By: Elizabeth Shepherd
Theme is one of the more difficult literature concepts to teach at the elementary level since students at that age are much more comfortable with the concrete than they are with the abstract. To jump start this process it can be helpful to connect the concept of theme with something they are more comfortable with, something like hashtags!
I was inspired by a post I found online at The Curly Classroom. This blog post discussed students creating hashtags exploring themes of movies they were familiar with. That got me thinking….why couldn’t my students do that with books instead? For the purposes of this lesson I chose to use wordless picture books. They were a perfect fit for so many reasons; no words meant no reading level so none of my students were intimidated with reading struggles, they were quick reads allowing plenty of time for reflection, I was able to emphasize the importance of attention to detail in illustrations when looking for context clues, and I got the chance to expose students to an often overlooked genre of books.
We started by discussing what a hashtag is. I showed the class real world examples from my own social media accounts and then together we came up with hashtags that could be paired with a tweet about finishing the first Harry Potter book. During the discussion I guided student thinking by emphasizing those suggestions that were more about theme and less about the reader’s opinion or tiny details. In this case we were looking for #magic or #friendship not #boring or #Quiddich. It helped when I pushed them to think about the “big picture” of the book and less about the details. (If you'd like to go more in-depth with a hashtag lesson, Wonderopolis has a great post titled, "What is a hashtag?"
Next I booktalked wordless picture books and we had a brief discussion about how to read the pictures. We also reviewed the procedures for reading with a partner. Then I passed out a book, a pencil, and a Post-It to each pair of readers. Their mission was to spread out, read their book with a partner, and then write down as many hashtags as they could think of before time ran out. If time allowed they were able to share their three favorite hashtags with the class. Since this lesson was taught to my library classes, I was able to compile the best hashtags and post them in the hallway to display student work and also to advertise for wordless picture books. (Side note: circulation for wordless picture books drastically increased after this lesson!)
As evidenced from the pictures, my students still have some work to do on theme but I feel confident that this lesson was memorable and was a great starting point to delve deeper into the concept of theme. I used this with 3rd-6th grade students but I believe it would also work well with older grades. In fact, this lesson was most effective with my 5th and 6th grade students since many of them were already using hashtags on their own social media accounts. Most of my 3rd and 4th grade students knew what a hashtag was or had heard the term before but had little practice using them so we had to spend more time than I would have liked on that part of the lesson. If I were in a regular classroom, I could see myself coming back to the hashtag concept throughout the year with everything students read whether it’s an excerpt from the textbook, a primary source document, a chapter book or graphic novel they’ve been working on independently, or a nonfiction close read.
Overall I felt the students enjoyed the lesson, the topic was memorable enough for me to reference it easily later, and the results were promising enough to encourage me to try this concept again next year. #understandingtheme #winner #nowyougiveitatry
About the Author
Elizabeth Shepherd is a media specialist at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro, TN. She enjoys reading books for children, geeking out over geeky things, and providing free tech support to her friends and family. #haveyoutriedturningitoffandonagain.