistakenly tell you the topic.  "It's about dogs."  And that's even more far removed from the objective than telling the lesson!  At least if you can get them to tell you the lesson, they're pretty much getting to the heart of the story. 

So, in the spirit of setting the bar high so that some of the kids reach it and others have something to be closer to reaching, I decided to teach theme as a single word.  I did quite a bit of research (on Pinterest as well as our reading program) until I created my anchor chart.

I taught theme in chunks, slowly unrolling the chart (it's way too much text to present all at once).  I had already taught how to summarize, so the blue questions numbers 1-4 were not new.  I was also able to refer to mentor texts from earlier in the year as I modeled how to arrive at one of the 6 themes I listed in red.   

The next day I unrolled the rest of the chart to provide more examples to choose from as they considered the theme of our current story, and then later in their own guided reading books.  This made the process more manageable.  I thought about splitting the chart in two on the first draft, but I'm glad I didn't when a student asked me a few weeks later if I'd bring the chart back out to refer to (much easier for me to find)! 

I'm not 100% sure that the 6 categories I chose are the be all and end all when it comes to theme, which is why I wrote "6 common themes are..."  And I'm not certain that each of the details fits exactly within the category, but I think I came close enough to lead my students in the right direction.   

Some of the words are still beyond them, but by putting them with related concepts, they had a lot more success with the idea of theme than any previous group has had.  Instead of being completely stuck, discussions arose, such as, "Well, I think it could be about growing up or family.  I'm not sure."  In which case I could say, "Why do you think so?"  Or when partners were "turning and talking" about the same text I was reading aloud, I'd hear, "Kevin says it's growing up but I think it's friendship," and I could say, "Hmm, I could see that.  Can you give your partner a reason to convince him why you think that?"  And viola, the kids were practicing supporting their thinking with evidence from the text!

If you're thinking of adapting this anchor chart for your own classroom, I would encourage you to consider the books your students are choosing to read independently, as well as the texts you've read earlier in the year as a whole class as you tweak the categories.  This helped give mine a point of reference as well as set them up for success when they were working independently.  There will be plenty of time as their vocabulary and reading interests develop to start thinking beyond just 6 different themes.

How do you teach theme?




18 comments:

  1. I agree with you about providing students with common themes found in text. This year I used a similar approach and found that my students were much more successful. Thank you for sharing!

    Amy
    Eclectic Educating

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    1. You're welcome! Thanks for your kind words; it's nice to see a familiar face commenting here :)

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  2. This is a great chart. I also began teaching theme by introducing common themes. My kids had a tough time with perseverance, but your chart is really helpful!

    Sarah
    MissKinBK

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    1. I'm so glad to hear it helped :) I agree, perseverance is always a hard one. What helped me was just looking on Pinterest a lot, seeing lots of different theme posters. There were a bunch that were sort of "word cloud" style, but I realized so many of the words on there could be grouped together. I feel like the bottom half of this chart helped my class see, "This is like that," and built up some of their vocabulary at the same time as learning the concept of theme, instead of seeing a bunch of words all over and skipping over the words they don't know.

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  3. This is a great chart! I am going to pin it for reference. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement and the pin! :)

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  4. We just had a discussion about this...the difference between "theme" and "topic"...interesting to see all the different ideas out there! Love your chart!

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    1. Meg, I can totally see theme and topic on a Venn diagram! I might do just that now that I'm revisiting theme in the context of poetry.

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  5. My fifth graders are in the middle of a theme project right now. I taught theme using resources that I found on the internet, mostly of the "one word" variety. The kids selected picture books and completed a graphic organizer for identifying theme and supporting it with evidence from the text. Now, they are writing a Message in a Bottle that summarizes the theme of their book in a letter from the main character. It has been a challenge, but the letters are finally starting to come together. ~Stacy @ http://new-in-room-202.blogspot.com

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    1. What a fun culminating activity! Thanks for sharing this idea. :)

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    2. Stacy, I love the message in a bottle activity idea! DO you have it described or posted anywhere for me to see/Pin it? Thanks!

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  6. Just pinned this chart -- I definitely need to make a similar one! Our reading series does a pretty good job of grouping books by theme, but we are moving away from that series more and more and I need to rethink how I will address theme in the future. Thanks for the ideas!! :)

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    1. Thanks for the pin! I've always had a hard time with theme (I'm detail oriented by nature; sometimes the big picture gets lost on me unless I stop to make the effort to look for it, haha).

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  7. This is perfect! I love it! Thanks so much : )

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  8. As I use your chart to introduce theme, I am going to use picture books. I haven't polished it up yet, but I think I will spread the books out throughout the room and allow the kids to circulate as they choose, read the picture books and then try to identify the theme. The books I've chosen so far are: Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems for Growing Up, No Matter What by Debi Gliori for Family/Friendship, Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell and Purplicious by Victoria & Elizabeth Kann for Acceptance, Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney for Bravery, Green Eggs and Ham by Dr, Seuss for Perseverance and Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle for Compassion. Fun stuff! : )

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  9. Hi. I enjoyed reading your explanation of your chart and thinking. Being a second grade teacher, it's important to understand where the foundational skills we teach are heading. I have a question maybe you could help clarify. I really need to understand the difference between author's points and reason compared to main idea and details. It's the subtle things like one word theme vs. lesson that can cause confusion in the teaching and learning of important concepts. Thank you!!! Angie

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  10. This is great! I love how you break it down for them. Teaching summarizing first than common themes. Do you have suggestions for Mentor Texts you would be willing to share, please?

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  11. Thank you so much for this chart, I love your clues to help infer the theme. I was wondering if you had any clues for the following themes; kindness, cooperation, and honesty?
    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

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