Interpretation Series: Tracking Themes (Part II)

Thank you for the kind response to our first installment in this Interpretation Series! Many of you shared that our last post helped students begin the complicated process of uncovering rough draft versions of themes. It brings to mind Chinese philosopher Laozi's adage, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Now it is time to take the second step on the path towards rich interpretation. While some of your students might have leapt out of the gate ready to analyze with great insight, many of your kids might be left holding post-its that say "Love is hard." And while this is a great first move, we want to nudge students from there into deeper, more nuanced, more complex interpretations.

Today's post will examine how to help your students begin to track these rough draft themes across a text, discovering layers of meaning they may have missed the first time through. We have found that this work - taking a beginning idea of  theme and tracing its progress across a text - is a good way to help students begin to see that themes are more complex, more contradictory than the ubiquitous: "We shouldn't be prejudiced."

Tracking Themes

The work of tracking themes is familiar to us as adults. After all, we track the themes of our lives as the years roll by and we are faced with our same issues over and over again. When things come up for me at 41, I can trace them back to events on the playground - the circumstances and reactions have changed, but the root emotions feel similar. Take the universal issue of "fitting in." Like many of us, this struggle has stayed with me from the time I first went to elementary school up until the present day.  I could even easily and truly say that a theme of my life is that "fitting is hard." But I know there is more to it than that. I know that right now, in my adulthood, my relationship to this idea is way more complicated that a three word sentence can capture. If I track the development of this theme throughout my life, I realize there have been many turns in the road, many ways this theme has manifested, many layers to this concept of fitting in.

When we reach the end of a book, we are in a similar place as a reader. The big idea is not too hard to suss out - our rough draft themes. But we can sense that there are many more layers to be reflected upon. And tracking a theme across a text can help us to do that work.

Here are three steps that can help us to track a theme, be it across a text or across a life.

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

Here I am going to model these steps on the issue of fitting in throughout my life. First, I can look for what Katherine and Randy Bomer call critical scenes, (in their brilliant text For A Better World) -  times in my life where fitting in felt like an really big deal. Next, I need to live inside those moments for a bit. I need to retell the story so that it is fresh in my mind, so that I can remember the details. Finally, I step back and reflect on what this moment taught me about the theme I am tracking. If I track this idea of "fitting in is hard" across the critical scenes of my life, I see a more complex view of this issue:

1. As a young kid I never fit in, but I also didn't really notice that often. I always had one best friend. I liked playing alone. But then there was the goodbye party when I was moving at the end of third grade. The teacher had thrown it for me but I didn't have any friends, so while the rest of the class partied, I sat in the corner and played my favorite 45 on the record player over and over again.


I felt small and invisible and humiliated. Not one kid talked to me. (Neither did the teacher, but that's another blog post.) So if I reflect on that moment in my life, and what it taught me about fitting in, I would say something like, "Not fitting in can make you feel totally alone, can make you burn with embarrassment."

What I did: I chose a scene from my life where fitting in was a big deal. I then retold it to myself a bit, and reflected on what that moment revealed to me about this idea. Let's try it again on another critical scene:

2. In early high school I continued to not exactly fit in. I had my friends, but I couldn't seem to get "it" right. My hair, my clothes, my way of being, all seemed so far away from where everyone else was around me. But I tried. I tried to learn how to spray my bangs so that they defied the laws of gravity.

80's hair

80's hair

I scoured the mall for the right clothes (Claire's Boutique, anyone?) I watched the other girls to see what they were doing and then tried to roll up my cuffs like they did. But it just didn't seem to add up to anything. I always felt like I was wearing a costume, like I was pretending to be someone and failing onstage every day. What this taught me about fitting in is that if it does not come naturally, fitting in is an incredible amount of work.

Right? Same process: Pick a scene from my life, live in it a little, reflect on issue. One more time:

3. In my twenties, living in NYC, I started to find my own style, to know what I liked and who I liked. And things were better on the fitting in front. I could hang at a party and not feel totally idiotic most of the time. And yet I still was plagued by feeling like everyone had it together when I did not. Confident people terrified me. Once a woman talked about "reclaiming her power" and I felt like she was speaking in an extraterrestrial tongue. I still felt small, I just knew how to exist in the world as a small person. I had come to terms that I did not fit in, and accepted it, and in some weird way, this allowed me to find the people I could fit in with. Fitting in was unnecessary.

I could go on, of course. Later I learned that only through true self acceptance can you fit in anywhere, and I have had the opportunity to learn the joy and camaraderie of fitting in with groups of people. Tracking a theme across my life allows me to see the multiple ideas and lessons I have learned about a given issue or problem. Similarly, when we track themes across the books we read, we can deepen our understanding of the theme we are examining. The process can remain the same, whether we are examining themes in our lives or in texts:

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes.

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

We have found that sometimes having a visual for kids can help them when tracking themes across a text. For example, this page from our demonstration notebook has helped us work with small groups on a class text to give kids some practice doing this work before they go off on their own.

Everybody likes a game board.

Everybody likes a game board.

For the next installment in our interpretation series, we will take a look at how to help students refine, choose and back up their themes, say for a literary essay or discussion. Without work like tracking their theme across a text, however, we have found that students' rough draft themes never get much fuller. Like all good thinking work, of which interpretation is certainly an example, it is essential to allow things to get a little messy before the thinking gets all cleaned up and perfect. This is the messy step, the place where we encourage students to think a whole lot of things about their books and their interpretations before they are asked to prove anything.

After all, it takes a lifetime of messy thinking to get a grasp on the issues in our lives. Certainly we can give kids at least a few days to deepen their thinking before they have to decide what they believe about a book.

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpretation               Tiny Detail: Tracking Themes Across a Text in Three Steps