Reading & Writing in the Disciplines
Identifying Theme Through Close Reading
Kelly Johnson helps her students determine the theme of the book they have been reading—Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat—by supporting them with a close reading strategy.
Teacher: Kelly Johnson
School: Health Sciences High and Middle College, San Diego, CA
Lesson Topic: Close Reading of Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Lesson Month: February
Number of Students: 38
Other: Health Sciences High and Middle Colleges is a health-focused charter school.
Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:
- Content objectives – Determine the theme in the opening chapters of the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory
- Literacy/language objectives – Use text evidence and sentence frames to write and talk about the theme of the opening chapters
- Engagement/interaction objectives – Work respectfully with peers in pairs and at tables
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
The focus of this 25-day unit was the overall school essential question: Is freedom ever free? The unit was taught in the third quarter of the year, and the close reading lesson on Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat occurred at the beginning of the unit.
Before the Video
Ms. Johnson’s class read and discussed the first two chapters from Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory as a read-aloud. Ms. Johnson focused on the Haitian culture in order to give students some background information about life in Haiti. They also watched some short video clips about Haitian cultures, food, and traditions. For Chapters 1 and 2, students responded in journals, noting what they were learning about the characters, life in Haiti, etc. Since this was the beginning of the unit, the class was building foundational knowledge and getting a feel for the text and topic they were going to examine closely: Is freedom ever free?
During the Video
Ms. Johnson started the class by reviewing the previous two chapters of Breath, Eyes, Memoryand then engaged students in partner and table talk. Students reviewed their written notes from previous days. As a refresher, Ms. Johnson passed out small plastic bags to each table that contained character descriptions and phrases. Students worked in small groups and matched the descriptions and phrases to the characters in the book. Ms. Johnson then asked her students what theme was beginning to emerge from the book, and they shared out as a class.
For the next part of her class, Ms. Johnson did a close reading lesson. Students first read independently the selected excerpt from Breath, Eyes, Memory. They annotated the passage for text evidence that helped them understand or question the text. Students read with the purpose of determining the theme of the passage. After their initial reading, Ms. Johnson asked her students text-dependent questions: What is this passage about? What evidence from the text tells you this? What might be the theme of this passage? Students returned to the text and engaged in partner and whole-class discussions.
During the second reading, Ms. Johnson asked students to pay attention to certain words or phrases the author used to help the reader understand the theme or message. Ms. Johnson asked more text-dependent questions to push students back into the text to uncover the meaning of the passage. Students then wrote paragraphs about the theme and meaning of the book from the perspective of one of the novel’s characters.
After the Video
Ms. Johnson continued to talk more about understanding theme and had students share some of their writing. Students also continued reading the novel chapter by chapter, chunk by chunk, in order to make sense of the essential question: Is freedom ever free? As they examined each section of the text, students took notes, discussed them in pairs and at tables, read additional articles, and wrote an essay answering the essential question.
Ms. Johnson created the word sort slips that included the characters’ names and characteristics, copied the close reading text on legal-sized paper (in order to give students room in the margins to annotate), and formed deliberate groups (attending to language and literacy proficiencies) for intentional conversations.
Students needed to be familiar with the accountability and expectations of talking in pairs and in groups and then sharing ideas with the whole class. They also needed to be familiar with reading complex text and digging deeper in their analysis of text.
Ms. Johnson began her lesson with a tangible, hands-on activity where students matched characters with vocabulary words on slips of paper that characterized them. This gave her students the language they ultimately needed to provide evidence from the book and for their writing assignment on theme and characters. Ms. Johnson had a range of readers in her classroom, and many of her students were not fluent readers. During the read-aloud, Ms. Johnson modeled fluent reading and paused to ask questions to check for understanding. She scaffolded and broke down vocabulary words during close reading. She also provided a language frame for support.
Students worked in small groups with the word-sort activity and close reading.
Resources and Tools
- Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
- Breath, Eyes, Memory passage and highlight handouts
- Document camera
During close reading, Ms. Johnson walked around the room and noticed what students were highlighting and annotating. She also noted if students were using academic language, the accuracy of their understanding, and any misconceptions they had. She directed the rest of the lesson based on what she saw and heard. She also checked in occasionally to ask students what they were thinking. She looked at their close reading papers to see what students had written to get a sense of how much they understood the theme and if they had the evidence to back up what they wrote. Ms. Johnson did an error analysis on their paragraphs to determine what students understood well and what needed to be retaught, and to whom.
Students read each other’s paragraphs to get a more complete understanding of the theme of the text from different characters’ points of view. Students also wrote their reflections on their participation in groups and pairs for the day, reflections on their thinking about the text, and plans on how they can be more collaborative during conversations in the future.
Students wrote a formal typed argumentative essay answering the essential question—Is freedom ever free?—that included claim, evidence, warrant, and counterclaim.