Themed Literature Units

Steps in the Concept Development Process
What does it mean to ... take action to care for others,
face hard times with courage,
find a place to belong?

Reading high quality literature, discussing it with others, and responding through writing and art can be powerful learning experiences for students. However, if you want students to acquire an in-depth understanding of a theme, you need to guide them.

Through the concept development process outlined on this page, you can guide students to grasp important "big ideas" or life lessons from the theme. The reason students need this guidance is fairly simple: In every valuable theme, there is an almost limitless number of possible "big ideas." Take the theme, "Finding the Courage to Help Others" -- what would you want your students to know, remember, and be able to do as a result of studying this theme? There are as many good answers to that question as there are teachers, students, and great books.

The concept development process gives you a way to focus on a selected number of "big ideas" -- or generalizations -- that you want your students to grasp. The following example comes from teacher Carin Sullman, whose third grade students explored the theme, "Persevering Despite Obstacles." Carin's concept development process uses a simple concept web to collect traits of characters that show what it means -- and what it takes -- to keep going when the going gets rough. She then grouped traits into categories, and from those categories formed her generalizations.

The following steps are arranged in two parts: What you can do as you plan the unit, and how you might guide students as you teach the unit.

Step 1: Develop central questions
Step 2: Select books
Step 3: Extract character traits
Step 4: Arrange in a concept web
Step 5: Group similar traits
Step 6: Form generalizations

Step 1: Brainstorm responses to central questions
Step 2: Begin a concept web
Step 3: Read books
Step 4: Model how to extract character traits
Step 5: Add to concept web
Step 6: Group similar traits
Step 7: Form generalizations
Step 8: Use generalizations as the basis for extension projects and further reading

Planning the Concept Development Process

Planning the process will help you anticipate some of the challenges your students may have as they come to understand the theme. In addition, the steps you will go through to plan the concept development process will be very similar to how you can guide students. After you have completed the planning, see "Teaching the Concept Development Process" for specific steps you can use to guide your students as they come to understand the theme.

Step 1: Develop Central Questions
Carin brainstormed the following central questions that she wanted to explore through her themed literature unit. These questions guided her search for good books, informed her teaching, and helped her shepherd her students as they learned the big ideas from the unit.

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Step 2: Select Books
High-quality children's and young adult literature will naturally incorporate a range of themes. You can, of course, use books in any combination -- picture books, easy readers, stories from your anthology, nonfiction, chapter books, and/or young adult novels. Carin chose picture books for her themed literature unit because her students could read them quickly. She selected the following books:
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting; ill by Ronald Himler
Cassie's Journey by Brett Harvey; ill by Deborah Kogan Ray
Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say
I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas; ill. by Floyd Cooper
So Far from the Sea by Eve Bunting; ill. by Chris Soentpiet

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Step 3: Extract Character Traits
The key to examining what it means and what it takes to persevere despite obstacles can be found within the characters -- what they say and do, how they think and react, how they interact with other characters, and what the author tells us about them. Therefore, the next step is to identify those traits that illustrate how people cope when obstacles roll into their paths.

Carin read each book and extracted what she thought were the relevant traits. In this step, as in others below, Carin needed to do it first for herself so that she would know what traits rose naturally from these books. Later, she guided her students to identify what they thought were the relevant traits.

Here are the traits that Carin found [NOTE: Each reader may find different traits -- there is no one right way]:

Cassie's Journey: Positive attitude/optimism, support from family and friends, imagination and dreams of a better life, reason/purpose to live, willingness to take risks, collaboration/working with others, motivation, and hard work -- physically and mentally.

Grandfather's Journey: Adventurous spirit [and others already noted]
So Far From the Sea: Rational thinking, understanding [and others already noted]
Fly Away Home: Resources/resourcefulness, will to go on [and others]
I Have Heard of a Land: Hope/prayer, what lies at the end of the road, courage, industry

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Step 4: Arrange in a Concept Web
A concept web is a visual way to show how various ideas are related -- in this case, the traits that show how the characters persevered despite obstacles.
Carin began by drawing a blank concept web:
And then began to add the character traits she had identified in each book.

She added to the concept web, using a different color for the traits she extracted from each book. The following image shows the combined traits from Cassie's Journey and Grandfather's Journey and So Far From the Sea.

The finished web, showing the character traits from all five books, looked like this:

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Step 5: Group Similar Traits
The objective of concept development is to discover the general life lessons or "big ideas" that arise from literature. Therefore, Carin needed to begin to synthesize the traits from the five books to find commonalities among them. She looked for groupings of traits that seemed to fit together. [NOTE: This process is highly flexible -- there is no one right way to group the traits. Look for similarities that make sense to you.]

Carin grouped the traits under the following categories, each marked with a symbol:

Positive spirit or inner force within the characters that helped them persevere

Intelligence, thinking, and hard work

Finding purpose in looking to the future

Support of others

Carin then listed the traits on paper under each category's symbol.

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Step 6: Form Generalizations
Generalizations are statements that synthesize the grouped traits and answer the central questions: What does it mean to persevere despite obstacles? What does it look like to persevere? and How do we persevere?

Click here to see examples of generalizations from a variety of themes

This is the most difficult step in concept development -- but the most valuable, and the pathway to deep understanding about the theme. As with other steps in the process, there is no one right way to form the generalizations.

Carin looked at each grouping of traits, and formed a generalization -- a declarative sentence -- that tied the traits together:

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Teaching the Concept Development Process
Most students will not come to an in-depth understanding of the theme on their own. That's why it's important to guide them through the thinking process of generalizing from their own lives and from the books they read to come to a more-complete understanding of what it means to persevere despite obstacles (or any other theme) and how people do it.

Step 1: Brainstorm Responses to the Central Questions
You need to know what students understand about the theme before the unit begins. An effective way to begin is to ask them to respond to your central questions either orally or in writing. You can present these on a typed form, chart paper, the board, or an overhead transparency. Students' responses will give you baseline information about how deep (or limited) their understanding is as you begin the unit.

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Step 2: Begin a Concept Web
Build a concept web based on students' brainstorming of what they already know about the theme. As students then read their literature circle books, add onto the concept web with examples from the books. The concept web that you developed in the planning process will be helpful to you here -- but use it only as a guide. Allow students to put their own words to the traits as they extract ideas from their own lives or from the books they read. You might use one color to show the examples from students' lives, and another color to add examples from the books. The more examples you gather on the web, the easier it will be for students to develop their own generalizations.

The photo below shows a simple concept web based on 4th graders' brainstormed ideas of what it takes to be a persistent person.

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Step 3: Read Books
Students now read their books with an eye to finding out how the characters persevered (or worked for justice, took action to care for others, or overcame adversity, etc.). You can guide them in the same way you would in any literature circle by offering some effective tools to capture ideas (Prompts, questions, Post-it Notes, Golden Lines) from what they read. The theme becomes the central focus of students' discussions and written responses. An easy way to begin is to direct students to "find examples of how ________ took action to care for others." Or ask students to find Golden Lines that tell about the character overcoming adversity.

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Step 4: Model How to Extract Character Traits
It is through the traits of action and character (what the character does and says, what others do and say in response to him/her) that the author illustrates how the characters embody the theme. Show students how to identify these traits. Many young readers may have a hard time separating these "theme" traits ("She helped others escape" "He was brave when the soldiers came") from characters' physical traits ("He is tall" "She has brown hair") that don't directly relate to the theme.

Begin by reading aloud a picture book -- or use your daily read aloud book -- so that everyone has the same frame of reference. For example, Lori Scobie used Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson to help her 4th grade students understand how to identify character traits that helped Clara take action to care for others. After reading the book, Lori asked her students, "What did Clara do to take action? What did she have to have inside her to help her do this?" The following photo shows the web that Lori and her students developed. For a complete description of Lori's process, click here.

• Clara left the quilt so others could use it
• Clara made the quilt with the map to help others escape
• Aunt Rachel teaches Clara how to sew
• She helped Jack get away

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Step 5: Add to the Concept Web
Add traits from the literature circle books to the growing concept web. In the photo below, Lori Scobie created a second concept web that incorporated the traits from Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, as well as from five literature circle books.

• You're doing something you believe in
• It takes courage
• It's hard work
• You may have to give something up
• A little thing can mean a lot
• You have to be patient
• You have to be determined
• You have to believe in yourself
• Could be something others don't like
• You don't just think about it, you do something
• You have to be persistent
• Sometimes it's something you don't want to do
• You take responsibility for others
• You must take risks

Journey to Jo'Burg by Beverly Naidoo, Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, Toughboy and Sister by Kirkpatrick Hill,
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Thunder at Gettysburg by Patricia Lee Gauch, and Randall's Wall by Carol Fenner

Step 6: Group Similar Traits
Guide your students to group similar traits the same way you did it in Planning Step 5.

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Step 7: Form Generalizations (to see examples of generalizations, click here)
You can also use the work you did during Planning Step 6 to help you guide students to form generalizations. Going through the process yourself during the planning stage will pay big dividends now that you are working with your students. You will already have an idea of the challenges they may face. First, explain to students what a generalization is and why it is important to help them understand the theme more deeply. Then, model how you formed one or two of the generalizations. Finally, you might find it helpful to offer some sentence starters as students try out generalizations on their own:

  • In order to stand up for what is right, you must ...

  • People who persevere despite obstacles ...

  • It takes ... to work for justice

The number of generalizations you end up with will depend on your goals and your students' ages and experience. One or two good generalizations can be an excellent starting point! Remember that your final set of generalizations do not have to match those you developed during the planning process. In fact, students will remember them better if the generalizations are in their own words and come from their own thinking.

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Step 8: Use Generalizations as the Basis for Extension Projects and Further Reading
Now you can use these generalizations as the basis for extension projects and further reading. See example extension projects on the Literature Circles Resource Center website for ideas.

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Return to TEED 521 Themed Literature Unit Assignment

Themed Literature Units

© 2005 Katherine L. Schlick Noe, Ph.D.
College of Education
Seattle University
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P.O. Box 222000
Seattle, WA 98122-1090





















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