I’ve been spending a bit of my down time between Pinterest and Netflix so far this summer. I haven’t quite learned to just sit and watch a movie, without doing something else simultaneously, so Pinterest at least makes me feel a little productive when I’m focused on pinning education-related items for the coming school year. Lately, I’ve noticed quite a few posts incorrectly teaching the difference between “main idea” and “theme,” and based on the image and the elements of the lesson, they seem geared toward lower level students (upper elementary and middle school). While this is not a criticism of those teachers, it is a frustration of the system in which we work. As a high school teacher who teaches primarily 11th grade, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of what students learned, particularly at younger ages, really sticks hard in their minds (thankfully in most cases). However, there are some things they are taught or some things they misunderstand at lower levels that then need to be untaught in high school, and theme is one of those things.
I would say theme is the hardest concept and one of the most important basic reading concepts students must learn for literary analysis to even begin. Many of my students walk into 11th grade believing theme is the “moral of the story” or a “lesson” learned by the character. It is SO hard to break the students of that learning, no matter how many times I repeat “a recurring subject or issue in the story” and then I show them examples that could be one word or a whole phrase, depending on what they may see later on (i.e. jealousy, friendship, the conflict of race in a Reconstruction South, etc.). I am not pointing fingers at lower level teachers, and I have had conversations with 9th and 10th grade teachers who have the same issue. The problem is we don’t all have a common language for what we teach all of the time, especially with harder issues like theme, so when we teach it differently over and over, students tend to revert back to what they remember from early on.
My point comes in here – we need to not only have common planning with our colleagues who teach the same grade level course but also different grade levels, so we can have common language for basic and particularly most important terms. That way, we don’t have to spend so much time reteaching complex concepts or breaking students of habits but instead, we can build on the language they were taught previously and either continue forward with the same language or add another piece of complexity to the term. With this, students won’t be married to one definition of a term but instead can see language as something that evolves and becomes more difficult as they grow, that things like metaphor and simile aren’t just “comparing two things” with or without “like or as” but that we then add a piece about HOW authors use metaphor and simile. Same with theme: if we can have a common definition for that, like we do metaphor and simile, we can spend more time on HOW the author develops the theme and less time on helping students understand that it’s different than what they thought.
Common planning is not a new concept – far from it. Teachers call for it often, fight for it in our school and others across the country, but in large public schools with too few teachers and too many students, it’s not easy to arrange. To make it harder, the few times teachers do get common planning, we often have so much to do with our regular job requirements that often times common planning falls to other more pressing conversations or bureaucratic issues.
So that’s why my proposal comes more as a focus on common terms – if we could come together as a curriculum area, figure out what terms are covered in what grade, and then determine district wide how we want to define it to our students, then we would have common language for the district. Obviously, at upper levels, certain terms will become more complex, as I outlined above, and others will not come into play until upper levels, but for the ones that transcend from beginning to end or matter from year to year, common language would do a huge service to our students and our teachers. It wouldn’t require huge time away from the rest of our work, and we wouldn’t need to pay any outside experts to inform the conversation. We teachers are more than qualified and intelligent enough to hold the conversation and develop the list and definitions ourselves. It would be a wonderful first step in cross-level planning, and it would be a great way to streamline what our students learn in a way that’s valuable, without taking away from differentiation or teacher voice. It’s a way to help students and teachers alike!