Understanding the theme of a story can be challenging. Like all human beings, students want to take the easy way out. They read a difficult text and they want “the answer” to magically pop into their heads, without doing any mental stretching to get there. They think that we English teachers will look at any piece of writing, no matter how complex, and automatically understand everything the author did. Not so.
The difference between us and them, along with lots and lots of experience, is that we know there are steps one needs to take to uncover an author’s message. There’s no moral at the end of the story, so we need to look for clues within the lines to discover what the writer is trying to tell us.
IT’S LIKE DOING A PUZZLE
For years, I’ve used the metaphor of puzzle building to teach my students these steps. I tell them that as they read they need to scatter the pieces so they can put them all together and see the big picture–without the aid of the one on the puzzle box. Some things will be obvious, like the corners and edges, but others are much more difficult to place. However, as with puzzles, readers just need to put in the work it takes to patiently discover where that piece of sky actually fits.