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If you have read some of my other blog posts, you have seen these words before… I love picture books! I can spend hours looking through picture books and coming up with ways to use them in my classroom. Using children’s books to teach theme and other skills is a great way to reach all students in your classroom, especially if you teach language learners. The illustrations make it easy for all students to understand the story, regardless of the language of instruction. As a bilingual teacher, I always use children’s books to teach theme and other skills. In this blog post, I will share my five favorite picture books to teach theme.
What is theme and why should we teach it?
But before we can talk about the best children’s books for teaching themes, we must define what theme is and why we should teach it. I have written a whole blog post about teaching theme, so I won’t go into a lot of detail this time around. Ultimately, identifying the theme, or the message, of a story allows our students to understand the text on a deeper level. It helps them make deep connections between what they read and the world around them.
I like to refer to this type of reading as “restorative” because students can apply the lessons learned in the text to restore their own lives and their community. A book with a powerful message can change someone’s life. But that can’t happen if students don’t know how to determine the theme of a story.
Why we should use children’s books to teach theme
I love using picture books to teach theme because it is an easy way to reach all learners in my classroom. Whether I am teaching in English or Spanish, picture books help all my students comprehend the story. The illustrations are great visual cues for my language learners. Students can’t identify the theme of a story if they don’t understand the story, so it is important to select text that offers visual cues to support understanding in my dual language classroom.
More importantly, my students LOVE picture books. They are always super engaged in the lesson whenever we use children’s books. I love to make those books available to my students by leaving them somewhere in the classroom where they can grab them on their own and read them.
Using picture books to teach theme in the upper elementary grades
When choosing books to use with upper elementary students, I am very selective. The last thing I want is for my students to feel that what we are doing in the classroom is “babyish.” As much as I love ALL picture books, I think some are not appropriate for older kids. I like to look for books that tackle complex social and emotional issues and cause my students to think critically about the world around them.
With this in mind, I came up with a list of five picture books to teach theme in upper elementary. The best part: they are available in English and Spanish.
Best Children’s Books to Teach Theme
This book is phenomenal, and I was so excited to find it available in Spanish as well. Written by Madonna (yes, THE Madonna!), this book is about a lovable teacher, Mr. Peabody, who coaches baseball on the weekends. Mr. Peabody becomes the target of an unfair rumor in his small town. But instead of becoming a victim, Mr. Peabody uses this situation to teach one of his students a very important lesson about the dangers of talking about others when we don’t have all the facts.
This is the perfect book to begin a conversation about theme because its message is very clear. The book ends with Mr. Peabody teaching a very clear lesson to his student – Words are powerful! Be careful with what you say about others. Since theme can be a tough concept to master, I like to begin with books like this one because students can identify it very easily.
I absolutely love this book! The illustrations are dreamy, and I love the cultural background in which the story unfolds. In this book, students will follow the story of Ixchel, a young girl from Guatemala who wants to help her mom make enough money to pay for her school. Ixchel’s creativity and resourcefulness allow her to weave a beautiful fabric using colorful plastic bags to help her mother and (unintentionally) her pueblo.
The book describes the tradition of backstrap weaving, which is a skill passed down by women in Mayan communities. I love choosing books that broaden my students’ horizons, no matter what skill we are covering in class. When students know and understand the plight of others, they become more empathetic and understanding. Talking about the traditions of other cultures is a perfect way to do that.
At first, the theme of this book may not be so clear to students. And this is why I love it! This book requires students to dig deep. What can we learn from Ixchel? Is there more than one theme in this story? Which is the most prevalent theme? This book will open the doors to deep, meaningful conversations about theme and cultural differences.
Written by the talented Amada Irma Pérez, this book describes a family’s process of migrating to the United States from Mexico. Although Amada was moving to another country, she was determined to maintain her connection to her own culture and family.
The central idea in this book is that you can move to a new place without losing your connection to your culture, family, and self. And this is a theme many students can relate to, especially in a bilingual or dual language classroom.
In addition to being a great mentor text to teach theme, this story is a great springboard to discuss important issues such as immigration and the conditions of farmworkers in California. Although the story itself only mentions these issues, you can invite your students to research and learn more about them during your social studies time. This book would also be a great companion to a social studies unit on Cesar Chavez.
The very first time I came across this book, I fell in love with it! This book tells the story of Mexican-American author and educator, Tomás Rivera. From being the child of migrant workers to becoming the first minority Chancellor at the University of California, this story about his childhood describes the power of books, and how one positive role model can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
As a teacher, this book touches my soul. For your students, this book will be yet another opportunity to read about other cultures and social groups and learn about their struggles. If you teach language learners, many of your students will be able to connect to this story on some level.
The theme of this story may not be clear to students at first. Therefore, classroom discussions that make students think about why this story is important and what we can learn from it will be essential. This would be a great opportunity to analyze how the librarian changed Tomas’ life, and how we can determine theme by analyzing characters and their interactions. This book is a real gem, and your students will be inspired by it!
I came across this story fairly recently, and I was instantly hooked! This beautiful picture book has such a valuable lesson! Finding beauty in an imperfect world is something we should all learn to do.
My favorite part about this book is the relationship between CJ and his Nana. Even though CJ is often busy focusing on the problems around him, Nana is always finding a way to spin things and look at the positive side of things. Maybe it is the “glass half full” side of my personality, but this book really resonates with me. I am sure it will resonate with some of your students, too.
There you have it! My five favorite children’s books to teach theme in upper elementary. I tried to veer off the beaten path with these books to give you some fresh new options that you can use in your classroom. Best of all, these children’s books to teach theme are available in English and Spanish, making them perfect for my fellow bilingual and dual language teachers.
Which of these is your favorite?
Instagram sized image – for sharing
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