What’s a great way to teach main idea and theme that really sticks? I have found some ways that consistently work well with my upper elementary students when we are digging deep into a work of narrative nonfiction that I want to share with you. Why narrative nonfiction? Well, mainly because narrative nonfiction books have main ideas because they’re nonfiction, but they also have themes because they’re stories.
One of my favorite books to use for this lesson is Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. Since this is a beautifully written and illustrated book, it’s important to just read it all the way through one time. After the first read, we reread and start to look at the main idea as well as topics and themes that have emerged.
Any teacher already knows that the main idea is essentially a brief summary of a book. Ada’s Violin is the story of a child who lives in the impoverished town of Cateura that grew up around a garbage dump outside of Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción. Adults in the town are concerned about the futures of the children. A man named Favio Chávez wants to give the community hope so he starts a music school. He knows that even if he can get instruments for the children that real instruments will likely be stolen so he enlists the help of Don Cola Gomez, a trash worker and carpenter, who is able to make instruments from the trash. So, what’s the main idea? My students came up with: “The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura began because the music teacher didn’t have enough instruments and the dump was full of useful materials.” Another main idea could be that Ada’s grandmother Marian wanted Ada and her sister to have a better life that she had, so she signed them up for music lessons with Favio Chávez.
Now on to theme. What’s the most effective way to “get at” theme? It’s best to focus on topics. I’m certainly not the first person to focus on brainstorming about topics to get at theme and I know this. Two of my favorite videos to help with this approach are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spxmREIZwKs and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H6GCe7hmmA What’s crucial in determining theme is inferring how the author feels about a topic in a story. For example, some of the topics in Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay are poverty, perseverance, creativity, hope, determination, recycling, respect, being thankful, optimism, and family. Students need to choose one of the topics and think about how the author feels about the topic. It helps to write “The author believes that…” as shown in the second video. One of themes my students inferred for the topic of creativity was: “Anything can be done with creativity.” Others might be: “Turning trash into treasure is a beautiful idea for the ears as well as the eyes” or “Repurposing trash is not only great for the environment, but can help energize a community” and other thematic statements. After students articulate themes, they pass their notebooks to other students and their peers provide evidence to support the themes.
In addition to reading the book, I like to show my students a related 60 Minutes Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxUuKthY1dQ. There are also other articles and videos out there including this one from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/09/14/493794763/from-trash-to-triumph-the-recycled-orchestra.
I use the same technique for inferring theme frequently enough that my students begin to say, “The author believes that…” before they state themes they have identified.
I have developed several lessons using these techniques. I am offering https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Adas-Violin-Book-Companion-Main-Idea-and-Theme-3498433 as a FREEBIE for a limited time beginning at 9 PM EST on February 20, 2020.
Other lessons include:
Wilma Unlimited Book Companion: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Wilma-Unlimited-Book-Companion-Main-Idea-and-Theme-3498400
Wringer Book Companion (Final Lesson): https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Wringer-Novel-Study-Chapters-39-and-40-3451076
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