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

19 thoughts on “Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

  1. Dear Vicki,
    I love how you extended the thinking of these kids! It makes me crazy when I see bulletin boards with all of the exact same writing. I have to ask…WHAT is the value in that? And while some of those kids might have thought about the idea of good vs. evil…I love how you took that thinking even further and asked the kids to go more deeply. THIS is brilliant, as it also shows the progression and the thinking of the collective group.
    I love the Paper Bag Princess. I used to have my kids act it out with an enormous dragon puppet and every day that we were studying Fairy Tales we would have different people take on different parts. I remember one day when chubby little bright red-haired Jonathan said that he wanted to be the Princess. And it went from there as then every boy wanted their chance at being the Princess and the dragon and then Prince. In fact this daily drama went way beyond the unit and would resurface often at our Morning Meeting where we did a daily Picture Book Drama. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to read and reread and look more deeply into the characters and that the idea of theme does NOT have to be summed up into one word.
    Magnifico!
    Tomasen

  2. I love reading this blog! Just yesterday, my colleagues and I were discussing theme. First, we were getting caught up on all of the terms. Then, the conversation was leading to matching books to themes, but with further consideration, we decided against it. This post was just what I needed to read!

    • So glad it was useful, Faith! For the record I have done some ‘thematic’ units this year because of the way NYC seems to be interpreting the CCS, but the goal is always to think about what each individual text has to say about the overarching theme–i.e., the what about what it’s about–and make enough space for kids to be able to find other meaning in the text beyond the unit’s theme. But choosing books because they’re great and you think you’re students will love them is always the best way to go.

  3. Thank you! In our 5th grades we are guiding students at the end of a fantasy unit to decide on themes that are surfacing for them. The difficulty, as you stated, is that the adults guiding them haven’t had enough time to linger themselves with the “what” of theme. They are nervous in the students’ need to linger and try out their thinking around themes that surface for them. As Ginny Lockwood (our consultant) and others caution us, we need to expose, not impose. The demands of the Common Core make it such that the adults guiding the work need a very sophisticated understanding of literature. Without it, the best laid plans could end up fostering the present type of “pin the tail” thinking as we move ahead in this complex work. Please keep helping us!

    • Margaret, this issue of what we (the teachers) can do seems huge and worth exploring. Thanks for raising it. I’d love it if some of the PD in our school district would be devoted to reading text in the ways we are asking our students to read (both fiction and informational text) and then to talk and think about what we are doing with each other. That would be time well-spent, in my opinion! And it might do much more to build conversations between people (as well as cultures of learning and support) than other methods.

      Does your school district do professional development that builds teacher capacity in this way?

      • Yes Steve – agreed about us teachers need to read the text in the ways we are asking our students to read. Vicki’s blog posts have challenged me to totally rethink my individual and group reading instruction. This week it flowed into the incidental discussion during our serialised novel, ‘Toad Rage’ by Morris Gleitzman. I had to work just as hard as the students in visualising a ‘time shift’ scene. However I now know it’s okay for me to think out loud as a learner. Proving that I WAS wrong instead of proving that I am always right seemed to be a valuable experience for us all in our classroom. Then out of the blue came a student’s comment on the book’s title, which led to a discussion of the ‘theme’ of the novel. We haven’t agreed yet!
        Vicki, through your blog posts, I have become more patient and more open to accepting the thinking of my students.
        cheers
        Brette

      • Thanks for this, Brette. Comments like this–and the fact that this conversation is spanning half the globe–really keeps me going as the tide here seems to be turning to more teacher prompting and more ‘right’ answer thinking. And all of that makes me especially love the exclamation point over the fact that you all haven’t agreed yet! I think that means that the students are holding multiple possibilities and ideas in their heads as they keep reading forward and thinking backwards–and I think that’s precisely the kind of creative, flexible & innovating thinking we need in this complex world of ours. That, and the belief that being able to revise our thinking is more important that being right from the start.

      • Brette,
        This sounds like such fun, the back and forth between you and your class. So spontaneous and genuine. I’ve had a bad case of the US education system blues lately; the cure is a story like yours from the classroom. Thank you. Thank you.

        (Also, I haven’t read Toad Rage, but it looks like something we’d like! Was this a read aloud with your third years?)
        –steve

      • Interestingly enough, Steve & Margaret, I recently read a post by Timothy Shanahan, who’s a big CCS spokesman that I frequently disagree with, but who said something I totally believe in–that the best PD for teaching deep or close reading is creating or joining some kind of reading discussion group, institute or workshop that helped teachers engage in texts as real readers, “trusting that they would be able to share their insights with their students” (http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/2013/03/why-discussions-of-close-reading-sounds_2091.html). It’s the learning-by-doing model of capacity-building PD that I think is the only way of really owning what you’re teaching–though, unfortunately, we don’t seem to value that as much as we should. I think that you, Steve, would be totally capable of facilitating that on your own, but at the risk of making another shameless plug, it’s the work I most love to do.

    • I love Ginny Lockwood and ‘expose, not impose’ is such a great line! The question, though, is are we, as teachers, always comfortable with the kind of thinking we want to expose kids to? My hunch is that lots of teachers don’t really feel confident in their own deep reading ability, often because their own schooling didn’t support them enough–which is certainly what happened to me. When I was in high school, I remember feeling that being asked to ‘find’ the theme was akin to casting a fishing line into a pond and reeling something in. If I was lucky, I’d snag ‘the theme,’ but more often I wound up with something equivalent to a rusty can. It seemed mystifyingly hit-or-miss to me, and that made me anxious about the whole idea of theme for many, many years until my own out-of-school reading experiences helped me see how thinking about the implications of books that I loved and felt connected to led me naturally to thematic thinking.

      Whenever I can, I try to replicate that learning-by-doing experience for the teachers I work so that they, too, can see how we ‘grow’ those more universal thematic understandings by digging more deeply into the specifics of the text, especially by exploring the why’s and the how’s. That’s the messy, time-consuming work we need to let kids grapple with–and fantasy books are a great place to do that in because it can really drive home for the kids that how and why a fantasy character manages to deal with whatever situations the writer has put in their path has implications for us, here on earth. And just for the record, since Steve raised the PD question, I’m available for those kind of teacher learning-by-doing workshops, if it’s something your school or district is interested in.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on theme. I find what you say to be true in the classrooms I visit and in the conversations I have with teachers. Just one thought: I think it’s more important to allow kids the opportunity to talk and deepen their understandings than it is to lead them to a particular theme that we as adults have articulated, such as the feminist theme in The Paperbag Princess. One way to do this is to start the way you did by exploring the big ideas in their original theme statement without preconceived notions about where we want them to go. Or, if you must take them there, then tell them what you think is an important theme and have them try to agree or disagree, as the case may be, with examples from the text. This honors students where they are developmentally. What do you think?

    • The Paperbag Princess class was a little unusual in that they’d already read the story and come up with their idea before I entered the picture. Ideally, I’d invite a class to think about the details and develop their ideas AS they were reading and talking, not AFTER they’d read, which might have led to more varied thinking and paths. As it was, with that saying already stamped on the text, I wanted them to consider that question: What about not judging a book by its cover was this specific text exploring, which meant going back to the particulars of this book.

      As for putting my own ideas out there, I try to do that as little as possible because too often it becomes the ‘right’ idea–and like you, I don’t think I’d ever consider any single theme more important than the students’ ability to engage in deeper thinking. And if they weren’t developmentally ‘ready’ to circle any of that gender thinking, I need to trust that eventually they will be–and maybe even value the fact that they’re unaware of people making judgments based on sex. I might, though, think about introducing another text that explored a similar issue, like Olive Button is a Sissy or William’s Doll, to see what they could do with that–again AS they made their way through the text, with them asking lots of questions, sharing their ideas, and talking all the time.

      • I like the idea of introducing other texts that address similar issues of gender. If children haven’t been exposed to this idea before they will not be able to formulate thinking that addresses these more complex issues, many of which they’ve probably experienced or witnessed but don’t have the vocabulary to express to themselves or others.

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  7. Lots of great thinking here! I’m nodding and saying “yes” to myself with every comment. Not much more for me to add, except to say that I always try really hard to ask “What do you think one of the themes of this story might be? …What else?” (by way of encouraging multiple interpretations and avoiding the idea that there is ONE “right” answer when it comes to theme.)

    • I’ve actually come to think that ‘might’ might be one of the most powerful words we bring into a classroom as it invites thinking, rather than evaluates thought. It opens doors rather than closes them, which identifying the theme questions seem to do. As for Notice and Note, I’ll be curious to hear what you think. There was much in it that I loved, but I had some questions about the signposts, which I think risk sending students on hunt and seek missions rather than, as Maxine Greene says, “to notice what there is to be noticed” more broadly.

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