Interpretation Series: Discovering Themes. (Part I)

As most of you know, we have recently become parents. It's pretty awesome. I am currently spending a lot of time home with Bo, which I feel lucky to be able to do. Thing is, it can get lonely. Just me and this amazing baby who, well, can't really do too much. There are only so many times that I can sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in a high pitched voice before I start to feel a little loopy. I realized quickly that I was going to have to get out of the house at least once a day or I was in serious danger of becoming a little frazzled...

...and getting out of the house meant making new friends. Mommy friends. So out I went with my stroller and a smile, looking at each parent I saw with hope and a probably very obvious desperation.

I hung out at the coffee shop. I loitered at the playground. Day after day, I tried to enter into the intimidating and strange new world I found myself in. And...nothing. Sure, a couple Moms smiled at me. A nanny gave me some advice about Bo's socks. I got some fresh air. But no new friends.

And here is the point: This was not a new feeling for me. It felt very much like middle school. (And if I'm honest high school, much of college and a good chunk of my twenties) Entering into new communities has always been hard for me; it has always brought up insecurities. I have always struggled to get out there and be widely social, even as I have craved the connections.

You could say it is a theme of my life.

Themes are tough to identify - in life and certainly in texts. The way we know something is a theme - like my story above - is that it is recurring or persistent, it centers around a problem or issue, and it reveals something about the person or the world. In life, we identify things are themes because they keep happening. They are the things we always talk to our best friends about, the obstacles we continue facing, and they are the subject of the exasperated groan, "Why is this always happening to me?"

But in texts, themes can feel more hidden. How many times have we looked out at our students, repeatedly asking, "What is the theme?" only to see them shrug, look around, and say, "Um, love?" But without a sense of the themes in a text, our kids are reading just for plot and character - not a bad thing by any means, but certainly more superficial than we dream for them.

This post starts a series on teaching students to interpret the theme of a text. Today we begin at the beginning - teaching our students to identify possible themes in the texts they read. These are the rough draft themes they will later make more text-based and sophisticated.

So - how do we get kids to see the possible themes in a text? (I mean, beyond saying "But what is it really about?" over and over with greater and greater frustration) Here is one "recipe" for having kids develop rough draft themes:

1. Name the problems in a text.

Themes often live in the troubles of a text, so it helps if we start with the difficulties. Have your students name what problems the character is facing:

photo 2

photo 2

It's likely students will begin to retell the whole story. ("So, like, there is the land where there are 12 Districts...") That's fine, because soon you will ask them to...

2. Put those problems in one word or phrase.

Some kids may jump here automatically, but we will need to get to a place where we say, "Friendship" or "Loss of our Identity" or "Bravery" or even, yes, "Love," if we are to move forward. Have students list out all of the problems they see the character facing in the text in a word or a phrase.  Then have them rank those problems from "Most important" to "Least Important."

photo 3 (2)

photo 3 (2)

This will help them to zero in when they...

3. Think about what the text (or scene or chapter) is saying about that problem.

Right? Ok. So the book is about love. Now, what does it seem to be saying or teaching us about love? Simple.

photo 1 (1)

photo 1 (1)

Except you will want to watch your expectations here. Remember your kids are trying to develop a bunch of rough draft themes here, not a full-fledged dissertation on the deeper symbolic and archetypal meaning of the Mockingjay in The Hunger Games. Which means your kids are going to say lots of things like...

"Love is hard."

"People with power hurt people."

"You shouldn't judge a book by its cover."

...and this might hurt your heart a little, but it is so important that you high-five your kids when they get here on their own! Remember, thinking about the theme of a text is really hard. These rough drafts themes are important stepping stones on the way to more brilliant and impressive interpretations of the text. If you have kids who do more than this, awesome. But if you have a classroom full of "love is hard," take heart. We will teach them to do it better. For now, smile, say "Yes, that is probably a theme of TheHunger Games," and wait for the next blog post, where will will look at how to complicate and make more sophisticated our fledgling themes.

In the meantime, I will keep going out with my stroller, and my smile.

Stay tuned for the next installment in our Interpretation Series!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpreting Texts                    Tiny Detail: Recipe for Theme