Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unit of Study on THEME (middle, part 1)

Subtitle: In Which Writing Workshop Becomes Composing Workshop

Yesterday's post told about how I laid some of the groundwork for studying theme with 4th graders.

Other groundwork had been laid long before I ever imagined this project: although my writing workshop looked fairly traditional (paper on pencil) in the first trimester as we studied Narrative Structures, I had spent some time introducing my students to applications like ComicLife, Pixie, Pages, and GarageBand. I'd been itching for them to have some way to USE these applications -- some authentic content -- so that I could shift our WRITING Workshop into a COMPOSING workshop, where we would use the design process to make things (workshop style) with our words and ideas.

The trimester-long multi-media multi-genre project that I imagined was this: every child would pick a theme, then they would explore that theme by making things that illustrate or describe or embody their theme.

To prepare to explain the Theme Project, I made a chart listing all the themes we'd identified in the video clip and THE LION AND THE MOUSE, and specific themes that are mentioned in our state's 4th Grade Language Arts Standards. The last section of this list has themes we've added since the project began -- we've talked about theme as "the moral of the story" and read both traditional Aesop's Fables as well as Scieszka's SQUIDS WILL BE SQUIDS, and some of those final themes were brainstormed when students couldn't find a theme they wanted to work with on the big list, while others came from our read aloud (more about that tomorrow).

Posible themes:
perseverance (don't give up)
overcoming challenges
"Don't judge a book by its cover."
"Do unto others..."
service to others
healing power of language
arts make our lives better

I also made a list of possible things to make. Notice that not all are digital:

poems (original, collected)
skit (video? iMovie?)
images (original photos, Pixie)
music (GarageBand)

We talked through these charts and then I sent them back to their writer's notebook to make a web with the theme they'd chosen in the center, and around that theme, a few of the things they wanted to try to make.

And we all lived happily ever after? No, but this is what I love best about teaching: launching a big project that is untested and not completely planned to the minute...and then teaching off of and around all that happens when the students take hold of it and make it theirs.

Some of the challenges we've had so far have been understanding that this is a project around a theme (big idea, moral of the story kind of stuff) and not a topic. But they're 10. We'll get there. I'll tell you about this journey in more detail in a future post. Maybe on would fit with Poetry Friday...

Then there was the child who was making a list rather than a web. For every theme, she was picking a something off the Possible Things To Make list. A little one to one correspondence going on that needed to be shifted into "web one theme" mode. This project will really stretch my literal thinkers. For some of them, it might have to be more of a project on a topic rather than a theme. (I think that's called differentiation...)

And then there's the ongoing struggle with the student who's unwilling to let go of a successful character he created (original comic superhero) during the narrative structures project. I can't seem to get him to understand that his character can be a part of this project, but this will not be a project about his character. (This isn't differentiation, this is where the teacher puts her foot down...)

Tomorrow: How I have integrated reading and writing workshop (because the ultimate point of all of this is to get them ready to write a literary essay).


  1. I'm enjoying this series tremendously. Thanks so much for taking the time to describe it so thoroughly.

  2. Your writing helping me think of strategies to help my treasure look for "big" ideas in literacy. I, too, have those literal treasures who have yet to have enough schema to think global and not surface level ideas. Thank you for sharing your thinking, the differentiation piece, and the "have-to's".

  3. Thanks for the votes of confidence, ladies!

    Monica, I worried about this post being too long, but so often I want MORE when I read quick snapshots of what people have done in their classrooms, so I went ahead and wrote long. I'm glad/honored that you're enjoying it!

  4. Mary Lee, I think you need to be be complete when writing about classroom practice so no way is it too long! (Now off to read today's post.)


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