Although they might seem quite different, teaching theme and teaching summarizing have some similarities. Both require teachers to help students see beyond the clutter of details to reach for the gist of the story. An understanding of theme enhances a student's summary of a story--and knowing how to summarize helps readers to infer themes. When planning for a school year, it almost becomes a chicken and egg problem--which should we teach first?
For me, the answer is neither. And both. (This is what makes me so frustrating to the people I work with!) Looking at summarizing narratives and theme as an ongoing exploration instead of a one-and-done unit leads to much deeper learning and far better discussions. These ideas are so intertwined that they cannot be reduced to step one, step two, step three teaching. Instead, they can become a shared foundation for a new community and classroom.
Just like teaching summarizing, teaching theme can be frustrating. Many young readers are very literal and confuse theme with plot. After all, many authors never state a theme directly. It can be confusing for young readers to "find" something that, from their perspective, isn't even there!
Theme bulletin board: I like to display common themes on a bulletin board that I keep up for most of the year. My formatted theme set is available free from Slideshare, or you can make a more beautiful version that fits in with your classroom decor. As we read different stories, we write titles on notecards and add them to our bulletin board. This helps students to see that stories with very different plots can share themes--an idea which will become important as we compare stories later.
Read aloud: Starting the year with many short read-alouds helps us to think about summarizing and theme at the same time. I don't map out my read-alouds weeks in advance--instead, I have a handy selection of my favorite books that I choose from each day. I just never know what will be happening in the classroom and which book will be the best match for our mood!
Theme reference page: Giving students a list of themes helps them to match themes to stories all year long. It is always wonderful to see students looking at their theme list on their own.
Stories with stated and unstated themes: It is so important for students to see examples of both. I like to suggest to students that they reread the last page or paragraph of a story to look for a stated theme--if the author included it, chances are it's somewhere at the end!
Theme Unit: This includes three stories and activities to help students recognize and explain themes in stories. I don't usually write about the stories I've written because I'm secretly afraid that someone will tell me I shouldn't write stories anymore. Isn't that silly? One of the stories ("The Arguing Knights and the Hungry Dragon) is a version of a tale that I made up for my sons--here is the original bit from an old blog post. Another story is a retelling of a Grimm fairy tale, while the last, "Evening Adventure", was written after my students fell in love with metafiction.
Theme PowerPoint: This is a very simple introduction to theme.
Theme is a challenge for students, but delightful in the end. After all, theme is what literature is all about! Reading stories from different authors and different places that show the same aspects of human experiences makes us all more human. Sharing that experience with 25 other people is just magical.