Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com

Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line by line and page by page. Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”