Teaching Theme: In the Texts We Read and the Lives we Live

Recently, my class and I have become fascinated by Misty Copeland and her life-story. Over the past several months, we’ve read articles and picture books about her, watched her on 60 Minutes CBS News, seen her speak at a Barnes & Nobles in our neighborhood, and some of us have had the opportunity to see her perform with the American Ballet Theatre in in Lincoln Center, NY.

Misty Copeland

Here is some of the information we’ve collected about Misty Copeland:

Text Evidence

·      Family financial struggles

·      Started dancing at 13

·      Joined ABT at 18; watched coveted roles go to other dancers

·      Received criticism about her body; her race

·      “I just said to them, what do I need to do? I am so eager. I am so hungry.           I want to continue to push myself.”

·      Received first title role: Firebird!

·      Injured with six stress fractures

·      “I was on a path. I was going to become a principal dancer. I never             let my mind rest. I kept dancing inside.”

·      “Generations of black women and men didn’t have a fair chance in             the ballet world; it’s still difficult to be other.”

After charting this text evidence with my students, I asked them: What can we learn from Misty’s story? What themes emerge?

 After several minutes of small group discussion, my students had a great deal to share in response to these questions. One popular idea was: Achieving your dreams is possible with luck, patience, and hard work. My favorite is from one of my quieter students who offered, “It’s never too late to get good at something.” He shared this enthusiastically and continued: “Because I’m still hoping to get good at soccer!”

Our discussions about Misty Copeland are symbolic of the work I try to do around theme in my classroom each day, all year. I’ve discovered that if I want my students to develop a deepened understanding of this abstract concept we call theme, then I needed to make discussions around theme commonplace in my classroom; not just about the texts we read, but in the lives we live.

One way I try to honor this in my classroom is during our Monday Morning Meeting when I ask students to share a highlight from their weekend. I ask them to try to identify and express a theme that emerges from the experience they’re sharing. Sometimes, they need time to write in their writer’s notebook and get back to us. Here are a few examples:

When a student shared that her team lost a basketball tournament, I wondered how this could be a “highlight” of her weekend. After thinking about this, her response was: “It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about having fun and trying my best!”

When students share their playdates or sleepovers as a highlight, I ask why. One response offered was: “The best times are the simplest times with friends and the grand adventures we create together.”

Visiting with family members is another frequent highlight that is shared. I ask, out of everything you did over the weekend, why is this most important to you? One response was: Being with my family is important because they love me and I love them. It’s when my heart is happiest!”

Some students share highlights about hiking or biking with a friend or family member. Why is this their highlight? What have they discovered about the significance of this experience? One student offered: “Spending time outdoors in nature reminds me about how beautiful life is.”

If I want my students to develop an understanding of theme, to be able to identify and interpret theme in a text, what better way to practice this work than with what matters most to them in their own lives?

Dana and I often discuss the challenges of teaching theme and how to break through some of the boundaries we’ve experienced with our students. A discussion of this can be found here: hubs.ly/H01HsHk0

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 9.37.20 AMIn my next post, I’ll share more of these common pitfalls Dana and I experience as our students work to understand theme and some of our strategies for helping students break through these obstacles.



Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Theme: In the Texts We Read and the Lives we Live

  1. OMG – so perfect! Making it relevant! When we can uncover/discover the themes in our lives, we stand prepared to uncover/discover themes in text.

    Sending this on to teacher friends now! Thanks for making my day with your very specific questions from your Monday Morning meetings! (As always, talk first seems to be helpful!!!)
    ❤ ❤ ❤


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