Educator Resources Literature

Tips for Digging Deeper into Theme

Hello fellow homeschool moms who did NOT major in English. Did you get specialized college training in literature? Me either. And here we are now with kids at an age when we need to know how to dig deeper into literature and support their continued intellectual growth.

So what to do? What does it mean to dig deeper into literature? On top of that, how do we help our teens capture their original thoughts around a text?

Teens don’t magically know how to do that. Well, maybe some lucky homeschool mom birthed a fairy tale kid who does, but I’m not one of them. I’ve had to coach and coax the skill of reflecting and capturing those thoughts. But first I had to discover teaching tools to help us do that.

With practice I’ve been refining that craft and found a few key tips that have made digging into theme much easier for us.

Get your teens interested in what they’re reading. 

I’m all for as much child-driven choice as possible. My teens create their book list every year, not me. I may make some recommendations based on connections to our history or cultural significance, but ultimately the choice is theirs. That’s why I used Brave Writer’s Boomerangs for 9th and 10th grade. À la carte book choice instead of a prepackaged homeschool curriculum where the book titles are already selected. Yes, please!

Alfie Kohn has an article that challenges what we know about creating readers. It’s worth a read on its own, though not all is applicable to homeschooling. But I found this sentence particularly interesting…

Children grow to love reading when it’s about making meaning, when they’re confronted directly by provocative ideas, compelling characters, delicious prose.

Alfie Kohn, How to Create Nonreaders

I took that one sentence and crafted what I call our literature compass – what keeps us heading in the right direction when it comes to literature without getting too bogged down in overanalysis.

  • What is the provocative idea in this story?
  • Who are the compelling characters and why?
  • What powerful prose did you find in the story? 
  • What larger meaning did you discover in the book?

Developmentally, teens are now noticing things out in the wider world, and they like hashing those things out. (Often as criticism. And that’s ok.) For my teens, it’s often about how power is used or abused in the world, agency, justice, freedom, conformity and control. (Think Hunger Games, 1984, Divergent, The Lottery.)  Those are the “provocative” ideas they enjoy confronting at this stage in their life. Take advantage of whatever it is your teen finds provocative about the world right now.

What is theme?

Watch this video from Laura Randazzo. She does a fantastic job describing how she walks her beginning high schoolers through to a more sophisticated idea of theme vs. topic. How she collaborates with her students, starting with a simplistic idea and then gradually refining it together until you have a more compelling theme about a story. Good stuff!

Annotating Literary Elements

Yes, I’m singing its praises. Again. Pay attention to the details in the guide for using the spark event, crisis point and climax to help you discover theme. (Page 15 if you own ALE.) I used those three points just today to help my son dig into Fahrenheit 451’s theme, and he came up with an amazing thesis statement, if I do say so myself. 

I swear to you guys, these three points in the plot arc work every time for us. We pull them out, talk about them a little deeper (What was happening around the character at that point? How did the spark event affect the protagonist? How does that contrast with the crisis point? Etc.). I jot down what my teens say around these three points, then we look at our conversation notes and craft a working thesis statement based on theme. 

There’s no homeschool fairy godmother who shows up the first day of high school to bippity boppity boo these skills onto our teens. It’s on us parents to teach and practice the skills it takes to dig deeper into literature, and we need quality teaching tools and tips to do that. With a little time, you’ll start to see simplistic ideas transform into more sophisticated thoughts on literature.