Tag: english

Two Honors Classes Prove the Truth about Theme

Two classes of fifteen juniors in high school read the same story and come up with completely different themes for the story. What truth about theme could this possibly prove?

Read on if you haven’t already guesses the answer. (Or scroll to the end if you’re THAT person.)

As an author, I think about theme. I don’t generally think about theme when I’m first drafting a story. At least not in the concrete way English teachers try to teach it.

Since I prefer reading plot driven stories, those are the kind I generally write. Of course, they involve interesting and relatable (I hope) characters who will change, learn and/or grow by the time the plot culminates.

During my rewriting phase is when I ask myself, “What do I want readers to take away from this story?” For me, that is the essence of theme. In the language arts classroom, theme was said to be “the central idea or meaning of a story.”

Doesn’t my definition sound like something a person would actually say? (Could be because I said it.)

On this particular Wednesday, I read the short story “Love in LA” by Dagoberto Gilb (an award winning short story author) to (or with) two different classes of 11th-grade students (mostly girls, by the way).

Jake rear-ends a cute, young babe with his ‘58 Buick. Her brand new (‘93) Toyota doesn’t fare so well. You might think this is a story about these two hitting it off and ending up in love, but this is “Love in L(os) A(ngeles)” so that’s not what happens at all. Instead, she tries to get the information she needs to get her car fixed while Jake tries to get her phone number.

First Period

The lesson for the day was a Socratic Seminar around this story. As the substitute teacher, I was the facilitator, and I had to insert a few more ideas during this class period. It was before 9am, so most teenagers lack full cognitive functioning.

I read the first paragraph (the longest one in the story) and one of the students read the rest. She had a difficult time keeping her eye rolls at bay in some areas. Jake fancies himself to be quite the charmer, but even his target realizes he’s more of a con man.

The first and last paragraphs refer to freedom in contrast to the sticky situation in Los Angeles at that moment, a traffic jam.

After more than 40 minutes of discussing Gilb’s methods of characterization and what the title had to do with the story, the students were asked to write what they believed the theme was. It was like pulling teeth to get someone to have the courage to share theirs.

                    “Freedom doesn’t come without a price.”

Examples from the text supported this idea. Since the first and last paragraphs reiterated the pursuit of freedom as Jake’s main goal, it seemed like a good bet that could have been the “central idea or meaning of the story.”

Fourth Period

This group of all girls came in, energized from the lunch break they’d just had. They were chatty, but not disrespectful and happy to discuss the literature at hand.

After I read the story to them, that is.

This class judged Jake to me having a mid-life crisis (while first period thought he couldn’t have been older than 35). They saw his reliable, old classic car as a symbol for his “old life” as a younger man. His flirtations with a girl they felt was maybe 22 were really his attempt to return to “the good old days.”

In fact, the word freedom was never mentioned until, at the end of class bell, when I told the class what theme first period came up with. And I could hardly contain my grin.

“Sometimes dreams are beyond reach.”

“Sometimes it’s too late to go back to what once was.”

“If you want to reach a goal, you need to do more than dream about it.”

All of these were themes the students tossed around toward the end of our discussion. Furthermore, the evidence they cited in the text supported these as the central idea of the story.

The Truth about Theme

Theme in literature might not be subjective (since the text must prove it) but it is open to interpretation.

At the end of that second great discussion, I wished for Gilb’s phone number or email address. I wanted to ask him if one (or all) of these themes where indeed the meaning he intended to convey with this short story.

Not that it matters. The students had already proven what I’ve always know to be true:
Theme is the meaning the reader gleans from the story.

Yep, it’s not about the author’s intentions at all. Sometimes, readers might discover the truth an author buried in plain sight within a text. Other times, their personal experiences and worldview might glean unintended ideas and meanings.

The long introduction to theme in the lesson plans said, “Although readers may differ in their interpretations of a story that does not mean that any interpretation is valid.” They support this by saying that the statement of theme “should be responsive to the details of the story.” Meaning a reader’s experiences can’t outweigh the actual statements of the text.

One of the girls in the second class said, “Well, that line shoots down my idea.” This when I read one sentence from the text which stated the opposite of what she was sure the author intended to say.

Which of these themes was the one Gilb intended? Or did he have an entirely different meaning behind the writing?

Truthfully, themes are an amazing way to concentrate analysis on a text. However, even in a short tale, there is the possibility that readers will have a takeaway that the writer never intended. Conversely, they might not “get” the point the author hoped to convey.

Is it true that theme is open to interpretation (and thus subject to misinterpretation)?

Back in the Classroom

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to play school. She didn’t care if she was the teacher or the student, she just loved school. That little girl jumps for joy every time I get a call to substitute teach.

If you know me at all, you understand I have a LONG history of spending time in the classroom. My longest employment was with the St. Helens School District, where I worked as a classified substitute and temporary classroom aide for six years before getting a regular job.

My first two years were as a cashier in the cafeteria at a grade school (while still taking the temporary overload classroom aide positions). Finally, I managed to land a job as a special education instructional assistant at the middle school. I was there for seven years before leaving to pursue this writing gig.

Now I’m back in the classroom. Because this writing gig feeds my soul and keeps my hands and head flying in numerous directions, but it doesn’t pay well. Not with all my contracts being for royalties only. And I don’t push or publicize my self-published titles.

The Position

When I began pursuing my English degree, I planned to get a restricted substitute teaching license when I finished. That was 2010. At the time, there was a shortage of substitute teachers and some of our best subs had degrees in anything BUT education.

All that changed in 2012. School districts all over Oregon were down-sizing (had been since 2007). Suddenly, there were more licensed teachers than positions. The substitute pool became bloated with all these graduates who couldn’t score their own classroom.

Most of the districts rescinded their use of the restrictive substitutes. People who had these licenses were allowed to continuing working until the expiration. No new licenses could be issued.

When I graduated in July 2013, that was still the state of things in the substitute teaching world.

This fall, the substitute pool was depleted. Not enough people floated in the thing to cover vacancies.

The major school districts went on a recruiting campaign. They sent out a flyer to all the school reinstating their use of restrictive substitute licencees to fill classroom teacher roles.

The secretary at the middle school where I worked kindly forwarded the email to me. Her note: “There are plenty of people here who would love to see you subbing in our classrooms.”

Alrighty, then.


The Process

First step: Attend a half-day conference-like event at the NWRESD (Northwest Regional Education Service District). They supply subs to most of the districts in northwestern Oregon.

At this event, you found out how the process worked, completed an interview and filled out an online application form. They would notify you within a week or two if you were selected to continue in the program.

Hurray! I was selected.

Step two: Register for the ORELA Civil Rights examination and pass it ($95).

Then November happened. As you know, I was writing a novel in three weeks and taking a week-long vacation to the Oregon coast for Thanksgiving with my sister.

Step three: Attend a full-day training session at the NWRESD offices.

This is where we learned about the expectations of the job. Also, they gave tips and tools for surviving in a crazy classroom. The best part was acting out different scenarios.

Yep. I can still perform the role of snotty, rebellious teenager with pizzazz.

We also filled out all our employment forms and had our photos taken for an identification badge. I still have yet to see that badge, so who knows if the paperwork is even ready.

Step four: Complete the fingerprinting and background check process ($74)

I performed this step the Monday before Christmas, but the state never acknowledged it until a month later.

Step five: Submit the application with the appropriate fees and information (including certified transcripts). The fee had to include a $99 expedite fee or else you wouldn’t see your license until June. Just in time for it to expire. The application fee was $129.

Step six: Get a bunch of emails from the state acknowledging every slip of paper they get. However,the email stating what is still required – which is what the HR gal said they would send – never came.


Two month after I sent the application (does that sound like expedited service to you???), I got an email stating my license was issued. There would be no paper license mailed and I should print the email for my records.

The Payoff

When I wrote this post, I had been in the classroom four separate days. However, I haven’t completed a payroll cycle yet.

I’m hoping theirs a payoff. It seems like the figure was $150 per day (before taxes, of course), I haven’t seen any actual money.

If you do the math, you can see that I’ve spent close to $300 to get the license. And it expires June 30, 2016.

Here’s hoping the renewal process involves fewer hoops and red tape. The next license will be good for three years.

I’ve discovered a renewed ear for teenage dialogue already. Getting back among my target audience is one of the primary reasons for going through all this rigamarole.

The State sent me a questionnaire about the fluidity of the process. Do they really want me to complete it? I think my numbers will skew their data toward the negative end of the scale.

The good news: I’m out of my office and in the classroom, interacting with teenagers.

I’ve missed these guys.

Two Terms to Go

Image by 123rf.com

Embarking on yet another eight week tidal wave of mental expansion, I can’t help but smile. My beaming face dwarfs the sun. Of course, since I live in the rainy Northwest, it isn’t hard to eclipse that brilliant star. This time of year, the clouds do a fine job of it.

Both of my classes are applicable to my major and they seem interesting. It looks like I will be reading so much for class that I won’t have time for any recreational reading. I may even have to trade in my fantasy “one chapter before bed” for school-related reading material.

Context of Writing

In the class description, the context of writing should educate students on the publishing industry. With course objectives like: identify and examine the driving forces of the literary marketplace and examine current trends in publishing, it appears I might learn something.

Hopefully, the wisdom I glean will push me toward becoming published. If nothing else, it should at least help me determine if I’m going to go with traditional publishing, indie publishing or self-publishing.

I was required to purchase a prize-winning book to use for all the course work. In addition to reading this novel (more on that in a later post), I have to read Book Business by Jason Epstein. I hope it reads more happily than it sounds. (Newsflash: I read the preface and first chapter and it isn’t too dry – so far.)

Every week I have to write a short paper for this class and I also will keep a blog through the eight-week term. At the end of the term, a six-page paper on the future of the book business will wrap up my publishing enlightenment.

Seminar in American Literature

Finally, my senior level literature class has arrived. With it, To Kill a Mockingbird and a delightful anthology of short fiction taunt me with impending boatloads of reading assignments.

In addition to reading Lee’s masterpiece, I must read another novel. I’ll analyze this novel’s themes around the premise of the class. You’ll love this cheerful theme we’re focusing on: the American ideal of loss of innocence. Should the loss of innocence ever be considered ideal?

My final for the class is an eight-page analytical paper on this yet unnamed novel and a PowerPoint outlining its major themes. Along the way, I will have to write two other papers. Fortunately, the topics have already been given so I can begin the writing as soon as I’ve finished the reading.

Did I mention I’ll be buried with texts and reading assignments for the next eight weeks? I’m hyperventilating from the weight of literary dirt over my thin casket of time.

I was hoping that I might be able to get back to writing my novel this term. With the three blog posts per week, I’ve been barely keeping my head above water. Throw in two long term papers and some shorter essays every week for class, and I don’t see much creative juice being available for the novel.

Should I be making time to write that? I always feel so guilty when I’m not doing schoolwork, and so I write in unfocused circular motion.