Teaching theme is one of the more elusive skills that we teach upper elementary students. It can be a little subjective, and that makes it difficult for students to know whether or not they are on the right track with their answers. Even worse, it can make it difficult for us as teachers to know if we’re on the right track with teaching it.
Today, in an effort to make your teaching life a little bit easier, I have three lesson ideas for teaching theme that you can use in your classroom this year! These lesson ideas can be used with any text at any point in the year, so whether you are just introducing theme for the first time, or you are reviewing it later on in the year, you can find value in these many lessons.
Three Ideas For Teaching Theme
Lesson One: #lessonslearned
- Have your students think about a story you read and identify the one scene in the story where the main character learns a lesson. This is probably related to the problem or the resolution of the text.
- Have students come up with an image that reflects that moment and then write a caption as if they were going to create a social media post.
- I like relating hashtags to theme because they are short and concise and usually a generic phrase – just like the theme of the text.
- This is also a great exercise to do with a text that might have multiple themes. It helps your students realize that there can be more than one lesson learned in the text.
- If your students are having a hard time coming up with a specific theme for the text, have them start with the big picture idea and then come up with two themes related to that topic. This can help them see the connection between the big idea and the specific lesson learned.
- Examples: #family #family is a gift #homeiswheretheheartis #confidence #believeinyourself #beproudofwhoyouare #perseverance #hardworkpaysoff #nevergiveuponyourdreams
Lesson Two: Dear Expert, I Need Advice…
The goal of this activity is to help students identify the theme from a text they have read. One way you can get students to think about theme is to have them pretend they are an advice expert and write for an advice column (kind of like Dear Abby, although you might need to explain that one to them).
You want to begin by having students think about the problem or challenge that the character experienced in the story. Have your students write a short little letter explaining what their problem/challenge is.
Here’s an example from the book Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber.
My friend Reggie has invited me to come over for a sleepover. I want to go, but I can’t sleep without my teddy bear and I’m afraid that Reggie will think I’m a baby for still sleeping with a stuffed animal. What should I do?
Then have your students think about the advice they would give to the main character. Your students will probably have no problem coming up with good advice to give. Prompt them to think about WHY they are giving that specific advice. More than likely the WHY behind their advice will lead them to the theme. Have them write a response to the main character as if they were an advice expert.
Here’s an example of a response for the same text.
You should take your teddy bear with you. Real friends accept you for who you are. If Reggie laughs at you for sleeping with a teddy bear, then he isn’t a real friend. But chances are, if he is as good of a friend as you think he is, he won’t laugh at all. Be confident in who you are.
Encourage your students to underline the theme in their response to the character.
Discuss how thinking about giving advice to the main character is one way to help think about the theme.
Lesson Three: They Learn…I Learn…
The goal of this activity is to help students identify the theme by first focusing on the specific lesson the character learned.
What did they learn? – Begin by identifying the specific lesson the character learned. You can use the following questions to help students identify this lesson.
-What was the problem or conflict in the story?
-How did the main character handle this specific problem?
-What lesson did the character learn as a result of this specific problem?
What did I learn? – Next help kids transfer this specific lesson the character learned to a lesson that your students could apply to their own personal lives. You can use the following questions to help your students come up with their personal takeaway.
-How can you apply the lesson the main character learned to your own life?
– What can you take away from this story and apply it to your own life?
-What lesson or message do you think the author is trying to teach you?
What is the BIG IDEA? – Now help students come up with the overarching big idea from the text. They can look at what the main character learned and what they personally learned and identify the big idea. Encourage them to keep this short and simple.
Remind students that when they are reading on their own they should pay attention to the lesson the character learns, think about how that lesson could apply to their own life, and use that to help come up with the big idea for the story.
Using these lessons as small group strategy lessons, whole group mini-lessons, or guided partner activities in class can deepen your students’ understanding of theme, and further promote growth in your classroom!
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