Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Growing Themes


K20 Center, Melissa Rule Wicker, Gage Jeter | Published: July 19th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course A.P. Literature and Composition, American Literature, British Literature, World Literature
  • Time Frame Time Frame 1-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 90 minutes


In this lesson, students will learn to effectively identify and analyze themes through and across a variety of texts through a variety of engaging activities. Students will explore universal theme sets through the Four Corners and Always, Sometimes, Never strategies before composing their own theme statements. Students will then transpose the theme sets to text through a guided Why-Lighting activity. Finally, students will apply their knowledge of theme by examining themes present in nonfiction texts. While this lesson is currently aligned only to 8th grade standards, it would be appropriate to teach in grades 7-11, adjusting standards as needed.

Essential Question(s)

What universal themes are found within and across various genres?



Students engage in a modified Four Corners strategy to explore dichotomous theme statements.


Students reflect on pairs of theme words and create their own theme statements related to the theme words.


Students use the Why-Lighting strategy to annotate a text for evidence of the theme word sets.


Students apply their knowledge of theme by exploring and annotating a nonfiction article.


Students reflect on their annotated texts and use the 3-2-1 strategy to create a theme statement applicable to both texts.


  • Computer

  • Wifi or Internet

  • Projector

  • Tape

  • Highlighters: pink, yellow, blue, and green

  • Writing utensils and paper

  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Newsela articles (linked in the Extend section)

  • Theme Flowers Master Document (attached; one copy of "Courage & Fear" and "Isolation & Acceptance" per student)

  • Theme Flowers Blank Petals (attached; one copy of "Love & Hate" and "Loyalty & Betrayal" per student)

  • The Outsiders Passages (attached; one per student)

  • Theme Set Room Labels (attached)


Display slide 3. Project the essential question as the students enter the room and share it with them once they are settled: What universal themes are found within and across various genres?

Display slide 4 and share the learning objectives with your students:

  1. Students should analyze theme statements.

  2. Students should write theme statements.

  3. Students should synthesize information to create overall theme statements based on two genres of text.

Display slide 5 and explain that, to begin the lesson, they are participating in a modified Four Corners and Always, Sometimes, or Never True activity. Explain to the students that you are going to read a series of sentences which could summarize the theme of a story, and they are going to have to decide whether that theme statement reflects courage or fear or both.

Theme statements are displayed individually on a slide. When you read them, students will quickly decide whether they believe the statement expresses courage, fear, or both and either move to the appropriate room label or stand in the middle of the room if they feel it could reflect both theme statements.

  • "A spark can start a great fire." -Emmet Fox (slide 6)

  • "Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is." -German Proverb (slide 7)

  • "If you are afraid of something, you give it power over you." -Unknown (slide 8)

  • "It is easy to be brave from a distance." -Aesop (slide 9)

  • "A bully is always a coward." -Unknown (slide 10)

  • "Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the conquest of it." -William Danforth (slide 11)

Once students have moved, have them discuss their decision within their group and then have each group share with the class their reason for their decision.

Display slide 12 and inform students they are going to play again, only this time they should decide whether the theme is acceptance, isolation, or a combination of both.

  • "Tolerance is giving to every other human being, every right which you claim for yourself." -Ingersoll (slide 13)

  • "People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones." -Unknown (slide 14)

  • "Happiness can exists only in acceptance." -George Orwell (slide 15)

  • "A man is known by the company he keeps." -Aesop (slide 16)

  • "The worst loneliness is not being comfortable with yourself." -Mark Twain (slide 17)

  • "No man is an island." -John Donne (slide 18)


Have students return to their seats and explain that they are going to examine theme word sets in order to create their own theme statements. Pass out "Theme Flowers Blank Petals" handout labeled "Love & Hate" and "Loyalty & Betrayal." Also, pass out the completed "Courage & Fear" and "Acceptance & Isolation" flowers from the handout "Theme Flowers Master Document" to be used for reference (these contain the theme statements used in the activity during the Engage portion of the lesson).

Display slide 19 and share the example theme statements for Love and Hate. Ask students if they have any examples they could provide. This slide has a spot to include student examples as they share out.

Explain to students that the theme statements they create can be familiar quotes, can be based off of familiar stories, or can be created independently. Students should write three theme statements for each of the four words, resulting in 12 total statements.

Display slide 20 and share the example theme statements for Loyalty and Betrayal. Ask students if they have any examples they could provide. This slide has a slot to include student examples as they share out.

When students have finished their statements, have them share out with the rest of the class. Slides 19-20 have a spot to include student examples as they share out.


Display slide 21 and pass out "The Outsiders Passages."

Explain to students that they should look for examples of the theme words within the passage. These examples could be a part of the plot or the setting, or they could be something the characters do, say, or think.

Using the Why-Lighting strategy, have students annotate the text for the four theme word sets.

  1. Students read through the text and highlight examples of the theme sets. This could be dialogue, characters' thoughts and actions, the narrative, or a combination of elements. Some elements could represent multiple theme word sets.

  2. Assign a highlighter color for each set.

  3. After highlighting the element(s) with the appropriate color, students should clarify which theme word it best represents by writing the appropriate theme word in the margin.

  • Pink: Love/Hate

  • Yellow: Loyalty/Betrayal

  • Blue: Acceptance/Isolation

  • Green: Courage/Fear

After students have finished annotating the passage, display slide 22 and have them analyze their annotations to determine the overall theme of the passage. Typically, a quick glance at which color is most prominent can tell them the overall theme.


Display slide 23. Explain to students that theme can be found across all genres, including nonfiction texts. Provide a variety of current news articles from Newsela for students to review. As students are skimming and reviewing the articles, they should look for an article that has the same overall theme as the theme of their annotated passage.

Display slide 24. Students then use the Why-Lighting strategy to annotate the article for the selected theme. As students highlight words, phrases, and sentences which represent their theme, they should identify why and how the highlighted parts demonstrate their selected theme. After reading/Why-Lighting, have students get into small groups of 3-4 based on the article they chose. Instruct the students to discuss the article, what they highlighted and why, and how the article is similar to the excerpt from The Outsiders.


Display slide 25. In this modified 3-2-1 activity, students begin by selecting three theme statements (from their flower petals or newly created ones) that best summarize the theme of both their passage and their news article.

Then, students analyze the three theme statements and select the two statements which best summarize the passage and the article.

Finally, students synthesize the two theme statements into one theme statement which accurately summarizes the overall theme of both the passage and the article.