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

On Conventions & Talk & the Power of Listening

This week I head to Las Vegas for NCTE’s annual convention where, along with session Chair Mary Ehrenworth and my fellow speaker and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson, I’ll be presenting at a session on Friday entitled “Unleashing and Harnessing the Power of Talk to Construct and Demonstrate Understanding of Texts, Ourselves, and the World.”

In my part, I’ll be using the lens of talk to share some of the work I’ve written about here and, along with Dorothy Barnhouse, in What Readers Really Do. And I’ll be demonstrating a lesson, using the opening page of Lois Lowry‘s The Giverthat positions students to talk their way from confusion toward insight, with the participants playing the role of typical middle school students—which means that no comment is too literal or far-fetched. Then Jessica will share a clip of “The Giver Geek Squad”—a.k.a. some of her 6th graders—wrestling with some of the patterns and details they’ve noticed in the book.

Our session is based on the premise that, as Grand Conversation authors Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds say, “Dialogue is the best pedagogy.” And it’s informed by the work of Peter Johnston who, in his indispensible books Choice Words and Opening Minds, demonstrates how profoundly our talk affects students. My time in Reggio, however, reminded me of how important it is not just to give students time and space to talk, but to give ourselves time and space to listen. In fact, listening deeply to what students are saying seemed something that many of us wanted to import from Reggio and bring back home to our schools.

This is not to say we don’t already listen. But like the purposes behind the practice of charting, which I explored last week, I think there’s a subtle but significant difference between the purpose of listening in Reggio and here. And that difference seems captured in this quote from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

In classrooms I think we tend to listen in order to reply instructionally, as we zip from student to student to student, dispensing advice during conferences,  or we squeeze in a required number of small groups in a narrow window of time. In fact, we’re often evaluated by how many students we can get to in a day, which seems to suggest that we value quantity over quality, despite whatever we might say, and, perhaps, are more focused on teaching than learning.

In my own practice with teachers, however, I often try to do what I was pleased to see affirmed in Reggio: to use what precious time I have to try to understand as deeply as possible what students are doing with the texts in front of them by listening to their thinking. Last month, for instance, I worked with a small group of students as a handful of teachers watched. According to their teacher, all five students seemed stuck at level M. And knowing that level M books often require a fair amount of inferring, especially around characters and their relationships to others, I planned a lesson using the following excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff‘s book Fish Face, which, as you can see, is filled with revealing details that both show and tell.

I explained to the students that we were going to read a chunk at a time then share our ideas about what the writer might be trying to tell us through the details that she’s chosen. But while one student was able to read the first chunk and say that he thought Emily was jealous of the new girl because of “the stuff” about the earrings, the other four weren’t so sure. And as we listened to the talk that ensued, it became clear that those four students were really confused about who was who—who had the brown hair, who had the earrings, who thought about begging her mother—and much of that confusion stemmed from their uncertainty about the pronoun ‘she’.

Giving the students the space and time to talk—and listening really closely—allowed us to better understand what was holding those students back. But instead of jumping in to clear up their confusion or offering some on-the-spot instruction, I did something similar to what Reggio teachers do. I took what I’d learned by listening and designed a new lesson—what in Reggio they call a new ‘learning context’—to, in their words, ‘relaunch’ the learning, choosing the following page from Leftover Lily by Sally Warner, which offered similar pronoun challenges.

Gathering the four students who’d struggled last time, I began by making a list of pronouns and acknowledging how confusing these little words could be. Then I invited them to think about how we could figure out who those small words referred to as we read a paragraph at a time and talked. And as I and the observing teachers listened, more things came to light. Some students thought the ‘I’ in the first paragraph had to be the same ‘I’ in the second, though others thought that didn’t make sense. Then one suggested that since there seemed to be a conversation going on, the ‘I’ in the second paragraph had to be the person Daisy was talking to, which she thought was Lily. All the students agreed with that, but that didn’t necessarily mean they knew whose heart was going floop. They needed to talk that through as well, eventually solving the problem by replacing the ‘my’ with each character’s name and deciding whose heart would most likely be bouncing or tied in a knot, which is how they interpreted floop. To do this, they had to go back to the beginning and think about what was happening, while also dealing with the pronoun ‘us’. And through this process they ultimately arrived at the idea that Lily, of the flooping heart, was the one telling the story.

As the teachers and I thought about what we’d heard, we decided that these students needed much more time practicing this exact kind of thinking in order to truly internalize and learn it, and that they also needed time thinking about how dialogue, narrators and paragraphs worked since they also weren’t sure that the ‘she’ in the last paragraph meant Daisy. The teachers were eager to try and create additional ‘learning contexts’ for them to experience these concepts—and to continue to listen closely to better understand their students’ thinking.

I’m eager to listen in Las Vegas as well, where I’m sure there will be much to learn. And I’m eager to meet blog readers in person if any of you are there. Just know, though, that what happens in Vegas might not necessarily stay there . . . .

Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from http://www.toothpastefordinner.com