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Teaching Themes Through Keywords

Aimee Buckner

I have a friend who is a whiz at online dating. It turns out you can go to these various websites and put in a 'keyword' and out pops Romeo! So if you love to read, you type in the word read or books and a catalog of men who actually claim to read pops up. Interesting. The same thing is true for other sites that allow searches. You can put in the word friend and out pops a list of books about friendship. Or you can type World War II and out pops that list. It makes me wonder, how does the computer know? Well clearly, someone has read the book -- usually an editor -- and pulls out keywords connected to the book's theme. 

Most books have a theme of some sort -- a concept or message threaded throughout the book. As a student in high school and college, I was often given the task of identifying a book's central theme and then writing an essay defining and defending the theme. It wasn't always easy, and my ideas didn't always match the "right" answer.

Understanding Themes Through Deeper Reading

Elementary students can understand the concept of themes, but we're often in such a hurry to move on to the next book or the next objective, that we don't have time for hindsight -- thinking about a book after we read it. I've begun to slow down in order to help students study fewer books more deeply -- rereading and discussing a book before, during, and after we read it. As a class, we may read less books together, but we're reading and thinking more deeply than I ever thought possible with ten year olds.

I do cheat a bit, though. I give them a keyword before they read the book. I usually have several keywords that they can choose from, and their job is to think about how that one word resonates throughout the book. In their reading notebooks, or on sticky notes or a bookmark, students are keeping track of ideas and/or events that happen that connect to their keyword. In essence, they're following a theme which is guiding their thinking as they read. This often requires the kids to reread parts of the book on their own, as they try to keep the story in mind as well as the underlying theme.

While reading aloud The Last Holiday Concert by Andrew Clements, I gather some of my students to try out this strategy. 

"What do you think about our book so far?" I ask.

"I love it!" says Drew. "I think the teacher is mean though."

Emma agrees, "Yeah, I don't like the teacher either. He doesn't make things fun. But I don't think he should have shot the rubber bands."

"It was an accident," Drew reminds her.

"I don't think so. What did he expect to happen if he was playing with rubber bands?" Emma retorted.

Before the conversation went too far down this road, I interrupted. "Well, I think we're just talking about the story and not really thinking deeply about what we're reading. But, I have an idea!"

"You always do," chimes in Trey, always the charmer.

"I have read this book before, and I think there are some words that may help us reveal some deeper ideas in the story. They're like a magnifying glass -- by reading the book with one of these words in mind, it will help you see things others might miss."

"What kind of words?" Emma says suspiciously.

"I have four: popularity, peace, self-centered, and control."

"What are we supposed to do?" asks Katelyn.

"I'm glad you asked. I want you to choose a word, then you're going to work with a partner to think about the word and its meaning. Then as you read, you're going to think about how this word connects to this book and story."

We try it together first with the word self-centered. We first discuss what it means to be self-centered and how that might look. Then we talk about the opposite of being self-centered, and list words and phrases that describe that. Finally, we connect the word to the book based on what we have read so far, and ask ourselves questions trying to connect the book to the word or theme. 

Students then choose a partner and a word to begin their work. As our class reads the book aloud, children initiate conversations that show their thinking about the word they have chosen. When they don't bring up their keywords, I ask them about the words, thereby inviting the other students in class to participate. Here is what we came up with as a class for 'self-centered':

Self-Centered

What it is...

being selfish, thinking only of yourself, getting only your way, always about you, thinking you're the best, sometimes rude

What it isn't...

thoughtful, thinking of others, taking turns caring about others, nice

Connection to the book . . . so far

The music teacher is self-centered because he wants to do the concert with the songs he chose his way. He doesn't care what the kids think. 

Hart is self-centered a little bit. He knows he is cool, and he doesn't think about Mr. Meinert's feelings when he shoots the rubber bands at him. He cares what others think about him.

Questions to think about: 

Who is self-centered and how do we know? What might happen if the character(s) stay self-centered? What might happen if the character(s) become selfless and more thoughtful of others? How would these things affect the story? 

Overall, this strategy helped students think more deeply about a book that was being read to them, although it works with books they have a copy of as well. Students who choose to reread books now use this strategy to guide their thinking the second time through.

Try the Strategy Yourself: Themes Through Keywords

Purpose: To help the students see how themes in books are common threads that run through the course of the story. 

How: Have some one-word themes already picked out for a book you're reading with your class or a small group. Teach them to 'map' the word by thinking through the ideas that the word implies. Then show them how to connect it to the book being read. As students read the book, they work to find examples of this theme developing and how it influences the way the story unfolds.

Writing Connection: When rereading their writers' notebooks to find a pattern, students may discover an emerging theme. Maybe they often write about friendships, or have several entries that show their love for a favorite pet. Identifying that one-word theme in their own writing helps a child think about what that word means in their life. From that starting point, seeds for writing are planted.

 

Aimee Buckner

Aimee has taught upper elementary and middle school students, and facilitated groups for various writing institutes for teachers and students of grades K-12. Her books Notebook Know-How and Notebook Connections are bestsellers, and she is a popular workshop leader.