How to Be a Human: Exploring Theme in the Classroom


Crickets . . .

English teachers everywhere can identify with the blank stares and silence that result from bringing up a skill or term that you KNOW students have encountered before in their vast experience with English class. Sure, some teachers are more successful at making concepts stick, but I’m pretty sure that when I talk about adverbs or symbolism, for example, this is definitely not the first time my students have heard the terms.

Over the years, I’ve learned that a little review with examples and practice are usually enough to refresh my students’ memories on most literary devices, but there is an exception to this rule: the idea of theme. Theme is not only one of the most difficult concepts to internalize, but also one of the most crucial – because, when you get right down to it, analyzing literature is really about finding meaning and that leads ultimately to the exploration of theme. So, how do we guide our students through the messy, wonderful task of deciding what a text means?

Start with meaning

In the fall, I begin all of my English classes – from English 10 to AP Literature and Composition – with this once viral video of the ecstatic Paul “Bear” Vasquez reacting to a double rainbow just outside Yosemite National park.

Students laugh awkwardly at Vasquez’s increasingly emotional reaction and I stop the video at 1:19, right after he asks in obvious wonder, “What does it mean?”

I allow students to share their thoughts and reactions to the video and then I pull their attention to his question and ask: “Of all things he could have said about the double rainbow, why this question?”

Following is a conversation about the human quest for meaning. We walk through this world seeking understanding – of the things people say, the things people do, on and up to our very reason for existing, and this is why literature is so satisfying. It is composed of metaphor, symbolism and many other devices designed to help us understand this crucial ideas we crave about the human condition.

Then, I usually bring out a poem, which is a great vehicle for introducing theme because of its compact nature, and we proceed to dive in. The poem I choose depends on the level of student, but I usually begin with accessible, but substantial poets like Billy Collins or Seamus Heaney or even slam poets such as Taylor Mali or Marshall Davis Jones. I detail my method for poetry analysis where students discuss what the notice in the poem and what they think about it in Poetry Fridays but when we get to the part where we bring it all back together to discuss what it all means, students can often get stuck. Following are some things I do, depending on where students are in the process.

Troubleshooting theme

When you ask students what a poem is about, they sometimes talk about the plot of a poem. My students tell me William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just To Say” is about someone who is taunting in stealing someone else’s breakfast.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.

When we start looking at poetry, I tell my students that there are several layers of meaning in a poem and one of the first is the “story” – what’s actually going on in a poem. It’s important to look at this first, to discuss and understand any narrative that’s taking place, but then comes the work of delving into meaning One way to approach this is to change the way you ask the question when you’re looking for theme. Instead of asking what a poem is “about,” ask what a poem “means.” It is a subtle difference that shows them that there is something more going on in a poem than the storyline.

A discussion of the definition of theme is also important here. Talk to students about how literature can include ideas that transcend the text and the story therein – ideas that say something about life or people in general. It is important here that you emphasize with students that there are MANY possible themes in every piece of literature and that these themes are determined by what THEY themselves notice in the text. If they’re anything like my students, they will still ask you what the “real” meaning is, but just keep telling them that the meaning is in their hands and that what determines how real a theme is, is their explanation, including evidence from the text.

What if their theme statements are too shallow or clichéd?

Once my students understand the concept of theme, they are halfway there. That’s when the work on developing theme comes in.

Students will often begin by using a word or phrase to try to describe theme. For “This is just to say,” they may say that the theme is “taking people for granted” or “apologies.” This is a great start, because the students are now thinking more in terms of universal ideas that apply to the world outside the poem. To move them into theme, I tell them that those words or phrases are topics within the poem and that they can turn them into themes by writing a sentence that explains what the poem is saying about the topics.

The Annoying Four-Year-Old Technique

For William’s poem, students may say that “This is just to say” is about how sometimes our apologies are more than just apologies. Now we’re getting somewhere! But, I don’t let my students stop there. It is time for the annoying four-year-old technique, something I teach my student so that they can develop their themes and ideas beyond the general. This is crucial because the more focused the thesis, the better developed a student’s essay becomes.

This technique consists of taking your original theme statement and questioning it incessantly until it becomes something focused and provable. I first model it for them, playing the part of the four-year-old using their theme. Then, they practice in pairs, and eventually develop the ability to questions themselves.

It goes something like this:

Student: “Sometimes our apologies are more than just apologies.”

Four-year-old: “How are they more than just apologies?”

Student: “Well, they can mean more than just sorry.”

FYO: “What more do they mean?”

Student: “They can say things we have a hard time saying.”

FYO: “Like what?”

Student: “Like ‘I love you’ or ‘I need you to pay attention to me.’”

FYO: “How do apologies do that?”

Student: “They let the person know we care about them and what’s bothering them, so they care about what we’re thinking and that’s hard to do in other ways.”

FYO: “Why is it difficult?”

The process is messy and time-consuming and more than a little frustrating (just like writing) but, with patience and perseverance, it yields insights that weren’t apparent in the beginning theme statements. This particular discussion eventually led to the theme statement: “In ‘This is just to say,’ Williams shows how the little daily ways we communicate with each other have significance beyond the simple message they seem to contain.” Not bad.

Becoming human

The discussion of theme is one of the most difficult and satisfying things I do in my classroom. Grappling with the ideas in the amazing literature I get to read with my students every year, I get a glance into the great minds of the writers we read, as well as the extraordinary minds of adolescents figuring out what it means to be a human.

One thought on “How to Be a Human: Exploring Theme in the Classroom

  1. Thank you for sharing a page out of your class! I needed to feel shoulder to shoulder on this concept today!

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