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Saving Summer: Rethinking Themes, Essays, and Media

I’m about to do a dangerous thing: post a document long before it’s “ready.” It is not even close, and I think–that’s where it should be. A finished document would mean there is no room for growth or adaptation; it’s a sketch. Flipping my thinking around about the silo type of units, students would be better served if we took a gravitational, or centrifugal force idea. While we’re spinning, we stay connected and use metacognition to be cognizant of what draws us in. Choices are key, here, with a map for guidance. In essence, every UBD and essential questions demand a variety of genres and modes of texts. We think about big issues in a kaleidoscope way, not linear. I started thinking about units I’ve created in the past, and some of the theme topics, and came up with this document:

Ethical ELA is a huge influencer, and sites such as

Nothing should be off limits: essays, short stories, podcasts, films, novels, poetry, letters, texts, tweets, news, classics and modern re-tellings, pop culture, graphic novels, series: sources for texts and media are bordering on the infinite. If you can write it or read it, it belongs.

Oh, and for the curated list, a wonderful collection of essays that may come in handy:

10 personal essays that will teach you how to write

What big questions are ones you come back to again and again in your teaching? No matter how many times I watch Descendants, I see something new.

Descendants from Goro Fujita on Vimeo.


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Saving Summer: Why do I need this?

Relevancy: how many students passively sit in class, waiting to be entertained? Engagement is key, but as the wise man said, “I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause /you’ll play against you.” In other words: sometimes you’re going to have to enjoy your own company and think/create your own thoughts.

Why Humanities? Why read? Why listen? Why talk?

To be an interesting human.

The other morning scrolling through social media I watched a Buzzfeed talk — and immediately recognized it as a character analysis. “Captain Obvious,” yes, that may be; however, many students watch and critique the media they love, or hate, all the time–they may not know it. The trick is to make school not so “school-y.” Still a work in progress for me.

@BuzzFeedCocoaButter posted this on Facebook. I could not find it on Youtube, so this is a screencasting. My apologies for the quality.


CocoaButter does a beautiful job of how this character relates to her personally (“If you could be friends with this character…?”) and how the character relates to the whole of the narrative, including her own parallel narrative in the series.

This article in Edutopia outlines precisely how to teach literary analysis:

Teaching Literary Analysis

What may be the bridge between this example of literary analysis (with its focus on character) is explaining to students (the teaching part) that CocoaButter didn’t just talk off the top of her head. She went through this process of discussion, gathering evidence, etc. It would be an interesting lesson to see if students can deconstruct her process. But most of all: the topic of Jodie Landon was clearly important to her, and she brought the “So What?” importance to her topic. It’s not enough to summarize and answer questions rotely–students must connect emotionally to their ideas and topics, and then have the tools and platform to share.


This critical stage is often a learning curve for many students. It’s important that the teacher helps them distinguish between descriptive writing and analytical writing. Descriptive writing answers the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “how” questions. It often tends to summarize the text. Analytical writing, however, answers to the “why” question. When students consider the question, “Why is this point important?”, it pushes them beyond mere description into ideas that are convincing, argumentative, and defend a position.”–

This infographic is going to be a big part of the writing process, too, as well as a path for literary analysis. This is an important step before I bring them to the funnel writing method.

What character has changed how you view the world or connected with you on a visceral level?

Key Ideas and Details:

Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences are drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
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Saving Summer: The Raven and Sunshine

It is a balmy 71 degrees Fahrenheit, 22 Celcius, and there is nothing but blue skies and Palamino ponies as far as the eye can see. Admittedly, a bit difficult to get my head back to a dreary, dark December, and knocks on chamber doors, but if I don’t do this now, I might lose the moment. Recently on the Notice and Note Facebook page, there was a wonderful thread on how to teach theme. This question provided a chance to go through some of my previous research on this question, and see other’s grand ideas. One thing I didn’t get to share was what my coach Vicky walked me through last fall: it was a new way to teach one of my favorites, The Raven, and though I need to modify the lesson and add a bit more of my personality to it, this is a wonderful approach.

Here are two previous posts:

Thematic Thursdays, published July 27, 2016

Stitching Together Themes, published November 3, 2015

Let’s walk through it:

  1. Read the text first. Sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes we all need this reminder.
  2. Develop a few possible investigative questions for students:
    1. What is the conflict?
    2. What does the character want?
    3. What are they afraid of?
    4. What do they love?
    5. What sensory details show us possible seed ideas?
  3. Have anchor charts ready to go!

This is Vicky’s lesson plan:


The If/Then Chart: project and share
Have multiple copies of the text and display on an ELMO type device: go through the text with each class.

(I cannot find the anchor chart with all the students’ thinking…ugh: but it had words like:

  • nightmare
  • bad luck
  • loneliness
  • despair
  • loss
  • sadness

And if you need an If/Then chart for when students are finished, what they might want to do next:

And a classic:

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Thematic Thursday

Last year one of my students had one of those lightbulb moments, that eureka shake up, awesome anagnorisis,  where she completely understood what I meant by the concept of the difference between topic and theme.

This is a biggie. It’s important because it means I can do it. Because teaching theme…teaching it well that is..isn’t easy.

So on Thematic Thursdays, there is intentional time to do just that, however the strategy, whatever the current unit of study.

I am a lifelong devoted scholar of the study of themes, and yet, it is as painful to teach for me as doing my own dentistry sometimes. I need to just get over myself. Some teachers know how to simplify teaching theme, distill it to its most essential elements. This anchor chart isn’t a bad place to start, but it’s that last sentence starter that doesn’t hold up for me. Is theme a formula–if x then y? I don’t think it is. And I am also not sure if the author is always in control of one lesson in a work, be it a novel, poem, dance, art, or music. The danger is telling students there is only one answer. Theme is not a main or central idea. The central ideas help create the possible themes.


Grabbed off of Pinterest
Grabbed off of Pinterest
This site does a solid job of discussing literary devices. I only take exception with calling topics themes.
This site does a solid job of discussing literary devices. I only take exception with calling topics themes.

However, I approach teaching and discussing themes more like an alchemist. So what happens on Theme Thursdays? Again, any number of things. An exploration of a current unit, question, time to bird walk and discuss, muse, or laser focus on symbolism and motif? Creation of personal themes, missions, pledges, for one’s own narrative. We can look at art, read a poem, or perhaps prepare for Film Fridays.

This is a PowerPoint I created years ago. It still holds up pretty well. 

Tim Shanahan has a pretty good post about this: I invite anyone who has something to add to this discussion to please do so: how do you ‘teach theme’ — is it by definition and then exploration, or the other way around?


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Stitching themes.

vintage sewing victorian

As a follow-up to “How To Teach A Novel,a treatise on theme. I contend that all the close reading strategies in the world only serve to engage us in the bigger conversation, the “grand conversation’ as my master’s mentor instructed us. (I thank you every day, Dr. Schulhauser.) 

One word: Patterns.

Patterns in terms of speech, actions, reactions, resolution and take-aways. What does the writer believe, what is she questioning, and what is she exploring? Did she take us with her, or leave us confused and behind? 

Theme is, as most language arts concepts, deceptively simple to define, and yet a chasm-size leap of thinking. Like novel teaching, it is process, not a prescription. But there are a few steps to help students over the rickety bridge of thematic analysis.

Yesterday I tried the old stand-by of having them think about their favorite singers/performers. They were instructed to NOT say the names out loud, because I didn’t want to get into a Nicky Minaj/Drake/Bieber war. (Haven’t heard of the great Swift war? Hundreds left homeless, and memes abounded.) I then asked, individually, to name, and then analyze how type of songs they sang. They were very excited to share their ideas, and didn’t get into musical taste battles (too much). We talked about how we choose music to listen to depending on our moods, and we know who will help us with that mood. And yes, they all talked about how Taylor Swift writes a lot of break-up songs.

This access of thinking, breaking it down, helps build their internal trust, of trusting their instincts, and then thinking further to take risks. In other words, it’s one thing to build up all the preparation with close reading, etc. but quite another to have them take a leap of faith over that bridge.

The bridge looks a lot like:

rickety bridge

I want students to feel:

golden gate

A fabulous special education teacher, brand new, young, but an old soul, showed this old dog a new trick:

(seed idea/topic) CAN _____________.

 Think about the beauty of that simplicity:

Racism CAN create monsters out of honorable men.

Misunderstandings CAN create a lifetime of hurt.

Love CAN create wholeness out of destruction.

This clear path to discussing theme may help those lightbulb moments for a few students still struggling to walk across the bridge…and that’s a key component…let them walk across, don’t carry.

Here are some resources about theme:

From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.
From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.

11 Tips for Teaching About Themes

Teaching Themes: Reading Worksheets

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