Monday, October 30, 2017

Help! My Kids Can't Find The Theme: One Way to Merge the Ideas of Beers, Probst, Kittle & Lehman

        As a literacy coach in a middle school, I read a lot of professional books and have found that most books I read have changed my thinking or practices in at least some way. However, few books have transformed the way I instruct as much as Notice and Note Strategies for Close Reading by Kyleen Beers & Robert Probst.  This book describes a systematic and scaffolded process to help students independently uncover the important pieces of the text and how they lead to character development, conflict, and theme.  Teachers in my district now use these Literary Signposts, as Beers & Probst have dubbed them, daily as a strategy to help students be able to master the Common Core standards.  We've been teaching them for a few years now and have even had the lucky experience of spending the day  with Beers & Probst to increase our capacity to use the strategies described in their books.

       Teachers follow the process with fidelity.  They teach each signpost within the context of a rigorous text, using the Fisher & Frey I-do, we-do, you-do with a partner, you-do independently approach.  They model how to locate the signpost, how to answer the anchor question, and how to annotate the text using the anchor question. They ask kids to review and discuss their annotations with the goal of determining the theme of the text.  For example, if the students are reading the short story "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (a story where a citizen is stoned to death each June after an elaborate Lottery ritual is performed) the teacher would help the students how to use the again and again signpost on a second read, and  locate and analyze the places in the text where old ritualistic behaviors without purpose begin surfacing. Each time something with this idea would emerge, students would then be expected to answer the anchor question designed by Beers & Probst:  Why do I think this idea keeps popping up again and again?  Additionally, the Words to the Wiser Signpost also exists in "The Lottery" when Old Man Warner, the town's eldest citizen, speaks the infamous line: "Lottery in June, Corn Be Heavy Soon." Students are then instructed to analyze this piece of the text utilizing Beers & Probst's anchor question:  What is the life lesson and how might it affect the characters?  While students are often able to recognize the signpost and annotated with appropriate and insightful inferences, when it comes time to connect their thinking together and determine an overall theme of the text, many still falter.
           The issue of students struggling to determine a theme is not unique to the story "The Lottery."  I receive this same feedback from many English teachers in the district.  Students were having rich discussions but often falling short when it came time to determine a theme independently in the text.  At the same time that I was observing this data with students in classrooms and receiving similar feedback from teachers, I had just finished leading a book study on Penny Kittle's Book Love:  Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. 
The purpose of this book is probably the most important one any educator can attempt to explore:  how do you develop a passion for reading in your students?  Inside this discussion, Kittle describes an activity she did with students to get them started thinking about theme.  In her book, Kittle takes us through a modeling process of helping students ask questions that the authors are trying to get readers to think about as they read.  She tells students that "most books have questions at the center, and when we stop to think about them, we often understand more"  (99).  She then allows students to see her own thinking process as she writes with her students about the questions that the author expects readers to explore in the book Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt.
             After reflecting on this idea, a light bulb went off in my head. I started thinking about another book I had read, Falling In Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman where he suggests asking students to examine patterns in text
evidence to determine a theme and central idea as opposed to having kids determine a theme first and then search blindly for evidence supporting their idea. These two books quickly merged together in my mind to provide the missing link between the signpost anchor question and developing the theme.  I  pulled a teacher into the conversation and shared my idea.  From there we created a flow map of steps for students to follow, and have been pleased with the results.

From SignPosts To Theme

Step One:  Teach The Signposts & Have Students Search For Patterns In Their Annotations
             The next time I taught a theme lesson with teachers, after having kids find the signposts and discuss the anchor questions, we asked kids to find patterns inside their annotations for a given signpost, Christopher Lehman style.  So, in "The Lottery" that I referenced earlier, students might recognize that their annotations about the lottery events all involve rituals or practices, that people don't know why they are doing the things they are doing, and that these practices were all determined years ago by earlier generations. 

Step Two:  Turn These Patterns Into Questions The Author Is Hoping Readers Will Consider

Now, using these patterns, they are then asked to use Penny Kittle's idea and come up with questions that the author might be asking them to consider about life.  I tell them that they should use some of the key words from the patterns they found in step one inside their questions. In the case of the lottery, these patterns lead to these questions:
  • Why do people follow practices from the past that they don't understand?
  • What are the problems that occur with an entire society following practices that are old and useless?
Step Three:  Answer These Questions Using Story Events
        Next, we ask students to answer these questions based on story events.  So, in "The Lottery,"  we revisit Ole Man Warner's Words of the Wiser and think about how a citizen, Tessie Hutchinson is stoned to death at the story's end.  These two events together help us to realize that following a ritual may have a bad outcome.  And because Old Man Warner talks about how there used to be a saying about having a plentiful crop if the lottery was performed, we can only guess that the town used to feel that human sacrifice once led to a good harvest.  But since nobody remembers this phrase or even why they are participating in the events of the lottery, an answer to the question might be something like this:

Step Four:  Turn Your Answer Into A Theme Statement

  • Following outdated traditions for the sake of traditions may lead to negative results.   

         And here lies the theme statement. 

     Admittedly , students will still need time and practice and scaffolding to be able to follow this process independently, but we have noticed that even our students who typically struggle with theme were immediately coming up with great questions as part of the process.
          So I would like to end by thanking Beers, Probst, Kittle, and Lehman for sharing their learning with the rest of us.  Together, we can get every kid there. 

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