Secret Confession #1…

I’ve been avoiding this question like the plague, because – hello! – I’m an English teacher. And yet… here it goes.. What is Theme?

It plagues me, I tell you, plagues me!

I spent all my middle school and high school years struggling to understand and explain what theme was. It was pretty easy getting by; after all, longwinded explanations in class or easy process-of-elimination tricks during tests help in figuring out “theme” (especially if they write out the themes for you).  But I never had an easy time explaining this.

In college, I loved figuring out how to write my lit papers. I’d spend days revising my intro paragraph and writing and rewriting my thesis statement. By the time I’d stewed in this for days, the rest of the paper would practically write itself. (This is my writing process). Somehow, by the time I got to the conclusion, I was able to figure out what the larger idea was and tweak my introduction. My thesis would be bombtastic and voila, in the midst of it all, I’d be able to argue that I had figured out one of the major themes.

Yet in middle school, it’s not so complicatedly simple. In middle school, I have to be able to say, “Blah!” is the theme. Once I get into the gray college area of hemming and hawwing and agreeing that “sure, given the proper evidence, that could be a theme,” I’ve left the rest of the class behind. And furthermore, the smartypants that asked the question probably wasn’t thinking along the lines that I assumed.

Also, in middle school, I have to make sure that we don’t confuse “topic” (a word or short phrase associated with the text) with “theme” (the main idea or lesson of the text). (Now “theme” however, is not the “moral” of the story. Why not? I don’t know! Or maybe it is!) Even worse, when I refer to teacher guides, sometimes they mix up topic with theme. For instance, “battle of good and evil” or “coming of age” is called a “theme”; but that’s not necessarily a main idea – that’s more a phrase! So sometimes, specific topics are themes?  (This issue is exacerbated by tests doing the same thing!!!)

This bothers me. I hate teaching theme, because in the end, I don’t feel like there’s a specific answer. For now, my main strategy is just hitting the process of determining the theme over and over again, and guiding kids through it, and suddenly by the end of the year, most of them are wowing me with papers that are evidence-based and tell me what a text is saying (okay fine, at least half, if given lots of scaffolded guidance). Then I can say, “A ha, that’s a strong argument,” or “Sorry, kiddo, I’m pretty sure that’s not the theme – or even if it is, you have no proof.” Yet I have this sinking feeling that at the end of the day, the kids are sort of like I was: knowing that they’re supposed to write a certain way and bounce upon the idea that we touched upon most in class.  Would it be messed up to tell them that I know a theme is the strongest because I can feel it in my bones?  Maybe by doing this, it will magically sink in when they get to college.

I’m at this weird point where I’ve been teaching Lit long enough that I take a lot of things for granted, and I forget to walk kids through certain processes.

Seriously: how did you learn what theme was? Or, how do you teach theme? Or how would you teach theme?

Must figure this out before … I retire!


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