Teaching Theme? The last lesson you'll need

Every English teacher has said it, "So, what do we think the theme might be in this piece?" This question is almost always followed by ten excruciatingly frustrating minutes of students trying to guess what the teacher is thinking, while the teacher does his or her best to project the "right" answer directly into to student brains through advanced forms of mental telepathy developed through years of trail and error, mostly error. It never works and it is a waste of valuable class time.

The problem is, you can't teach theme one text at a time, so each time you teach a text you have to reteach what theme is because students have forgotten about theme since the last time you played this guessing game. It takes many repeated exposures to the concept of theme for students to understand the idea and get beyond guessing at single words and cliches.

To give my students the repeated and memorable exposure to the concept of theme that they needed, I tried looking at the process another way. Instead of giving students a text and asking for the theme, I gave them themes and asked them to list books and movies that fit the theme. I called this "Your Last Lesson on Theme" and told my students they would understand it so well after this that I would never give them another lesson on theme ever again. It was a lot of fun and it worked.

My students sit in groups of six anyway, so for this activity I grouped them heterogeneously. (Get the Group Creator Spreadsheet if you don't have it yet.) I used the slides below. You can get your own copy of them in your Google Drive by clicking HERE.

As I displayed each theme groups wrote down as many titles as they could that fit the theme. Then I asked each group for a title. They had to rotate their presenter on each round and tell me why the title they named fit that theme. They could not use a title mentioned by another group in that round. They could reuse a title for another theme later in the game though. I started with a different group each time, so that no one group was always first or last.

Students noticed that the same theme often easily fit multiple stories that they knew. They also noticed that a single book or movie often fit with multiple themes. They came to understand that a theme is not one word. It's not a cliche. It's not a moral. It is a universal truth or statement about the world. They didn't forget that. And the next time I asked my students to suggest a theme for a text they had ideas. They wanted to talk about them. They knew there could be more than one possible theme and multiple interpretations. Instead of fishing for one quick "right" answer or trying to read my mind they were thinking for themselves.



Slide 16 is meant to be funny and clearly references one particular movie franchise. For even more fun, it is possible to go back and show students that every theme in this slide deck also refers to the same trilogy.

The following day my students completed a graphic organizer about the theme of the book they were reading with their book group. You can get your own copy of the organizer my students used for their work by clicking HERE.

If you use these I'd love to know how they work for you and your students. Leave me a comment or send me a tweet. (@JenRoberts1)