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Teaching Theme With Short Stories

    short stories to teach theme

    Teaching theme can be a challenge for both teachers and students. However, teaching theme with short stories is a great way to get over the hump. Read this post to learn several tools, tips, and titles to make teaching this abstract concept more effective all-around.

    Short stories are a highly effective teaching tool when it comes to teaching a difficult and abstract concept, like theme.

    I mean, how many times have your students struggled to identify a theme from a text? They often get it confused with the main idea or subject of the story. Other times they just stare blankly at the text, unsure what they’re looking for or how to find it. (Cue the frustration.)

    Truthfully, abstract concepts are a challenge for students of all ages. However, after reading this post, you’ll be ready and eager to start teaching theme with short stories using the new tools, tips, and titles mentioned below.

    Why Is Teaching Theme So Challenging?

    Even at the secondary level, students can struggle to move beyond the comprehension of a text. Identifying a text’s theme often involves reading between the lines to reveal the lesson the author is teaching or the commentary they are making through the text. Therefore, it’s imperative your students understand higher-level thinking skills, like how to make inferences, before they can identify a theme.

    Another problem is that many students get the theme confused with the main idea. Therefore, I recommend reminding students that main ideas are more a summary of what a certain text is about. The theme, on the other hand, is the overarching lesson or message the author is trying to convey that can be applied beyond the story itself. Furthermore, themes often acknowledge something about society, human nature, or the human experience.

    The best part about theme is that there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer – though some are obviously more appropriate than others. The worst part about theme is that there is no right or wrong answer – especially for students who rely on this “knowing” to build confidence. See the challenge there? However, this is where teaching the power of textual evidence is really important. If they can back up their theme with evidence from the text, the odds are in their favor.

    Helping Students Identify Theme

    If your students are struggling to understand and identify theme, ask them to consider the following questions before, during, and after reading a short story:

    1. What is the topic of the short story?
    2. What is the author implying about the topic?
    3. What is the lesson the author wants the reader to learn by reading this short story?
    4. How does this message connect to the world beyond the text?

    Once they answer the question above, they’ll be one giant step closer to identifying (and understanding) theme.

    Teaching Theme With Short Stories

    It might take students several chapters or hundreds of pages of a novel before truly understanding the story’s theme. However, with a short story, they can read the entire text, identify the theme, and discuss its development in one class period. That’s why short stories are the perfect stepping stone when teaching theme.

    Additionally, with the shorter length of these stories, students can really focus on the theme without getting distracted by overly complex plotlines, various settings, and lengthy character development. However, that doesn’t mean these texts can’t be challenging. Therefore, as always, it’s important to select short stories that are a good fit for your particular students’ needs.

    The Best Short Stories For Teaching Theme

    Speaking of selecting the best short stories for teaching theme…

    I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite short stories for teaching theme in the secondary classroom. Here are seven short stories that make for great theme-focused teaching tools:

    1. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

    Teachers and students alike love “The Lottery” and it’s a great short story for teaching theme. Taking place in a seemingly pastoral town, students will gasp when they realize that the titular lottery isn’t one you want to win. However, it makes for exciting conversations around the theme of the dangers of blindly following tradition. Overall, Jackson does such a great job developing this theme throughout this harrowing tale.

    Students can track the theme as they pay attention to the lottery’s impact on different characters over the course of the story. (Keep a special eye out for Little Davey’s actions!)  Play up the theme by tapping into students prior knowledge around concepts of lotteries and traditions before diving into Jackson’s short story.

    2. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

    Greed, materialism, and the trap of deceptive appearances are some of the prominent themes in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” As Mathilde Loisel’s yearning to live a life of luxury leads her into a downward spiral, students are sure to pick up on the overarching messages woven throughout this story.

     Despite being first published in 1884, this story and its theme are surprisingly relevant. (False perceptions on social media, anyone?) Therefore, this short story is a great way to emphasize the universal nature of a theme. Consider starting class with a discussion about the ways people can pretend to be something they’re not. Then, by the time they get to reading “the Necklace,” it’ll be hard for students to not notice similar themes throughout.

    3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

    While students often complain about reading “old” literature, they never complain when it comes to Poe. Better yet, this classic Poe short story is both thrilling and perfect for teaching theme. Following a murderer as he spirals into guilt-ridden madness, the short story skillfully develops suspense and strong themes simultaneously.

    While the murderer denies his guilt at first, readers quickly realize the truth as Poe makes it clear that a guilty conscience cannot be avoided in the wake of an unjust action. As his growing guilty conscience slowly leads him to confess his crime, the murderer cannot shake the haunting drum of a beating heart – the ultimate symbol of the story’s theme.

    4. “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    In this short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne skillfully explores common themes of the Dark Romanticism literary movement. From sins and secrets to fears and human fallibility, the themes in “the Minister’s Black Veil” are sure to stir up some good conversation. To help students unpack the story’s theme, consider having them track the symbol of the titular black veil. In doing so, see if they can uncover Hawthorne’s deeper message.

    Hawthorne’s short story is a great way to get students exploring these themes before diving into similar, yet more complex texts like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

    5. “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerlad

    F. Scott Fitzgerald might be best known for exploring the theme of disillusionment in The Great Gatsby, but “Winter Dreams” does a fantastic job relaying a similar message – in only 25 pages. “Winter Dreams” offers an insightful critique of the growing materialism and declining moral values of the roaring twenties. Between Dexter’s desires for wealth and social status and his yearning for Judy Jones, students will clearly recognize developing themes.

    As students progress through the pages of the short story, they’ll be able to track themes around disillusionment, materialism, desire, and social mobility. Thanks to Fitzgerald’s skillful writing and theme development, students will have plenty to discuss after reading this short story.

    6. “Names/Nombres” by Julia Alvarez

    In “Names/Nombres,” Julia Alvarez writes of her first-generation Dominican-American immigrant experience. As she describes her experience settling into New York City, Alvarez focuses on the evolution of her name and how it seemed to define her place in her new home.

    However, her name is not the only thing that evolves over the source of the short story. Themes of otherness, identity, and the desire to belong also develop between the lines. As the story unfolds, students will quickly understand the overarching message Alvarez is trying to relay: names do not define who we are. Instead, it is our actions and accomplishments that define us.

    7. Anything by Ray Bradbury. (Seriously.)

    I know I mention Mr. Bradbury a lot when discussing short stories, and it might seem like I’m cheating here. However, there are good reasons why he’s a constant name on my lists of short stories. Not only is he a highly-skilled writer with a talent for developing a good short story, but students truly enjoy his work. Need I say more?

    Many of his short stories explore the themes of censorship, the dangers of technological advancement and dependency, and blind conformity. Consider getting started with “The Veldt,” “The Pedestrian,” or “A Sound of Thunder.” Give one (or all) of these titles a try and you’ll be raving about Bradbury too.

    Looking for more short story titles? Check out my posts about the best short stories for high schoolers and middle schoolers.

    Tips For Teaching Theme With Short Stories

    • Clarify the difference between theme and main idea with children’s literature. Use popular stories, like Cinderella or The Three Little Pigs, to provide students with a list that includes a handful of both main idea statements and themes. Have students sort through the list and categorize the items as either a theme or main idea. As you review their choices, clarify what makes something a main idea vs. a theme.
    • Save time by assigning your chosen short story for homework. Have students read the short story for comprehension at home so you can do a second reading in class with a specific focus on tracking the story’s theme(s).
    • If students need more scaffolding as they learn to identify theme, consider having them practice by tracking a theme you identify for them. Before you begin reading the short story, give them a theme (or two) to look for as they read. Then, they can focus on tracking how the story reveals and develops the theme. Providing graphic organizers and theme trackers are also great tools to help students organize their thoughts and evidence when it comes to theme.
    • Get students to start thinking about the themes in a short story by having them fill out an anticipation guide focused around the story’s themes. That way students can tap into their prior knowledge while building curiosity around the story before reading. Themes will practically jump off the page following this activity.
    • Use one-pagers as a fun way to assess student learning. After reading a text, encourage students to reread and annotate specifically for the development of a specific theme. Then, have them create a one-pager, including everything from drawing to direct quotes, to help illustrate their understanding of the theme throughout the text.

    Trust me, I know teaching theme can be a headache. However, short stories are the perfect stepping stone for learning and applying this literary skill. Whether you use the short stories mentioned above or not, I hope this post gives you some inspiration and ideas to bring to your classroom.

    While teaching theme can be a challenge, with the right texts, teaching tools, and strategies, it’s certainly doable. So, if you have any titles or tips not mentioned above, feel free to share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!

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