Theme Lesson Plan: Teaching Theme in Literature

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I taught the elements of literature to my high school English students. I just knew they were all going to get A’s on the quiz. One person got an ‘A’. I think he cheated. Everybody else got D’s and F’s. In despair, I constructed a Freitag’s Pyramid out of sheet metal, and set it next to the boiler in the school dungeon in order to sear my face as punishment for not teaching the elements of literature very well. As I bent over to mark myself, I tripped and banged my head on the concrete. I woke up in my classroom with Freitag himself hovering above me.

“You must teach literary elements in context,” he said, “Teaching theme and plot and characters and conflict must be done with literature.” He left me some lesson plans. My favorite one was a theme lesson plan that involved teaching theme with “The Interlopers” by Saki.

I now share it with you.

Theme Lesson Plan Notes

Students should be familiar with the following information in order for your theme lesson plan to be effective:

  • Theme is the central idea or message in a literary work. It is not the subject of the work (students often get the two definitions of theme confused). It is a perception about human life.
  • Themes are rarely stated directly. They usually must be inferred.
  • The theme is revealed by the way characters change in a story, conflicts in the story, and statements made by the narrator or characters.
  • Understanding theme involves understanding plot, characters, and setting.

Strategies for Teaching Theme

I will use examples from “The Interlopers” by Saki to illustrate these strategies.

  • Discuss Plot:
    • Analyze cause and effect.
    • Identify the main conflict and minor conflicts.

Example: The main conflict, Ulrich’s and Georg’s hatred for one another, puts them in a bind. Their misfortune causes them to realize their foolishness. The approaching wolves don’t care.

  • Analyze Character Motivation:
    • Note which characters are dynamic and which are static.
    • Look for evidence regarding character motives.
    • Evaluate the characters’ personality.

Example: Ulrich and Georg are motivated by hatred initially. Their hatred softens and they become motivated by love. Their misfortune matures them quickly.

Example: The harsh setting reflects the harsh feelings of the two men. It forces each man’s character change and each man’s impending doom.

  • Recognize Theme:
    • Note any sentences or sections that strike your fancy.
    • Observe how characters change and what they learn.
    • Look at the title.

Example: “There are better things in life than getting the better of a boundary dispute."

Teaching Theme Lesson Plan Procedures

  1. Copy down the above notes on theme.
  2. Read “The Interlopers” by Saki or any other short story.
  3. In small groups, implement strategies for recognizing theme.
  4. Write down information for recognizing theme.
  5. Write a paragraph discussing and analyzing theme in “The Interlopers.” The topic sentence should be an explicit statement of theme. The paragraph must include specific details from the story.

This post is part of the series: Teaching Literary Elements in Context

Teach literary elements by teaching literature.

  1. Strategies for Teaching Theme: A Lesson Plan Using “The Interlopers” by Saki
  2. Lesson Plan: Short Story Project For High School Language Arts
  3. Middle School Short Story Project
  4. Teaching Irony in Literature: A Review
  5. Teaching Short Story Elements