In my last post I described activities I orchestrated with my fourth graders to support Common Core ELA Standard 1. As you’ll recall, my class wrote tall tale mash-ups; they had to put one tall tale character in the setting of another and write a credible plot in the style of this genre. The results were awesome! The kids had a great time writing their tales and reading each other’s. More importantly, they were successful in the art of close reading and taking useful notes.
In this post I’m going to describe what I do to support Standard 2, which is all about determining the central idea or theme of a text and summarizing the important details.
This is a pretty straightforward standard. We’re asking students to read a text – presumably a narrative text – figure out what the theme is and support that conclusion with details from the story.
Fortunately for my students, our literacy program, Benchmarks Literacy, is very deliberate about genre study; each of the ten, three-week units includes a weeklong genre study, with a different genre for each unit. The genre which lends itself best to determining theme – at least for me – is fairy tales.
As you know, the theme of most fairy tales is the triumph of good over evil. When we studied various fairy tales from around the world, my fourth graders were able to see this and could easily find examples from the text that supported this determination.
But then we read my favorite fairy tale of all: Hansel and Gretel. The discussion went something like this:
Me: “What seems to be the theme here?”
Student: “Good vs evil, and good wins.”
Student: “Yeah; the two kids were good and they outsmarted their evil stepmother and the evil witch.”
M: “So the two women were both evil?”
S: “Very evil.”
M: “What about their dad? Was he evil or good?”
S: “He was evil at the beginning and good at the end.”
M: “But don’t fairy tales have evil people that stay evil and good people that stay good?”
M: “Maybe this fairy tale has a different theme. Maybe this one is about forgiving. The father was desperate and under pressure from the stepmother. He does something terrible to his own kids. Then he feels bad and makes the stepmother go away. And then at the end, the kids come back and forgive their dad.”
The kids were intrigued. (And by the way, not all of them could find it in their hearts to forgive the dad!) From there we discovered that themes can be more complex than we first thought. We also learned that it takes pretty close reading to find evidence to support the determination of a theme.
Standard 2 is important. Being able to read a text to determine the theme is a skill every student needs. It’s a great example of a situation in which it’s best to start with the simple and move to the more complex.
And live happily ever after.