Thinking Through Theme and Linking Life Lessons

We ended our character unit by naming themes and life lessons and something finally clicked this year in our approach to teaching these troubling things! It was super successful and I'm about to break it down how we covered them. We used this visual of these steps/cake/pyramid (those are the names they gave it) to help us organize our thinking.

This work started when we first thought about the main problem our characters were facing. 

We used these past mentor text to gather a few different problems characters might face in books.

We talked how some books have one large problem and then some smaller ones also. Some have a problem, but it looks different for different characters. We need to pay attention to how our characters create, react, and solve their problems... more on this later.

We'll use Amber Brown as an example:

We then learned what a theme is. I phrased it in a few different ways- the main focus being that it is a big message the author wants to teach us about. I'm linking up with Deb at Crafting Connections to share the anchor chart we made about theme below!

We made this chart then. They came up with most of the themes- some aren't as strong as other (like stealing) but I put it up there anyways. They came up with many others, but we ran out of room! We linked it back to the problem then we thought of a "big message" or theme for some of our books. We started with just one/two word phrases like friendship. I then extended it to be a short statement about that theme. This scaffold really helped with life lessons. Here is our example for Amber Brown:

Think: What does the author want me to learn about in this book around this problem?

Once we had our themes, we went back to look at how the character reacted to the problem. What did they do, say, or feel? This shows us what to do (or not to do) if we were in this situation and can teach us about life. We went back and noticed how our characters reacted to this problem and it led us to some possible life lessons.

We took the extended themes and added personal pronouns to it to make it "universal." I emphasized this to help students not be super tied to the exact examples to the story. For example...

  • Without personal pronouns: Abigail wanted to ride a bike and practiced. (from Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One)
  • With personal pronouns: If you want to get better at something, you need to practice.
When we are all down, we have this visual:

Here is an example from a student in one of their own books:

Approaching it in this order and in this way really helped students pick appropriate themes and life lessons. Plus, it really forced them to go back in their text to look for how the character reacted to the problems, as this is the core to this process. It took us about 4 days from start to finish to talk first about problems, then themes, then life lessons during our mini-lessons and each day built upon the previous day's work. I was so impressed with their work and it showed on their assessments as well!



  1. I love how you broke this process down, and made each step build on the next step! I love the graphic organizer that students wrote on, too! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. This is such a clear way to do it. Thanks for sharing it.


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