Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together - Room 213

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Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Understanding the theme of a story can be challenging. Like all human beings, students want to take the easy way out. They read a difficult text and they want "the answer" to magically pop into their heads, without doing any mental stretching to get there.  They think that we English teachers will look at any piece of writing, no matter how complex, and automatically understand everything the author did. Not so.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story

The difference between us and them, along with lots and lots of experience, is that we know there are steps one needs to take to uncover an author's message.  There's no moral at the end of the story, so we need to look for clues within the lines to discover what the writer is trying to tell us.

For years, I've used the metaphor of puzzle building to teach my students these steps. I tell them that as they read they need to scatter the pieces so they can put them all together and see the big picture--without the aid of the one on the puzzle box.  Some things will be obvious, like the corners and edges, but others are much more difficult to place.  However, as with puzzles, readers just need to put in the work it takes to patiently discover where that piece of sky actually fits.

Teach students how to understand theme in a story
Since I've been falling in love with learning stations, I decided to create one that would take my students through my puzzle metaphor.  We are doing short stories right now, and I wanted them to be able to write about the ways the author develops the theme of the story.  They need to move beyond just identifying the writer's message and be able to articulate the methods s/he uses to do so.

I gave each group a piece of chart paper that had each page of the story pasted in the middle (they had read and annotated the story individually for homework). Then, each group began at one of the following stations: title, plot, setting, point of view, conflict, character, recurring elements and quotations. Each station contained task cards that asked them to record information about that particular element.   They were encouraged to write all over the story and chart paper as they answered the questions.

After about ten minutes, groups moved clockwise to the next station, taking their chart paper/stories with them. Once every group had been at each station, they were given a new task card that said: The final task card said: Look at the information you have collected and record a summary statement on each of the puzzle pieces. Your statement should capture the most important info for each category. Put the pieces together and try to see the big picture: what is the author’s message?  
Learning stations for discovering theme
The final step was to fill in the pieces and then put them together (I had cut the pieces out, but it was time consuming. Next time the kids are getting the scissors!).  Once they completed that step, they had a discussion about author purpose, while I circulated, nudging where necessary.  Every group came to an excellent conclusion, even if they took a different angle than the rest.  

After that, we worked together to create a piece of writing that explained the author's message.  They will go through this process again (see my previous post) and write about theme as a group and then create their own for a third story.  Whew.  It's a lot of work to get them there, but I believe that by showing them the process, by breaking down the steps, they will have a far better understanding.

Since using these stations in my class, I've tweaked them a bit, and they are now available HERE in my TpT store. I hope this activity can help your students better understand the process of discovering theme.

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  1. I love this activity! Can't wait to use w/ my student!

    Lit with Lyns

    1. Thanks, Lindsey. I just took in some writing assignments that showed me that the activity was a success!

  2. Love it. What stories did you use?

  3. I used "The Singing Silence" by Eva-Lis Wuorio, "Saturday Climbing" by WD Valgaardson, and "The Spaces Between Stars" by Geeta Kothari.

  4. Hello, I managed to find copies of the first two stories, but can't seem to find "The Space Between Stars". Any idea of where I can find one? Thanks, Diane

    1. Diane, email me at room213custom@gmail.com


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