THEME: is it one word or a statement? - Room 213

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THEME: is it one word or a statement?

Is theme a word or a statement? Room 213 tries to answer that question.

I've been sitting here, fingers above the keys, wondering if I should call this theme discussion a "debate." The reason for my hesitation? It's not a debate for me; in fact, it's a bit of a pet peeve when my students want to use one word to describe a theme. That's because for me the answer is clear: it's a statement.

So does that mean the blog post is over? 

No, because there are teachers out there who firmly believe - and teach - that theme can be expressed in a word like love, family, courage, etc. So, I decided to dig into this and explore it a little further...open my mind to the possibility that maybe I'm wrong.

I started with a poll on Instagram that posed the question. Seventy-eight percent said that theme was a statement, and I had an unusual number of direct messages from teachers who wanted to weigh in with an explanation. The vast majority of them were in the statement camp too - but one quarter of the poll respondents believe that theme can be expressed in a word.

Why is that? 

After a quick search on the web, I discovered that no one agrees on there either. Of course we all search until we find the definition that matches what we believe - but that's not going to help the fact that kids are getting conflicting messages from us.


Is theme a word or a statement? Room 213 tries to answer that question.
What I've discovered has not changed my mind, but I think I'm beginning to understand why there's a discrepancy: it depends on the age and level of the kids. Look at it this way: elementary teachers tell their students not to start sentences with and, but or because, so they don't write sentence fragments; then, in high school we teach them that those three words are effective transitions to use at the beginning of a sentence.  We do this because, by high school, students can discern the difference. 

The same goes with theme. An eight year old may not be able to pick out the universal message of a story but can tell the teacher that it's about love or courage. We all know that scaffolding skills is a key component of teaching kids, so once they get good at identifying a topic or subject, we need to move them forward to discerning what it is that the author is saying about that topic - and how can it be applied to you and me?

For example, my students can usually pick out that Shakespeare is exploring the idea of ambition in Macbeth. But what is he saying about ambition? Is he suggesting that it's a good thing because you can use it to gain power? Or, is he showing his audience that ambition without morals will lead to dire consequences? How do we know? And, how can you craft a statement that expresses this theme?

The real problem arises when we skip that all important next step and don't challenge the kiddos to look for that underlying message. I know from experience that they find it difficult to craft that theme statement - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't show them how. 

There is another problem, though, and I'm just going to put this out there. Kids have a hard time forgetting what they learned first. It's so hard to break them of the theme-as-word belief in high school. Would it be better, then, if teachers of the younger grades made sure they were explicit with their language and just used the terms topic and subject  and only used theme when speaking of the writer's message?  I have not taught that level, so obviously I don't know what's best. I'm just asking the question.

I don't know if I've solved anything here, but I felt compelled to share my two cents, for what they're worth. I'd love to hear your comments on the matter too! I'd especially love to know this: what is the best age to move kids from finding the topic to finding the message?

If you're looking for more help with teaching your older kids about theme, you can check out these blog posts: 

Understanding Theme: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Teaching Theme When Everyone's Reading Something Different

A follower suggested this video as well. You may want to use it to teach your kids about theme:







10 comments

  1. This is really great article that explores the theme conundrum, and I appreciate your exploration into why it’s happening. I have just assumed, because I don’t like to throw teachers under the bus, that students abbreviate for the sake of being right. If you poll any student, they will use words like prejudice, family, kindness, etc. when reading To Kill a Mockingbird. If we just ask them theme, they’re going to come out with those words. When we ask: what is the message from the author, they will probably give more of a statement. It’s interesting that just the choice of our words in our profession trigger what our kids in the past might have taught them. I will certainly be more clear in what I want from them as sophomores and seniors in high school.

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    1. This is A really great article...
      Interesting that I forgot my article when talking about an article! I even proof read what I wrote...

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    2. I totally agree. It's funny how we English teachers (myself included) get lazy with our words when, ironically, we are trying to teach our students to use them well. It does make me crazy, though, when kids can't move beyond what they learned years ago!

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  2. We agree on the most important point: which skills to teach! On the vocabulary to describe the concepts, however, I fall on what I believe is the minority side ("theme" as single word), and I explain that to my students. I think it's good for them to know that adults haven't got a hive mind, that words are alive and concepts debatable as long as you have good arguments. Otherwise, our discipline is dead and not worthy of passion!

    "Theme," for me, is the topic, what a text is about. "Message" is what the writer has to say about the theme. When you get to the college level, you learn that texts have a lot more to say about their theme than what the writer intended to say ("death of the author," "textual subconscious," and all that). Just like the real world, the best books have a lot of nuances and contradictions to offer, too many to be summarized in one neat sentence; that, to me, is the whole *point* of literature! Otherwise, texts would just be informational. This is why I teach "theme" and "message" as two distinct notions. I warn my students that many teachers call "theme" what I call "message," and I tell them why I do what I do. They are able to get it at the age I teach (6th and 7th).

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    1. "Just like the real world, the best books have a lot of nuances and contradictions to offer, too many to be summarized in one neat sentence." ~ I totally agree. That's why I teach my students to find "a" theme, not "the" one.

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  3. We teach our middle school theme the same way: love, friendship, and courage are topics, which LEAD to themes as a statement. We found this great video online that we use to help our kids. It makes it very clear for the students: https://youtu.be/9H6GCe7hmmA

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    1. That is a great video. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. I work with special education students. What I have found helps the most with theme is to have the kids come up with ONE word that the story/poem is about. From there, I ask them, "What does the author want us to learn about that topic?" That's what help them get to the statement.

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  5. I am an elementary school teacher who teaches theme as a complete statement. In third grade students are exposed to fables which come with ready-made themes. As a 4th and 5th grade teacher, I build on previous understanding. We start with classic short stories, then read classic literature such as The Secret Garden and Call It Courage. My students love that
    I believe they can find the deeper meaning....and then they do!

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    1. Yes, they usually rise to our expectations, don't they!!

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