Teaching Theme in To Kill a Mockingbird

Teaching Theme

I love to teach theme – it really is what literature is all about.  Students often have trouble understanding it, so I go over it with just about every text I teach.  I use a simple formula: topic + insight = theme.  It seems to help students understand that constructing theme statements can be as easy as solving a simple equation – you just have to put the pieces together.

This lesson plan is part of my Ultimate To Kill a Mockingbird Unit Plan.  It includes everything you need to teach the entire novel.

You can download it at http://englishunitplans.com/tokillamockingbird/

Lesson Plan

  1. Begin by defining theme and briefly discussing what it means: The central message of a text, a theme says something about life.  A theme is more than just a topic, and is different than a moral.  Whereas a moral is a lesson, a theme doesn’t instruct someone, it is merely an observation of the human condition.
  2. Ask your students to make a list of topics in To Kill a Mockingbird:
    • growing up
    • racism
    • prejudice
    • empathy
    • courage
    • etc.
  3. Explain that to make each of these topics into a theme, you have to add insight.
    • Topic + Insight = Theme
  4. Ask students to add insight to the topics they have listed.  What does To Kill a Mockingbird says about each of the topics?
  5. Answers should follow this structure: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird shows that …
  6. Ask your students to write three theme statements using the above structure.
  7. Have students share their theme statements with the class.
  8. You can then have students write theme paragraphs using one of the theme statements as the first sentence and thesis.  The paragraph should explain how Harper Lee Conveys the theme in To Kill a Mockingbird.


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4 Comments to “Teaching Theme in To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. Dahlia Hertz says:

    I have been struggling to teach my 9th graders what theme is. You have done a fantastic job at defining theme in a few words. I am borrowing with immense gratitude

  2. Scott K. says:

    I second Dahlia’s comment – theme is tough for students to really grasp, and this approach looks like it might just do the trick. I will be borrowing it as well. Thank you.

  3. Kameron says:

    I’ve used a similar “formula” idea when introducing my 7th graders to theme. The first exercise is to answer the question “what is this story about?”, but they can only use three words or less, and they can’t use any details specific to the story (characters, events, etc.). The second part is to answer the question “what does the story say about that topic/idea?”

    I like your stem in step 5, and will incorporate that into my future lessons. Thanks.

  4. Terry Thompson says:

    I am a teacher and this is a fantastic simple explanation of theme. Thank you

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