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?