Maeve Visser Knoth: Extracting themes from THE EGYPT GAME: A lesson plan

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Extracting themes from THE EGYPT GAME: A lesson plan

Lesson Plan for teaching THEME related to The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Once the students have finished reading Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game, and have discussed the literary elements including tone, setting, character development and the shape of the plot, they are ready to pull these elements together and uncover the theme.

Start with the class all together so you can introduce the literary definition of THEME : A general truth about life or what the author is trying to say.

Explain that each of the story elements (tone, setting, character development, plot, writing etc…) should feed into the author’s theme. Compare the story elements to strands of bread dough in Challah- the finished loaf bakes into more than any individual element.

*Brainstorm together some possible topics that might develop into a theme (a book is not about “love” or even “love is good” but the author may be saying that “often, love between parent and child can provide a child with the support he needs to try something new.”)

Remind your students that there is not one right theme, but the theme they come up with must be supportable with examples from the text.

I like to tell students that if they get stuck, they can usually get a hint if they look at the last pages of the book. This is the author’s last chance to tell the reader what she believes so the theme is often tucked into the last pages.

Suggest students begin with “oftentimes” if they are getting stuck making generalizations. Students may want to come up with a heavy moral from a book. When discussing The Egypt Game I have heard students suggest that the theme is "don't play in a stranger's backyard" or, even worse "don't judge a book by its cover." 5th and 6th graders are mature enough to understand the difference between a moral and a theme and I work to get them to see that the author is too smart to write a whole complex novel just to teach a narrow lesson. She knows that not all strangers are frightening, not all friendships between unlike children will work out. But she might write a book in which some friendships between unlike children do work out and some strangers are frightening.

Students will likely suggest that The Egypt Game is about friendship, Egypt, imagination, imaginary play, growing up, and judging people one doesn't know. Keep their list of topics on the board where they can see it for the next part of the lesson.

Once you have finished brainstorming possible topics, allow students time to work alone.

*Individually, students try to write a sentence stating the theme of The Egypt Game.

*Once most students have hammered out a draft theme, share ideas for themes with tablemates or in small groups and polish up one or two themes to share with the whole class.

*Back together as a class, have each table share one theme. Discuss the themes and see if any are more supportable than others. Encourage the kids to PROVE that this is the theme by giving examples from the text. This is the time to lead students towards the stronger themes by asking lots of questions. They may begin a sentence with "oftentimes friends are good." I'll ask them to tell me why. What does the author say about friends? How do you know? Can you develop this idea a bit more fully...

In one session with 6th graders, the students saw that all the relationships in the book fed a larger theme about making judgements about people. April and Melanie could not have become friends if they had accepted their first judgements of each other. The children are willing to accept judgements of The Professor and for months are willing to believe that he might be a murderer. It is only when he saves April and they learn the facts of his life that they accept him as a friend. "See," one student said, "she is writing about 'don't judge a book by its cover'". As the discussion went on, I helped the students reword their sentences so they avoided cliches and wrote themes that were closely tied to this book rather than to what they expect the book to be about.

* For follow-up homework assignment after this extensive class discussion, ask students to polish up their favorite one sentence theme to hand in the next day.

When I look at these sentences, I am looking for signs that the students are beginning to understand this process, are beginning to delve deeply into the literature and are listening well to their classmates. 5th and 6th graders are often loath to change their first writing sample. You may have to collect their draft statements of theme in order to get them to bring a fresh mind to their next attempt.


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