We have used I Know Here by Laurel Croza to explore “theme” with students, as described in literature standard two. This marvelous book is narrated by a child who is about to move, and who explores through art what she knows about the place she is leaving. I Know Here also makes a lovely mentor text for writing lessons where students choose their own “here” and record what they know about it.
Typically, students can more easily retell, recount, and even summarize the details and events of the story than they can arrive at a central theme. Teaching them to reach for the universal message in the story involves different thinking processes, and these different text tasks are central to the Common Core standards for literature.
Beginning with first grade, standard two for literature requires students to retell stories and understand “central messages or lessons.” In second grade, students begin to assume responsibility for summarizing texts and figuring out these central messages, processes they will continue to refine, a la literature standard two, through the remainder of their elementary school careers. The differences in learning to summarize and identify theme are both subtle and profound, with the latter obviously requiring more depth of thought.
The table below illustrates the two processes that run throughout literature standard 2, highlighting the changes in responsibility and language. What begins in kindergarten as basically remembering the facts of the story, extends through fifth-grade as an emphasis on articulating and explaining the theme by referencing the story.
|Grade||Details, structure, etc.||Gradual Release||Big Ideas||Gradual Release|
|Kindergarten||“retell” “key details”||“with prompting and support”||n/a||n/a|
|Grade 1||“retell” “key details”||student responsible (implied)||“central message or lesson”||“demonstrate understanding”|
|Grade 2||“recount”||student responsible (implied)||“central message, lesson, or moral”||“determine”|
|Grade 3||“recount”||student responsible (implied)||“central message, lesson, or moral”||“determine” “explain”|
|Grade 4||“summarize”||student responsible (implied)||“theme”||“determine”|
|Grade 5||“summarize”||student responsible (implied)||“theme”||“determine theme” “including how …”|
We have warm feelings towards literature standard 2 because of its balance, its connectedness across grades, and its long term emphasis on truly understanding the story. While these qualities define key reasons we like (perhaps it’s love!) standard 2 of the literature CCSS, the renewed opportunity to read books just for the sake of understanding them makes us possitively giddy!
Teachers and students get to be amazed and moved by books in ways undervalued in most NCLB state standards. Such deep responses to texts have been overshadowed in many states by a focus on standards that emphasize discrete skills over the big idea of reading simply (or not so simply) to infer themes. With the CCSS, we are reminded that book awe is a sound step towards understanding the “central message” of a text, not to mention the fact that book awe can turn students into readers.
We may still pick up books and ask, “What can we teach with this?” But first we get to ask, “What does this book show us?” or “What important message is the author sharing with us?” This change in purpose is akin to the difference in visiting a museum to analyze the artistic methods of a period in art history vs. visiting a museum to pick out the painting you would take home with you if you could and explaining why you would choose it.