What is theme? How can students write about theme?

These questions pop up again and again as I prepare students whom I tutor for end-of-year state exams.  Often those exams require students to read a passage (or remember a novel or play studied in class) and identify a theme and write about it.

Where to begin? Student writing and thinking

An article by Zach Wright, Assistant Professor of Practice, Relay Graduate School of Education, offers great suggestions in the current issue of Edutopia (see below for a hyperlink) for middle grade and high school students writing about theme.

First, Wright suggests that students think of specific pieces of literature as not being about individuals or specific events, but rather as being about big ideas (themes) such as love or revenge or prejudice.

Next, he suggests students brainstorm a list of such big ideas associated with a particular piece of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird.  Such big ideas could include parenting, prejudice, abandonment, friendship, integrity, fear, family, violence, and innocence.

Wright suggests teachers keep a list of such big ideas or themes visible in the classroom.  When students read, they should transfer appropriate themes to the back inside covers of their books to create a specific list of themes for that piece of literature.

Next, he suggests students take any three of the themes—he calls them triads—and create a sentence from them.  Starting the sentence with “when” gets the students going.  For example, when a person’s prejudice overtakes a person’s integrity, that can lead to violence.  (Mr. Cunningham has been shown to be a person of integrity early in the book, but when he shows up as part of a lynching mob, his prejudice leads him toward violence.)   Or, when a child’s friendships overshadow that child’s abandonment, that child feels love.  (Dill makes fast friends with Scout and Jem during the summers when he is sent away from home, letting Dill feel love).  Or, when a child’s parent shows love, that display can bring security to the child.  (Atticus shows love to Scout, holding her in his lap while he reads law reviews and answering her questions, leading Scout to feel secure though her mother is dead.)

Wright recommends the teacher know the literature well in order to show how unexpected triads can work and lead to gems of insight.


Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

The magic of snow

It snowed in Georgia this morning, the first snow this year.  I was tutoring a fifth grader still in his pajamas when the snow started.  The dining room blinds were drawn, so we didn’t know.  The student finished his lesson, stood, stretched, and walked to the door.

By Nicholas Powers, 6

“It’s snowing!  It’s snowing!” he screamed, literally jumping.  “Miss Kathy, it’s snowing! My shoes.  My coat.  I gotta get outside.  Everybody!  It’s snowing!”

The family came running.  Everyone was shouting about the snow.  None fell last year near where I live, and maybe just a few flurries spit from the sky the year before.  The forecast was for flurries in the morning and melting of anything that stuck in the afternoon.  But already more than an inch had fallen.  Serrendipidy!

The boy’s older sister looked longingly outside and then sat down next to me for her lesson.  “I remember when it snowed,” she mused, gazing out the window.  “Maybe I was three.”  We sputtered, trying to get the lesson going, but she was distracted, glancing through the blinds, now open, to the cluster of kids gathering outside, scraping the car for wet snow to pack into snowballs.  For 15 minutes we struggled, but the shouts of the kids  captivated her.  We ended the lesson.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Miss Kathy,” she said, bolting.

Guess what we’ll be writing about next week?

5 ways to use ellipsis points

Ellipsis points (. . .) are used to show omissions in quoted text or pauses in text.  Three ellipsis points are used if the omission is within a single sentence.  A period and three ellipsis points are used if the omission bridges more than a single sentence.

When are ellipsis points used?  When citing text, ellipsis points are often used.  When writing dialog, ellipsis points are also used to show pauses in speech or thinking.

To show what I mean, let’s use a part of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address  as an example:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

If the quoted material that comes before the ellipsis is not a complete sentence, use three ellipsis points with a space before and after the first and last point. For example, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field . . . for those who here gave their lives.”

If the quoted material comes before or after a sentence, use a period for the sentence as well as three ellipsis points. For example, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . . . We are met on a great battle-field of that war.”  (The period goes next to the last word of the sentence without a space even if that word does not end the sentence in the original text.)

If one or more sentences are omitted, use a period for the end of a sentence followed by three ellipsis points. For example, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  .  .  . It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

If a full line or more of poetry is omitted, use a complete line of spaced periods. For example, from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And miles to go before I sleep.

If you want to show a pause in speech or thought, use three ellipsis points plus a space before the first one and after the last one. For example, “Well . . . I’m not sure I want to go.”

What is a rhetorical précis?

A précis is a highly structured summary of a text, focusing on the text’s argument and presentation.  It is a type of academic writing presenting factual information only, without opinions of the précis writer.

One way of organizing a précis is to write a four-sentence summary:

The opening sentence names the text, its author, genre and publication date followed by a clause naming the thesis of the work.

The second sentence explains how the author develops the thesis, with information usually presented in the same order as in the original text.

The third sentence explains why the text was written, often followed by an “in order to” phrase.

The fourth sentence either describes the intended audience or the tone of the text.

Let’s look at a précis I wrote about the Declaration of Independence:

In the Declaration of Independence (July 1776), Thomas Jefferson argues that because King George III usurped the liberties of British citizens in the North American colonies, those citizens were declaring their independence from Britain.  Jefferson divides the Declaration into four parts:  the preamble, a short paragraph explaining that the world has a right to know why the colonies are separating; second, the most quoted part, the philosophical justification for the separation; third, the longest section, the list of grievances against King George III; and fourth, another short paragraph declaring independence.  Jefferson’s purpose was to present a logical and legally sound justification for the separation in order to gain the support of all 13 colonies and of potential international allies.  The author’s tone is formal as befits the seriousness of the purpose.

Why are students asked to write a précis?  A précis demands summarizing, analyzing and culling a text into a concise format, eliminating opinion.  Writing a good précis proves whether a student understands a text and whether a student can write.