Scaffolding Abstract Thinking: Building Thematic Statements from the Ground Up

My school district began implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study last year in grades 1-8. Even though teachers were required to teach only one of the three units with fidelity, I struggled. Unpacking the sessions and bends took me hours on the weekends, and I found that because my students were experiencing writers workshop for the first year, they struggled as well. They weren’t conditioned to writing for five solid minutes much less twenty or thirty at a time. They literally had no idea how to sit still and think and write for that long.

This year has been much better. The students have an understanding of writers workshop, and thanks to doyens like Kate Roberts, Maggie Roberts, and Angela Stockman, to name only two of the most influential mentors I follow faithfully online, I have more tools in my shed.

So right now my colleagues and I are teaching the 8th-grade argument unit, which is writing and publishing a literary essay.  I have not been looking forward to this unit because I knew how much work is involved in teaching one of these units for the first time, but with the help of my colleagues, mainly JoAnn Welsko (the most perfect teammate, champion, and ally anyone could have), I am beginning to find the magic.

My students have been genuinely struggling with finding the theme in the dystopian stories they chose, as I knew they would. Even though I followed all of Calkins’ instructions: using an anchor text as an example, guiding students through writing long about conflict, characters, and literary devices, and discussing ideas with partners, they still weren’t getting it. They weren’t doing the deep thinking needed to connect their stories to a bigger idea or create a postulation about the author’s message. So yesterday after school, I sat down at my desk and thought about the steps that anyone would have to follow to determine to create a thematic statement.

  1. Ask yourself: What is the topic/main idea of the story?
  2. Ask yourself: What does the author believe about this topic?
  3. Then find three pieces of textual evidence to support your #2. If you can find three good examples of textual evidence, your idea is probably solid. If you can’t find three pieces of good textual evidence, return to #1 and see if another topic works better.

The anchor text we read, per the Units of Study, is All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. In the 8th grade literary essay unit, Calkins suggests this mentor text and provides sample thematic statements and a mentor literary essay that teachers can use. I went with Calkins’ suggestions so I did not have to create my own while teaching the unit for the first time.

Here is what I put on the white eraser board for students as they worked through this process:

Creating a Thematic Statement.jpg

If you look at the photo, the topic of the story is jealousy, so I had the students use the following formula for step 1: I think the topic of the story is _____. Some students spent the period brainstorming and discussing ideas to complete this sentence starter. About 1/3 of the students were able to start the step

2. For this step, they had to interpret what the author believes about the topic they chose for step one. The third step requires them to prove their theory with three pieces of textual evidence. I had a handful of students (about five out of 130) begin step three today so we will begin there on Monday.

Scaffolding this process led to many aha moments today. My perseverance, encouragement, and coaching are paying off. Students were choosing abstract concepts for topics and then drawing conclusions about their development throughout their stories.

Once we complete this process, the next step is to determine how the authors illuminate their beliefs in each of the three scenes students choose. Does the author use figurative language in the scene? Imagery? Irony? Dialogue? Short and long sentences? By identifying the moves the author makes in each scene, students will then have three specific literary devices to analyze in their literary essays.

If you are interested in using any of the dystopian stories I included in my text set for students, here is a list of those that are most popular:

  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
  • “2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  • “We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel

I included a few other stories in the text set, but they were not popular with my students. I list them here in case you think your students might like them.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (My students did not choose this story, but I included because it is the only dystopian story I have ever read that had a happy ending.)
  • “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Examination Day” by Harry Slesar
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