Follow a Theme with Students

During group novel studies, it is helpful to have a strategy to follow a theme with students. I am working with middle school students this year. In order to have higher level discussions, students need to identify more sophisticated literary elements such as themes, symbols, tone, and mood.

I adapted an anchor chart idea I found while browsing Pinterest to encourage students to track a theme throughout our unit on Where the Red Fern Grows. I converted the idea to a printable chart with small Post-it notes students could keep in their binders. There are multiple themes in the story, so my students did not all have the same theme choice. The variety of theme choices enhanced our daily discussions.

Following a Theme

Identify Possible Themes

  • About a third of the way through the novel study, we reviewed the definition for theme.
  • I printed THIS THEME HANDOUT with information on the front about common themes in literature. Using the “starter list” students worked with a partner to identify possible themes for our unit of study for Red Fern. Due to COVID, students stayed in their desk space and talked to the student in the 6-feet-away-desk near them.
  • I presented the sample theme, a dog’s love, which we discussed as a group. Students named scenes that related to our key theme idea.
  • Next, students received Post-it notes in different sizes, attached the Post-its to the spaces on the chart for tracking a theme, and chose an additional theme for the book.
  • As we continued reading, students jotted scenes that reinforced their theme choice. Since we were using Post-its, students had the option to rearrange the notes if needed. Some students removed a Post-it and replaced with a different scene choice as we got further along in the story.
  • After we finished the book, and all scene spaces were filled, students wrote final thoughts. They considered what they had learned about the theme through their reading of the story.

Following a Theme

Materials for the Theme Chart

  • Print a class set of THIS THEME HANDOUT front and back.
  • You need 3 sizes of Post-it notes. The first space for the theme name is 1 1/2″ x 2″. The scene spaces are 2″ x 2″. The final long rectangular space is 3 1/2″ x 2 1/2″.
  • In order to make the largest Post-it note, I cut down lined 4″ x 4″ Post-it notes with a guillotine paper cutter.

Tracking a Theme chart

For another way to use Post-it notes in the classroom, CLICK HERE. To purchase novel studies with unique reading comprehension activities in each resource from my TpT store, CLICK HERE.

Tracking Student Progress

I love data, and I like to implement easy ways for tracking student progress during the year. I have grades and test scores, but I also need a system for recording daily observations and general student performance. A few years ago, I started keeping a plain manila file folder with Post-it notes inside for anecdotal or informal records about each student. Each time I grade longer writing assignments, observe students during group work, or make mental notes during instruction, I jot notes on a Post-it note, which I add to the student’s space inside the folder. When I am preparing for a parent meeting or creating report card comments, I have a personal resource to remind me about specific strengths and areas of focus for each student.

The Student Progress Folder

  • Create a 3″ x 3″ grid inside a manila folder. Measure from the center fold, so you won’t have any squares that straddle the fold line. I mark every 3″ down the center line first. I then move the ruler to the right side and left side and mark the 3″ spacing. After making the guide marks, I connect the dots to create the horizontal lines.

  • To create the vertical lines, place your ruler at the center fold in the top half of the folder space and make a few dots for guidelines every 3″ to the right and every 3″ to the left. Slide your ruler to the bottom half of the folder space and make another set of dots. Connect the dots to draw the vertical lines.

  • If your grid is 3″ x 3″, you will have ~22 usable spaces.  Where the notch on the folder dips, the grid space is smaller. My maximum class size is 18 students (lucky, I know), so the folder spaces work for my classroom. If you have a larger class and need more squares, plan to use smaller Post-it notes and adjust your grid measurements.
  • Print labels or write names in each grid space. I create this folder at the beginning of the year when I am labeling class supplies and textbooks. I usually have extra labels that I can use.

  • My school keeps 3″ x 3″ Post-it notes in our teacher supply area. I like to have a little gap around the edges of the sticky notes, so I use the guillotine paper cutter in the teacher workroom and cut a stack of Post-its down to 2.5″ x 2.5″. And yes, you may comment about my tendencies to be a little OCD. You could also purchase the 2″ x 2″ size or even the slightly smaller 1 1/2″ x 2″ size.
  • Begin adding notes to each square. I might only add one small note at a time and keep adding to the same Post-it note over several weeks. Or, I might need many notes stuck on top of each other. By the end of a grading period, some students have multiple stacked notes, and some kids only have a few.

Suggestions for Tracking

  • When you grade projects or larger writing assignments, add short thoughts about trends in each student’s completed work. Did the student struggle with time management or working independently? Did the student work well in a group or have evidence in the finished project of good higher level thinking?
  • Note details about independent reading choices, pace to complete a book, comprehension overall based on his/her comments when the book is completed.
  • As you listen to students read aloud, what are impressions about fluency or word attack skills?
  • Monitor organizational skills and how a student transitions from class to class or teacher to teacher, you may have notes about executive functioning areas for a student.
  • Since I am a language arts teacher, I tend to make notes about writing mechanics and writer’s voice. For math teachers, you may detect weaknesses or strengths with certain skill areas. When you see pockets of need with a handful of students, it can help you plan mini lessons to reinforce specific topics or give you inspiration for an enrichment idea.
  • Observations about peer relations can be added too. I find I add items about general behavior– fidgety, frequent water breaks, stomach hurts every day after lunch, tardy to school…

I have other charts I keep too. They are plain and simple like the student progress folder but help me log parent contact or unusual student behaviors (more than what I might note with the quick Post-it note system). I also have gradebook style grids that I use for different class checklists. To download my teacher binder materials for free from TpT, CLICK HERE.