Theme is slippery. As with irony, we know it when we see it, and though it’s easier to define than irony, it still poses a challenge for students. Discussions of theme, then, can be times when students feel they’re not up to the challenge of literary analysis—and this is true particularly for students who tend to struggle with reading and writing.
This presents ELA educators with a challenge, since students as early as fourth grade are asked to identify and analyze themes in text.
So what is a teacher to do? How can we teach our students about theme in such a way that we’re not skipping over reading comprehension, insisting on a “correct” answer, or unintentionally doing the heavy lifting for our students?
Over the course of more than a decade in the classroom, I developed a methodology for empowering students with a process for not only identifying a text’s thematic components but also constructing original thematic arguments.
The first thing students need to know is that, generally, works of literature are about ideas that are larger than the actions or events involving the characters, and very often these ideas pop up over and over again. One place to start with thematic analysis is to create ever-growing lists of these ideas, called thematic components—love, revenge, and so on.
The process I came to call thematic triads boils down to this: Have students identify many thematic components in a text, put them into groups of three, turn one of these triads into a sentence, and voilà, they have an original thematic argument.
This gives students a systematic process for identifying thematic components and thematic statements, a process that enables them to build their skills, and one that shifts analyzing theme away from something intimidating to something that is doable.
But what does this actually look like? The process starts with a definition of a thematic component—a large idea present within a text—and a brainstormed list of some common thematic components: love and revenge, as mentioned above, but also power, greed, freedom, corruption, fate, free will, ambition, lust, violence, youth, family, pain, fear, etc. The list of possibilities is probably endless.
It’s very useful to have anchor charts with lists of these ideas in classrooms so that students can, as they read, refer to the charts and identify thematic components as they arise in texts. As students read, they can transfer these thematic components to the inside back cover of their book, for instance, ensuring that the themes are always at hand and student-generated.
The next step in the process is to turn these thematic component lists into groups of three, or triads. When beginning this process, it’s important to emphasize that there are not correct and incorrect triads, and that the goal is not to find a single correct thematic statement. This can empower students, particularly those who have struggled in ELA classrooms in the past. Let students know that it can be highly instructive to choose a triad at random, see whether it works or not, and then try again.
An Example of a Thematic Triad
For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that we’re reading Animal Farm with students, and that a classroom discussion surfaces these thematic components: power, greed, freedom, corruption, law, and camaraderie. Students might decide to group together greed, freedom, and corruption.
The final step is to turn the triad into a sentence—the thematic statement. Students often struggle with this, wondering in particular how to start. I would advise them to start each sentence with the word when, and think of the thematic statement as running along the lines of “When this happens, then that happens.” This is a great time to model a think-aloud strategy that gets students to see and hear how a scholar goes about using this process to identify theme.
Let’s take a look at what a thematic statement for Animal Farm might look like, using the triad that students chose. One possibility: “When one’s greed overtakes one’s desire for freedom, it can lead to corruption.”
This may not be the most insightful, original thematic statement in the world, and in all likelihood the first few times students go through this exercise, they will struggle and not be satisfied. That’s good—it means they’re invested in the process and will try again, and improve every time they try.
What all of this requires of teachers is a thorough, insightful, and nuanced understanding of any text they’re teaching. We cannot stay one chapter ahead of our students and expect to guide them to an authentic level of analysis—we need to know what thematic components are located in the text, and which thematic statements are viable and which are not. In short, we must be the literary scholars we are grooming our students to be.