This is the second post in a two-part series about literary themes to study in high school. You can begin by reading part one here.
English teachers have so many choices when it comes to selecting literature for their curriculums. Read about four additional themes that are relevant to today’s teenagers as well as how you might be able to approach them meaningfully while still meeting the rigor of English Language Arts standards.
Read about how Bespoke ELA uses two classic texts to engage students in discussion about how ambition can lead to success or failure in life.
To approach this theme in my British Literature class, my students use Beowulf and Macbeth as a lens to construct an argument about the relationship between ambition and corruption. To do this, they compare and contrast the two Anglo-Saxon heroes and discuss the role of ambition in the outcomes of each story. Students then apply their discussions of ambition to the real world and complete a scavenger hunt activity in which they seek out how ambition leads to success or failure in different facets of society.
Afterward, students compile their findings into a Capstone project in which they shape their own unique arguments about ambition and its role in the world by using evidence from the literature and non-fiction sources from the scavenger hunt. It’s a nice way for students to synthesize sources to support an argument while targeting both reading and writing skills. And who doesn’t enjoy an epic battle?
Language Arts Classroom reaches reluctant readers by focusing on the theme of individuality in The Hunger Games.
Unfortunately, high school students spend time conforming – to “belong” to social groups or to a certain image. Whenever literature lends itself to discussing individuality, I take the opportunity to do so.
I have taught The Hunger Games with middle school students and at-risk high school students. (They really enjoyed the engaging material). Always, no matter the age, students want to know:
Why is Katniss weird? Why does she enjoy hunting? Why doesn’t she care about appearances/ social norms/ friends? Why won’t she date Peeta?
We discuss that Katniss is an individual. She could be kinder in certain situations (see: Peeta’s bloody hands), but overall, she stays true to herself without harm to anyone. She might be weird, but she has reasons for her behavior.
This naturally leads into general discussions about teenagers who are individuals, and that everyone can let their inner self shine. In the world of high school where conformity is the norm, I weave the theme of individuality into discussions whenever I can.
With a unique approach, Write On! with Jamie capitalizes on unreliable narrators to teach students the importance of honesty.
Benjamin Franklin once famously stated, “Honesty is the best policy.” Yet, it seems as though people seem to drift further and further away from this belief. When I begin my unit on honesty, I ask my students to define honesty in their own words. Their answers invariably focus simply on the spoken word – basically, telling the truth. However, when I pose certain situations, ie. finding money and not turning it in, cheating in school, filling out an application with false information, etc. they are forced to look deeper at what honesty truly is and the long-term impacts of being dishonest in even the most innocuous of situations.
We discuss literary characters whose lives had grave consequences (Edmund – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Trickster Gods in Mythology) and how the stories would have turned out differently if the characters had been honest. This format provides an excellent opportunity to discuss point of view in literature. I like to bring up the concept of an unreliable narrator and how they cannot be counted on to tell the truth. Of course, Edgar Allen Poe is the perfect complement to this type of discussion. I especially love using “Tell-Tale Heart.” Plus, it’s a fun story to read aloud to students – with the lights out, naturally.
I wrap up the unit with an essay focusing on an honesty-based topic that is a widespread dilemma – Cheating in School. This argumentative prompt allows students to openly discuss why students cheat, what they have personally witnessed, and whether they believe students caught cheating should face consequences. Hopefully, at the end of the unit, students will have a better understanding of why “Honesty is [truly] the best policy.”
Amanda Write Now has relevant ideas for using the novel Chains to analyze how a character’s development helps to shape the text’s overall theme.
Perseverance is an integral theme students should have the opportunity to read about and discuss in English classrooms. I have found students who exhibit perseverance and stamina are much more likely to be effective readers and writers. They are willing to read and write for longer periods and accept challenges with a positive attitude.
I love teaching about perseverance through the Chains series by Laurie Halse Anderson. The main character, Isabel, is such a strong character who perseveres through many, many hardships in order to take care of her sister and escape slavery. I have students track Isabel’s development throughout the book by describing her inner thoughts, her actions, her motivations and how she changes throughout the book. Students use post-its when they notice something significant or revealing about Isabel and her ability to persevere. I also enjoy using videos like this to help students determine the many themes that can be hidden within one book.
Did you miss the first four themes and ELA lesson plan ideas? Read about them here.
We hope we’ve inspired you with some new lessons for engaging high school students in discussions about literary themes. What have we missed? What themes would you add to this list? Do you have a favorite lesson for teaching a theme? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.