it wasn’t until we were teachers that we saw the fun in thinking about messages and themes.
as students – high school students in particular – talking about the themes of the book always seemed daunting. we remember it being presented to us as thinking about the theme, singular. there was so much pressure to come up with the right theme, a deep enough theme.
we wish our teachers had told us what we’ve been able to teach our students: that there isn’t just one theme in a book, there are many. some themes may feel stronger than others to you – resonate with you more – but authors write to teach us multiple lessons, to reveal multiple themes. thinking about it in this way takes the pressure off of being right, of coming up with the theme, and allows kids to live in possibilities.
along the same lines, we’ve found it helpful to offer the phrase, “maybe it could be…” before kids share, especially if they’re feeling stuck. adding that little word “maybe” seems to create more space for possibility, lessening the feeling of needing to get it right. (try using “maybe” or “perhaps” before other things, too, and see the effects of it in your classroom!)
now, to be fair, it could have been that our high school teachers did present thematic work as more flexible than we’re remembering it. if that’s the case, we wish it had been clearer to us. we advocate for making it crystal clear to kids – through your words and the ways they’re invited to think about themes – that there’s room for different opinions about themes.
here are some of our favorite ways to invite students to begin to think about texts in a thematic way:
- sentence strip themes: for the work of moving from retelling to including ideas about the central themes or messages (kindergarten to first grade work), you might begin long before your unit of study is explicitly focusing on thinking about messages and themes. at the end of a read aloud, you can give students time to think with a partner about what the story was really about, with a prompt like: think with your partner about the lessons, messages, and themes in this book. what did the character(s) learn? what did the author hope that we, the readers, would learn? what is this story really about? then, listen in or have a few partnerships share out quickly and write their messages on sentence strips. hang the sentence strips in an easily-accessible place. continue to do this work after new stories are read aloud. then, when students are doing this thinking independently and are having difficulty finding the words for what their just right books are really about, they can flip through the sentence strips to see if any of the themes from books we’ve read fit in their books. since themes are universal, this is an (almost) guaranteed way for every student to be able to identify a theme in their text.
- talking across themes in books: similar to the idea of borrowing a theme that was noticed in an earlier read aloud, students can share themes with their partner, book club, or the whole class while the listeners (the partner, rest of the book club, or rest of the class), give a thumbs up if that theme would work in their book, too. this helps students grow in their flexibility when thinking about texts, and reinforces the truth that there’s not one single message, lesson, or theme in a book, but many.
- themes in writing workshop: when your class is publishing pieces in a narrative genre – like, realistic fiction, personal narrative, fantasy – ask your writers to think about the messages, lessons, and themes in the stories they just wrote. give them a sentence strip to write the theme that feels most important from their story. during the celebration, have writers share the themes of their stories with the class and add their sentence strips to the class ring that was started during read aloud. (during the celebration, students can also give a thumbs up if the theme from a classmate’s piece read works in the story they’ve written, too.)
- covering covers with themes: pass out books or photocopies of the front covers of books that have been read aloud as a class to book clubs or read aloud clubs. give each club a stack of post-its. ask them to think with their club about what the book is really about. give kids an example, maybe even putting it up on a chart. something like, fox is about a dog and bird who are friends and the bird gets convinced to leave dog to go with a fox. but it’s really about more; maybe: how it’s important to trust your first instincts and go with your gut or it’s important to stay loyal to our real friends or sometimes bad things happen because of decisions that we make… the work is for kids to push themselves beyond the plot and think about messages, lessons, and themes. and, because there are multiple themes in books, the clubs work to add as many post-its with a lesson to the book as they can before the book gets passed on. when they receive a new book, their job is to first read the messages identified by the club(s) before them, and then to add new themes to the books.
how do you invite your students to think about themes?