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.
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
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.
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.
the Concept Development Process
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.
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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2: Select Books
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:
Away Home by Eve Bunting; ill by Ronald Himler
Journey by Brett Harvey; ill by Deborah Kogan Ray
Journey by Allen Say
Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas; ill. by Floyd Cooper
Far from the Sea by Eve Bunting; ill. by Chris Soentpiet
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.
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
are the traits that Carin found [NOTE:
Each reader may find different traits -- there is no one right way]:
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.
Adventurous spirit [and others already noted]
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
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.
began by drawing a blank concept web:
then began to add the character traits she had identified in each
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.
finished web, showing the character traits from all five books, looked
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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.]
grouped the traits under the following categories, each marked with
spirit or inner force within the characters that helped them persevere
Intelligence, thinking, and hard work
purpose in looking to the future
then listed the traits on paper under each category's symbol.
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6: Form 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?
here to see examples of generalizations from
a variety of themes
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.
looked at each grouping of traits, and formed a generalization -- a
declarative sentence -- that tied the traits together:
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.
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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2: Begin a Concept Web
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.
photo below shows a simple concept web based on 4th graders' brainstormed
ideas of what it takes to be a persistent person.
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'
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
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.
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,
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
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
6: Group Similar Traits
Guide your students to group similar traits the same way you did it
in Planning Step 5.
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