By Amanda Koonlaba
Determining the theme of a text through the analysis of the key ideas and details is an anchor of comprehension. Therefore, students really need focused instruction that is engaging and helps them make connections in order to master standards that address theme. Yet, I hear from a lot of language arts teachers across all grade levels that theme is one of the hardest concepts to teach.
I suggest using an arts-integrated approach to teach theme. Of course, no teacher will ever address the concept of theme in a single lesson and be finished with it. It is much too complicated because it requires students to make judgements based on the evidence presented. However, adding a lesson that allows the students to both analyze the work of master artists and create their own art is a powerful addition to any teacher’s theme-teaching practices.
First, select a work to have the students analyze. Many famous artists use a lot of symbolism. You will want to select a work that is developmentally appropriate. There are no guidelines for this other than choosing a work that you know your students will enjoy and ensuring the subject matter is fitting. For instance, I taught theme in my art classroom with 5th graders using Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace. Kahlo has many self-portraits. I chose one that had a lot of symbolism but was not too graphic. There is a thorn necklace that has pricked her skin and a little blood shows. However, it is far less graphic than many of her other works. I felt my 5th graders could handle the subject matter of that painting. If I were teaching much older students or much younger students, I might’ve chosen a different piece.
Next, teach the students a little about the artist. Again, teach them what is appropriate for them. In the case of the Kahlo lesson, I shared the information about her that my students would need to know in order to analyze the painting I selected for them. Many details of her life are widely known, but not all of those details are necessary for 5th graders to get a general understanding of her work. I created a short video of myself talking about her to share with my classes. I explained that she had been in a terrible bus accident when she was young, which caused her to live her adult life in much physical pain. She was often confined to her bed. She actually painted from her bed as a way to fight boredom. After my students viewed the video, I had them share with their neighbors what they remembered about her. I wanted to make sure they had paid close attention and I wanted them to have the benefit of hearing from each other. If one student picked up a detail that another missed, they were able to glean that additional information from each other. After this short discussion time, I shared the painting and allowed students to work together once again to discuss symbols in the piece. They noted, among other things, the hummingbird, the thorns, her hair, and the butterflies. I also asked them to discuss what they thought the symbols might mean based on what they knew about her.
Each group shared, and we created a class chart with two columns: symbols and what they might mean. I was quite impressed with some of my students’ reasoning. One group said that her hair was fixed in the shape of an infinity symbol. They thought that might mean that she felt her artwork would “live forever.” Another group noted that the painting appeared lighter at the top and darker at the bottom. They pointed out that the most depressing parts of the painting were at the bottom: the blood, the dead bird, and the thorns. They also said the happier parts were at the top: the butterflies and the monkey. They thought this was representative of how some people think of heaven as being above and hell as being below. (Wow—5th graders!)
This part of the lesson essentially focused on the details (symbols) of the painting. Students highlighted specific parts of the work and considered what they might mean. After we established what the details were, we began talking about what the overall theme of the work could be. Again, I allowed students to work in groups to discuss their ideas. Some thought the theme was hope, and others thought it was perseverance. They had to justify their ideas by incorporating what they knew about the details of the work and their possible meanings. This is exactly what students need to be able to do when they are determining the theme of a text. They need to look at the details of the written work, think about what they mean based on the context of the piece, and then determine an overall theme. Understanding the details is how they justify their choices about theme. Once teachers have been through the viewing and analysis of a work of art with their students, they can help their students easily transfer the same thought processes to text.
Looking at the art and using discussion as the vehicle for teaching theme is great by itself. It is engaging, and students find it fascinating to view artwork. They love to talk about it. In fact, it is nonthreatening for them to look at the details of a work of art and then discuss what they think. Everyone has an opinion, and students love to share with one another. They don’t have to be able to read to do this. So, even students who struggle with the actual reading of words can participate.
However, taking this one step further by having students create their own self-portraits is even better. I also did this with 5th graders in my art classroom. They brainstormed five or six symbols that represented who they were at that moment in time. Then, I conferenced with them individually to discuss how the symbols would be used to show a theme in their artwork. I had a student draw himself with gigantic cartoonish ears. He also included a word cloud in the background. He was representing how he was a thoughtful person. The ears showed he could be a good listener, and the words around his head showed that he gave much thought to everything he heard. The overall theme he was going for was inner strength. Another student created a combination of the flag of Thailand and the flag of the United States in the background of her portrait. She was showing that her mom was born in Thailand and her dad was born in America. She was visually representing the overall theme of finding her own identity. Once students were finished with their self-portraits, they analyzed their peers’ works for details (symbolism) and made determinations about their themes. They used the details from their peers’ works to justify their reasoning, just as they did with Kahlo’s self-portrait.
Finally, after teaching theme using these types of arts-integrated lessons, it is important to remind students about them often. If it has been two months since they created their self-portraits and students appear to be struggling as you spiral back to theme, remind them about these activities. Tell them to think about those self-portraits when they are asked to determine the theme of a text. Helping them remember this activity in this way will ensure that they are able to repeat this thought process when they need it. They won’t forget the lesson because the artwork they viewed and the artwork they created will be a pleasant memory for them.
I developed this lesson while taking an online professional development course called Making Thinking Visible: Building Understanding Through Critical and Creative Thinking with Harvard University. I believe in sharing knowledge, and I really learned a great deal while developing and teaching this lesson. If you are interested in developing a lesson similar to this for your students, feel free to contact me! I would love to help. I can help you choose an artist or guide you in leading a discussion about a work of art. I would also love to hear your ideas on using art to teach theme and how such a lesson went for your students.