Teaching the Theme of a Story: Facilitating Student Discussions

I've seen two different definitions for theme floating around instructional resources, including Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, and yes, our "real" reading program. 

The first definition likens the theme of a story to the lesson the character learns in the story.  For example, "The theme of this story is to believe in yourself."

However, the counterargument I've seen is that that's the lesson, and the theme is something different.  Theme is what the story is about in one word. 

It's a lot harder to get kids to sum up the heart of the story in a single word.  For one thing, fourth graders don't usually have the vocabulary to do it.  They don't have words like innocence, ambition, optimism, or sacrifice in their productive vocabulary.  If you ask them to sum up the story in a single word, beginning theme-finders are going to mistakenly tell you the topic.  "It's about dogs."  And that's even more far removed from the objective than telling the lesson!  At least if you can get them to tell you the lesson, they're pretty much getting to the heart of the story. 

So, in the spirit of setting the bar high so that some of the kids reach it and others have something to be closer to reaching, I decided to teach the theme of a story as a single word.  I did quite a bit of research (on Pinterest as well as our reading program) until I created my anchor chart.

How to Find the Theme of a Story

Teach kids how to find the theme of a storyI taught the concept of theme in chunks, slowly unrolling the chart (it's way too much text to present all at once).  I had already taught how to summarize, so the blue questions numbers 1-4 were not new.  I was also able to refer to mentor texts from earlier in the year as I modeled how to arrive at one of the 6 themes I listed in red.   

The next day I unrolled the rest of the chart to provide more examples to choose from as they considered the theme of our current story, and then later in their own guided reading books.  This made the process more manageable.  I thought about splitting the chart in two on the first draft, but I'm glad I didn't when a student asked me a few weeks later if I'd bring the chart back out to refer to (much easier for me to find)! 

I'm not 100% sure that the 6 categories I chose are the be all and end all when it comes to theme, which is why I wrote "6 common themes are..."  And I'm not certain that each of the details fits exactly within the category, but I think I came close enough to lead my students in the right direction.   

Facilitating Discussions About the Theme of a Story

Some of the words are still beyond them, but by grouping them with related concepts, they had a lot more success discussing the theme of a story than any previous group has had.  Instead of being completely stuck, discussions arose, such as, "Well, I think it could be about growing up or family.  I'm not sure."  In which case I could say, "Why do you think so?"  Or when partners were "turning and talking" about the same text I was reading aloud, I'd hear, "Kevin says it's growing up but I think it's friendship," and I could say, "Hmm, I could see that.  Can you give your partner a reason to convince him why you think that?"  And viola, the kids were practicing supporting their thinking with evidence from the text!

If you're thinking of adapting this anchor chart for your own classroom, I would encourage you to consider the books your students are choosing to read independently, as well as the texts you've read earlier in the year as a whole class as you tweak the categories.  This helped give mine a point of reference as well as set them up for success when they were working independently.  There will be plenty of time as their vocabulary and reading interests develop to start thinking beyond just 6 different themes.

How do you teach the theme of a story?

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Freebies and a Sale!

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and Black Friday!  Mine were great; I had time to be productive (cooking, organizing home and school stuff, and Christmas shopping online) and time to relax and enjoy time with my family. 

I even made time to create a few new resources for teaching writing, as well as updating an old favorite (more below).  All this was right in time for Teachers Pay Teachers CyberSmile Sale on Monday (and Tuesday). You can save up to 28% off of your purchases by entering promo code SMILE at checkout.  My whole store will be a full 28% off as long as you remember the promo code! are a few items from my own store that are in high demand and have kept my own students engaged in their learning each year during the second trimester:

Homophones Task Cards These task cards help students learn homophones in context.  By partnering students up, they can read aloud and hear the pronunciation of the homographs.  There are also traditional worksheets included to reinforce what students have learned.  These worksheets are perfect for homework or a formative assessment. Mentor Sentences: Fourth Grade Bundle and now serving fifth grade with the Mentor Sentences Fifth Grade Growing Bundle.

If you're looking to save more and elevate the level of editing in your students' writing, this is a resource you will find yourself referring to and pulling from all year round.  The fourth grade bundle includes model sentences that highlight parts of speech, transition words, verb tenses, capitals and punctuation, and effective word choice.  Students analyze the sentences and then apply what they've learned to create their own sentence with the highlighted concept.  There are also reference notes included that are perfect for students' interactive notebooks. Narrative Writing Unit  If you're looking for a complete narrative unit, this will end your students' writer's block as well as understand exactly what you mean when you say, "You need to add more details."  

 Check out my most popular writing unit, get your students ready for the big statewide writing test, and save 28%! And finally, if you're looking for my best deal, you can save 28% on my largest bundle, my 5 US Regions Unit Plans Bundle.  Normally priced $25, it will cost just $18.75 for two days only! 

So start filling your wishlist, and come back Monday and Tuesday to save a bundle on some fun, engaging resources for your class. a thank you for following along I also wanted to direct you to a few of my favorite seasonal freebies.  There are a few must-haves if you are teaching elementary, and a few if you are specifically teaching fourth. 

1.  Tissuebox hygiene reminders.  I rubber-band these to each tissue box in my classroom as a not so subtle reminder!  Even if you have a sink in your classroom, the place to hang a reminder is not over the sink (where they are already washing their hands).  It's on the tissue box itself.  Slow the spread of germs this flu season!
2. Holiday Aid for Low Income Students   I know I've posted this before, but I wanted to remind you that now is the time to find/re-download your copy! 

This seasonal freebie for your class is designed to help target assistance for your lower income students.  It's perfect if you have funds from the PTO to provide them with a little something for the holiday.  I'm lucky enough to work in a school where we give to the families in need every year, and this page will help you get started with that.  Homework Reminder Forms  This is a gentle reminder for kids who have forgotten their homework. 

They print 6 to a page in order to save paper, and can be easily glued into an assignment book to help kids and parents see what's due. Synonyms and Antonyms   Many grammar tasks ask kids to find what needs to be fixed in a sentence.  As a result, kids are exposed to models of incorrect writing!  Stop reinforcing models of common grammatical errors.  Mentor sentences require them to analyze quality, model writing, then explain what makes it so.  This is a free sample of my Mentor Sentences line of grammar, usage and mechanics resources.  I've even started a fifth grade version due to popular demand!  Coordinate Points and Ordered Pairs Warship Game  This is a fun, free math game to help reinforce reading ordered pairs and plotting coordinate points. 

 You can play whole class, put it in a math center, and even put a copy in your sub tub for a fun activity that the kids will happily return to as needed.  Context Clues Practice Page  Can your students ever have enough practice using context clues?  This free page is perfect for practice any time of year. 

Teach the strategy of how to determine the meaning of words using the context of a sentence.  Your students will enjoy the silly twist on this strategy with this fun practice page. I hope you enjoy the freebies and save lots of money at TPT.  Do remember to enter the promo code SMILE when you shop on Monday (and Tuesday) in order to get the full 28% discount.  One new product that I launched this weekend is Mentor Sentences: Verbs {Fifth Grade}.  You can also check back on my Mentor Sentence category on Tuesday for one more Mentor Sentence resource coming out just in time to save you 28%.

Happy bargain hunting!
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Surviving the RETELL Course Part 2: Staying Organized

At this point I am closer to the end than the beginning of my RETELL class.  I've done well so far, so I wanted to share how I've kept up with the demands of the class.  As I said in my last post, it's not as bad as I feared (once I resigned myself to having no free time for the four month duration, hah).  It's just bad trying to balance the workload with, you know, teaching full time.  Which we all have to do.  So here's how I have been keeping organized.  If you want to try it, it's a simple but effective three-pronged approach:

1.  Create a folder on your desktop for RETELL. 

In the RETELL folder, file the course rubrics so you know exactly what you're being graded on for each assignment.  The reports themselves don't always make the expectations clear.

Then, within the RETELL folder, create a subfolder for each class.  I named mine by date.  For example, the first session is "10_2 First Session."  The most recent folder is "11_19 Seventh Session."  This is important because there is more material online (you will have to register with the DESE's Blackboard portal) than in print for this course.  And personally, I don't like to print more than I have to.  So to save paper, within each class folder you should file:

  • Downloaded pdfs of all readings:  Because they are PDFs, you can highlight and make notes within the pdf. 
  • Notes:  Because you will be expected to write a response to most of the readings, as well as discuss them in class, it's important to have notes.  Since I don't print the readings, I simply type up my notes and quote small sections that I find most important.  If you want to save paper, this strategy with help you keep your printing to a page or two instead of the whole article.  You might also want to copy the addresses to the YouTube videos that are part of the online homework requirements and include them in your typed notes, just in case you want to revisit those.
  • Copies of your written responses:  You will need to post your responses to the online readings in the Blackboard forum.  You will also need to respond to two people's posts.  I copy my own post as well as my responses.  I figure this is good security just in case anything happened to Blackboard.  In fact, you should write your response in Word (or whatever word processor you use) before you post to Blackboard, since it "times out" and can lose your work.  This has happened to me on enough online platforms that I've learned my lesson.  Ctrl+A followed by Ctrl+C to highlight and copy before clicking "submit" has saved me a few times, but transferring from Word is even safer because this way I don't forget to do it.
  • Reference materials:  There are WIDA materials that don't require written responses, but you will be expected to be familiar with in relation to your current ELL student.  Having a copy of your content standards is also useful for several of the classes.  If you are an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts, the science and social studies standards are the ones you will focus on more than math and even ELA.  Obviously, if you only teach math, these are the standards you will need to refer to. 
  • Formal papers: (the bulk of which are called SIRs, or Strategy Implementation Reports).  Keep digital copies of your work in the folder for the class in which they are assigned. 

2.  Keep a binder for printed materials.

If you follow my advice above, and do NOT print out every article, a one inch binder should be all you need.  Of course, if you prefer to print out documents to read and write notes on by hand, you'll either need a bigger binder (which I can tell you after several months of physical therapy for my shoulder, is a very bad idea) or a system in which you're weeding out materials that you don't lug to the next class. 

Within your binder, keep loose leaf paper for notes you will take in class.  Although you can print the PowerPoint presentation of every class session from Blackboard, again, I like to conserve paper.  I'd rather have 1 page of the most important points than 10 pages.  You will also find that your instructor will guide you through which slides are important, and which can be glossed over (/deleted).  Your instructor will also clarify the expectations for what you will need to do before the next session, since Blackboard is not always well edited for the newest incarnation of the course.  In other words, sometimes the wrong assignments are listed as being due for the next session. 

Next, print the typed notes as well as the responses you posted online and put them in each class section of your binder.  This will provide you with talking points during your class discussions, since it will have been several days since you first read those materials.  Stick a page flag on the notes for each class to keep your RETELL binder organized the same way as your RETELL desktop folder. 

In the back of your binder, keep a folder with the hard copies of your formal papers.  Although DESE requires that these are posted on Blackboard so they can see our work as well as our instructor's comments/grades, my instructor has requested that we bring her hard copies because she prefers to read them this way.  Store the paper you're currently handing in at the beginning of class as well as your old, graded copies in your folder.  You should also keep hard copies of the WIDA reference materials in the folder, since you will refer to these regularly.

3.  Keep a separate bag just for RETELL course materials.

I keep a tote for my binder, a pen, the Participant's Manual (which we do refer to in class) and student texts, since they are referred to nearly every session.  It's not a lot of materials, but I feel like there's enough there that I don't want to mix it in with my regular school bag.  It's a smaller, lighter bag to carry, which feels much more manageable.  And that's good for your psyche after a long day of teaching. 

Using this system will help you stay organized, which will make the course feel easier to manage.  This system might not work for everyone.  I know some people like to print everything, and other people utilize their tablets for viewing online media during class.  So even if you are shaking your head at some of these suggestions, I hope this post helped get you thinking about how you will manage the materials in a way that works for you!  As long as you start with a plan in mind, you're on the right track. 

Next time I'll talk more about how I manage my time to fit the course requirements with the demands of teaching.  I'll present my weekly schedule to give you an idea of what this course has in store for you.  In the meantime, if you have questions about the course, or a different organizational system, please leave a comment below. 
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Surviving the RETELL Course Series: Part 1, Surviving the Instructor

If you're wondering where I've been, the answer is the RETELL class for my SEI endorsement.  Bye-bye one weeknight every week and my entire weekend for the past (and next) month and a half.  The next class I attend will be the halfway point and I've survived this long, so I thought it was time to share with you a few tips on how to make it out alive.

I feel lucky that I have a fairly laid back instructor.  Not a sloppy instructor and not a lax instructor.  Don't get me wrong, we have a TON of reading and written homework.  We also start class at 4:00 on the dot and don't leave until at least 6:50, if not 7:00 on the dot.  But I do feel like she tries to soften the in-class experience as much as she is allowed without incurring the wrath of DESE:

  • Her voice is mostly soothing, and she has a lovely chime to end our discussion times.  Note to self:  Buy a chime for my classroom.
  • She talks a lot about "affective filter" not only for our students but for us, and adjusts accordingly.  She'll say, "I can see your affective filters went up the last time I had you move to another group, so would you all rather stay at your tables for this next discussion?"
  • She knows which slides to spend time discussing, and which ones to gloss over.  She is a rule follower; she lets us know she can't actually skip the slides, but she is selective about how many seconds she will leave them up, if you know what I mean!
  • She knows when to laugh about the content.  She loves to go on about "missed opportunities" in the videos.  She's even let us in on the back story; those video clips were filmed during the blizzard(s) of 2015 early this year.  Because DESE went to great expense to hire a professional film crew, the show had to go on.  So they had little options when making the final edits.
  • She makes it clear that she respects us, and that this course is not the final word.  She acknowledges that not every strategy is going to work for every teacher, and her job is to provide tools to us that we will use at our discretion.  She's not out to tell us we're doing things wrong.  She will often say, "I leave this up to your professional judgment." 
And my instructor also seems extremely knowledgeable, which is important to me.  I learn better from someone I respect.  It's clear that she is knowledgeable in her field as well as some of the inner workings at DESE that relates to expectations of the instruction of ELL students. 

This may sound NOTHING like your instructor.  And if that is the case, I am sorry.  I know that some instructors out there are frustrated with Blackboard, frustrated with changes to the manual and rubrics made at the last minute, and just as overwhelmed with the amount of homework as we are, and some will not deal with those frustrations in a way that help you relax and learn better.  And I'm not sharing the positives in my class in order to rub your nose in it.  I'm sharing this to help you with your inner monologue as you sit through your course.  Imagine for a moment that you were given permission to use these strategies at your discretion.  Because the thing is, once the course is over, your instructor has no more power over you.  And 3 months is not forever.  You can do this!   

And while some of what you're learning has you anxious, and it's not sitting right with you, it's not all bad, is it?  I'm sure that in your heart, you WANT to help your English Language Learners succeed; it just feels overwhelming at times.  I know there are some valuable strategies I'm learning, some that I have used in the past and some new ones that I will use from now on, even though others may be filed under "later/misc/not actually going to use these." 

Staying organized during the RETELL course is another important part of surviving this course.  I'll talk more about that in my next post.  Until then, where are you in the RETELL process?  Want to share tips or vent about your instructor?  Please leave a comment!
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Discussing Behavioral Norms with Students

I know many of you are already getting ready for the start of the year.  Although I'm not there yet, and I can't show off my room yet, I have a tip to share for those of you rethinking your approach to classroom management.

The start of school is an important time to set expectations.  You have your own idea of the routines and rules needed to keep the classroom running smoothly.  Often we ask students to help us set rules, and we post them.

Another way to discuss rules is to create an affinity circle.  I would use chart paper for this activity so you can post it at least for the first month of school, if not all year.

First, draw a large circle with a snappy title in the middle.  Our school uses "Jumping off to a good start."  You can see we changed good to "super" later in the year when we were talking about word choice, haha.  Brainstorm with your students what behaviors are needed to have a great start to the year.

If a student says, "No hitting," explain that this doesn't tell you what you SHOULD do, but it's also important to know what NOT to do.  Write this on the outside of the circle.

Explain that anything outside of the circle are behaviors that are outside the realm of our classroom.

Every month we create a new affinity circle for a different pro-social behavior.  I post all the behaviors at the start of the year.  They include:

  • Effort
  • Manners
  • School Spirit
  • Cooperation
  • Assertion
  • Responsibility
  • Empathy
  • Self Control
If you are interested in a complete character education program to use with your students, I have one available.  There are certificates for students who demonstrate the qualities, as well as detailed checklists for students who are still working on building character.  This packet, along with my entire store, will be on sale for two days only, starting tomorrow (August 3, 2015).  You can get 28% off with promo code BTS15.
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Free Context Clues Page and a Sale

Happy Teacher's Appreciation Day!

I love this time of year.  The sun is out and it's warming up, the kids know what's up when they walk into the room, and summer is starting to feel like it's getting close (even though I'm going until June 29).  And to top it all off, it's Teacher Appreciation Week!  I'm one of the lucky ones who has parents who spoil us.  Even though we are a Title One school, they really do go all out to give us recognition and fatten us up a little.  May is a great month. of course for state testing, hah.

Our school is still doing MCAS and not PARCC, but it doesn't get any easier.  So I've created a freebie for you to help your students with context clues.  Every year I have a handful of kids who get stuck on a word and don't know how to figure it out.  Often they think it means the same as another word in the sentence (not recognizing that it would be redundant to have the same word twice).  So I whipped up a page that's good practice and easy enough to understand that I can use it for a homework assignment.  To show my appreciation to YOU, I'm offering it free for a limited time. is also a sale going on at Teacher's Pay Teachers today, May 5 and 6.  You can save 28% in my store by entering the code THANKYOU at checkout.  Here are some products I have available to get you through to the end of the year:

I wrote all about the Tuck Everlasting resources I developed in an earlier post. When I found the MDESE's model unit for Tuck Everlasting to be cumbersome and, well, tedious, I needed to flesh out their framework to get the kids interested.  I needed to turn the whole class discussions into prompts for reflecting and writing on an individualized level.  They needed time to delve into the vocabulary as well as the figurative language.  I needed them to see their own thinking about the characters change as they progressed through the chapters.  I started small, and have a few free pages available in this post as well, and worked my way up to the full Tuck Everlasting Activities packet.
What can I say, anytime I can incorporate art into my day I'm a happy camper.  Geometry is the PERFECT excuse to draw in math class, haha.  I developed my Tessellations lessons for an after school club that combined math and art, but in years when our school couldn't fund it, I used many of the lessons during our geometry unit in fourth grade.  I have this math/art lesson too: kids had so much fun with this "Scoot" style Geometry activity.  I wrote more about how they used sheet protectors and guidelines to position their protractors and drawing triangles correctly every time in an earlier post., if you are one of the lucky ones finishing your year this month, I have task cards to help you involve the kids in the clean-up/pack-up/organization process.  I really feel like in addition to saving me time, it helps them feel a sense of closure to help pack the room.  And having activities that get them up and moving interspersed with quiet reflection time/memory books is important for most learners:

I hope you find some great resources during the sale!  Besides resources geared specifically for this time of year, do you already have other planned purchases in your wish list?  Share your favorite finds in the comments below.
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