When you incorporate a book into your lesson plans, you want your students to walk away with a deep understanding of the text. Knowing the character names and major plot points may be enough to help a student pass a multiple-choice exam, but grasping the theme is how your pupils can make real-world connections to books. Assigning yet another book report is a quick way to make students’ eyes glaze over. If you’re fresh out of ideas for how to tackle theme in your classroom, don’t fret. Here are three creative ideas teachers can use to discuss thematic elements in books.
Make the Theme Physical
Picking out themes can be difficult for students due to their abstract nature. Life lessons within the text don’t jump out like overt conflicts or dramatic twists do. Sometimes it helps to flesh out themes through a physical project that makes ideas more tangible for learners.
Angela Bunyi, a former Scholastic Teacher Advisor for grades three through five, suggests having students create a “theme-in-a-bottle” as a way to take the lesson off the page and into their own hands. This involves instructing students to write letters from the point of view of one of the book’s characters. The students should begin their letters with the theme that they believe the text conveyed, and should use at least three specific examples to back up their original assertion. After decorating a two-liter bottle with motifs and imagery appropriate for the book, students can “send” their messages in a bottle to other students who will pick out the three points that supported the writer’s theme.
You can modify this activity for higher grade levels by requiring more themes, more supporting evidence and more attention to stylistic language. The key to remember is that physical projects can often bring themes to life so they will stick with students long after they set the book down.
Create an Instant Word Cloud
Sometimes students will feel that they know a theme, but they can’t quite put it into words. Breaking down a book into its core building blocks may lead to that crucial “ah-ha!” moment for students. A word cloud maker will help your students boil down large abstract concepts into a series of manageable, one-word ideas. All you need to do is enter a prompt question and add the poll slide to a PowerPoint presentation. From there, students can use the web or mobile devices to respond with one-word answers. As their responses roll in, the screen updates instantaneously to create a visually compelling cloud. It’s fun for the students and the brevity often helps create a jumping-off point for a rich discussion!
Tweak the Ending
Once students start to pick up patterns in multiple texts, it’s time to switch things up by presenting a story that does not behave in the expected way. Watch Sara Kaviar and Megan O’Keefe, middle school teachers in Los Angeles, demonstrate how they twist the ending of a well-known tale like the Three Little Pigs to help students understand that themes can vary.
After reading the story and brainstorming with their class about possible themes, they presented an alternate ending: The Big Bad Wolf reforms his ways after a nice dinner with the Three Little Pigs. Another brainstorming session ensues, prompting students to examine how the ending changes the running themes throughout the story. Students then move onto writing their own stories centering around a theme and acting them out in front of the class. Students in the audience are responsible for guessing the theme the actors are trying to portray.
These teachers have tapped into the effectiveness of layering when it comes to teaching themes. Instead of overwhelming students with a barrage of lofty abstract concepts, these activities build on each other to help students gain confidence and learn the underlying principles of identifying theme that they can transfer to any literary work.
When you’re teaching reading and language arts, theme is a great place to mix up your curriculum with some true creativity. The static book reports of yesteryear have been replaced with interactive tools and lessons that facilitate a discussion just as dynamic as your classroom.