8th grade: I don’t know what I don’t know

I don’t know what I don’t know. I think that’s what freaked me out so much about teaching “theme” to my 8th-graders. I know what theme is, but I don’t really know how to teach it.

I read all of the advice online. It was … fine. But none of it was concrete, and I hate teaching when there’s nothing concrete to attach it to.

I already knew that theme was subjective. It’s dependent upon the experience, background knowledge, and perception of the reader. I also knew that most online sources recommended framing theme as the message the WRITER wants the reader to take away from the work. But as a writer, I can tell you that I never once considered theme while writing. It’s all very confusing.

I’d been advised by teachers to let students identify the themes on their own. I’d also been advised to give them a few themes that I found in the book and let them provide proof that these were themes. I was told to give them scaffolding, but also told to let them seek their own truth. No matter what I did, there was no real answer.

The best tip? “Theme is very difficult for students to understand. Expect to teach if repeatedly through the year.” Thanks to my principal for that.

That’s the funny thing about teaching English — the hard, fast rules are few. The soft, fuzzy guidelines are many. There are exceptions, of course, particularly when it comes to grammar, where we have specific RULES that are simply not intended to be broken, which is what made it so ironic that in the same week that I struggled to find a formula for my students to determine theme, I watched two of my fellow soon-to-be English teacher butcher some of the only rules the language actually has. The first involved word choice (“upmost” instead of “utmost” — seriously, how is that a thing?); the second didn’t know the proper placement of quotes relative to end punctuation.

Uptight? Yes. But here’s the deal: education IS uptight. That’s how we all land on universally accepted truths. Without these, we can’t possibly do our jobs as teachers. There absolutely must be universal rules that we accept and follow. For example, if you’re a U.S. history teacher, you should teach that the Civil War was steeped in racism and slavery,  not northern aggression. If you’re a science teacher, you must teach evolution and global warming, not some creation myth (unless you’re looking specifically at myths and how people used these to make sense of things they didn’t understand prior to having access to accepted truths). And, if you’re an English teacher, you should teach — and model — some of the only truths we know: word choice and grammar. And if you can’t remember them, just do a quick internet search to find them!

Society currently has a problem with trying to find the easiest way out. Let someone else give us the answers, and we’ll just repeat them. As teachers, that means our job is two-fold: first, we need to encourage students to think critically before they accept information as fact; second we need to ensure we’re providing accurate information up front. I can’t teach you not to smoke if I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I can’t teach you not to say things like “upmost” if I’m writing it all over my white board and on social media.

I’m all for encouraging students to find the truth on their, but only to a point. When a truth is universally accepted, like word choice and punctuation in American English, I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that truth should be handed to students. Study it, learn it, know it, and use it. There are plenty of other things to mess around with in English education, like theme. Conventions, on the other hand, simply aren’t open to debate.

 

 

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