Teaching Theme with Rock, Paper, Scissors

In order to grow more comfortable and confident when discussing theme, students need lots of practice. Early in the year, it’s wise to use shorter pieces, like short stories, to teach the basics of theme before we launch longer works of literature. This week, I found a fun, quick supplement to add to that routine.

New to teaching theme? Remember, theme is more than just one word; instead, it’s a message the reader can pull out of the work we’re studying and support with evidence from the text. A strong theme, the backbone of an analysis essay, includes a bold opinion that two reasonable people could debate. Want a free set of slides to help you teach theme? Check out this earlier blog post: https://laurarandazzo.com/2017/10/07/how-i-teach-theme-free-slides/

Okay, back to the new stuff. This week, one of my library friends showed me Drew Daywalt’s delightful book, The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, and it started my brain spinning. It’s a delightful story and an easy way for our high school and middle school students to practice theme. 

No need to buy a copy because Daywalt has generously shared his work online. In this Storytime Video on YouTube, Daywalt delivers a real-aloud complete with charming character voices. You can skip his Q&A interview at the end and use just the six-minute clip between 0:45 and 6:45:

After the viewing, give students a few minutes to write two possible theme sentences. What’s a bold, arguable message that could be supported by this story? Once students have had enough time to draft their theme sentences, ask a brave volunteer to share their work with the class. Write one of their sentences on the board and invite the class to discuss if the statement is bold, arguable, and defendable with examples from the text. How could this theme sentence be improved? Show students how to embolden a first draft by eliminating weak words like these: I, me, my, you, your, we, us, would, could, should, may, might, how. More free teaching tools to help students strengthen their writing here: https://laurarandazzo.com/2017/12/02/11-worst-words-in-essay-writing/

To serve as a model late in the lesson, here are some themes that I pulled from The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors you could share with your students:

There is joy in defeat because unchecked power creates misery.

To find happiness, people must fail.

Warriors must leave their homeland to reach their full potential.

Destroying others brings no lasting joy.

Don’t know about you, but I’d want to read an essay on any of these topics. I also like that Daywalt’s book is a non-cheesy way to reinforce growth mindset since these characters not only embrace challenges – they seek them out. In the end, they surround themselves with others who help them realize their full potential.

Have you used children’s books to help older students master theme? Any titles that worked especially well? Share those recommendations below and we can create a repository of resources for all English teachers to enjoy!

8 thoughts on “Teaching Theme with Rock, Paper, Scissors

  1. Leticia Geldart says:

    I use The Paper Bag Princess (Robert Munsch) to teach theme. However, there is something so joyous about an author reading his own work, so I will totally see how I can use this book as well. Thanks for inspiring (as always)! (And I see the reference to The Day the Crayons Quit on the book’s cover…I may need to check out that one as well!)

  2. Love this suggestion, Leticia! Adding this one and The Day the Crayons Quit to my check-out list. Thanks so much. 🙂

  3. Laura Lundgren says:

    Fox by Margaret Wild touches on subjects of loyalty, friendship, risk, and betrayal. It’s so rich for discussion (but not as humorous!)

  4. I use /Dragon Tales/ by Dav Pilkey. High school students love to sit and listen to a good (short!) story, and these three are sad, sweet, funny, and entertaining. Good messages, too. I use this to show how all students bring their own experiences to the table when interpreting literature. Everyone writes a thematic statement from the book — on a post-it, on the board, or on a Jam board note — then I share them out loud and we compare/contrast/discuss them. There will be a wide variety of themes, from “Never trust a walrus!” to “A person never knows where they will find a true friend.”

  5. Jacqueline says:

    I’ve used Stone Soup, The Three Little Pigs, and the Horton books (refrain from judging, lol) in the classroom. Once they have a decent grasp of the concept, I assign The Hundred Dresses to read at home. We build thematic statements as a class before I assign a chapter book.

  6. A fantastic practice, Jacqueline. Thanks for sharing your favorites! 🙂

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