From Message to Theme to Big Picture

I often talk to teachers about teaching FOR strategies in ways that students will take them on and use them independently.  One of those strategies is inferring. What’s important is not that students have to define inferring or even tell us when they are using inferring to help them understand texts.  The real point is that students do it!  We want them to read closely, go deeper than the literal level, see things that are not explicitly put in the text by the author, but are implied.  A variety of things can be inferred – the setting, the narrator, the author’s point of view, the underlying meaning of a poem, the characters’ thoughts or feelings, and so on.

I recently read a picture book that I thought would fit well when working with inferring — One, by Kathryn Otoshi — which I’ll tell you about below. Keep in mind that one aspect of inferring is to get students to come up with a theme or a message that the author is trying to get across with the book. The Common Core Standards talk about students getting the message of a text in 2nd and 3rd grade, and by 5th grade, they call it “interpreting the theme” of a text.

I remember a conversation I once had with a second grade teacher, Steve.  He felt that his students could get the message for THIS BOOK or THAT BOOK (as it relates to the character or situation of that story).  BUT, he found their difficulty came when trying to generalize to a more universal theme – to life in general or to other situations in their own lives.  In other words, they could come up with the fact that Wilma Rudolph (in Wilma Unlimited) worked hard all her life and overcame many obstacles.  But they couldn’t extend that to a more universal theme of “hard work, effort, and believing in yourself can pay off no matter what gets in your way.”

The story, One, by Kathryn Otoshi has characters that are all colors. Green, Yellow, and Blue are all friends and have a good relationship, but Red is the obvious bully character.  Red picks on Blue constantly and in so doing gets stronger, bigger, redder, and hotter. The others try to reassure Blue, but no one stands up to Red, until 1 comes along.  1 talks back to Red and takes a stand that this bullying is not OK.  Soon the others join Number 1.  The story ends with the words, “Sometimes it just takes One.”

I wondered how Steve’s second graders would do with this.  After being able to come up with the message that worked for THIS particular book, how could Steve help them think more broadly?  Perhaps a teacher could ask the kids to substitute names for the color characters (not using anyone in the class’s name.)  Then ask them to think of something mean that one character could say to another.  Supporting them as they created stories about real children and real playground incidents might help them get closer to developing a more universal theme.

Could students in a 3-5th grade class get even further?  Could they think of persons, like Martin L King, who started out as “just one”? Could they relate this picture book to persons from history who took a stand on an issue, started a movement that others eventually joined, so that major wrongs could be righted? I would be curious to know if this helped students understand that theme is more than just a word (friendship, bravery, honesty), but rather is something part of the big picture of life. If you use this book in your classroom, please let us know what happens.

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