Tagged theme

Mapping Out Narrative Structure and Author’s Intentions

I had previously posted about the use of the intentional, emotional and physical arc to analyze literature.  I used these concepts, with the addition of the “reader response” arc, with Susan Turley’s HTS 11 class last week to analyze “Where are you Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates.

The learning targets for the lesson were as follows:

  • žI can identify how writers engage readers through their purposeful development of narrative structure.
  • žI can analyze a text using the arc structures and share my findings with a group in a meaningful way, tying my arguments back to textual evidence.

We began by introducing the concept of the arcs via a Power Point and a diagnostic/notes sheet of narrative terms (see the bottom of this post for resources).  Fortunately, the students were engaged by the ideas presented, and while introducing the emotional arc, the class had an interesting conversation about the possibility of a “flat” character who was also “dynamic.”  Unfortunately, the lesson probably should have been stretched out over three or so days, and we tried introducing it and working with the arcs in the same class period, so we really didn’t get to flesh out the process.

After the initial introduction, students were all asked to define and plot out the intentional arc first, and then also plot an additional arc (reader response, physical or emotional) over top of it.  The students struggled using the arcs because no one was really sure what it should “look like” when they were put on paper.  Since then, I have thought of some ideas that might make this easier.  For example, plotting out five pivotal plot points on the bottom axis and then using them as anchors to graph the changes in emotional or intentional arc as they are relevant in time to those points.

In the long run, the goal of the lesson would be for students to “share out” their arcs and justify their choices with evidence.  We did not get this far, but I think this would be an interesting conversation because the intentional arc for each of the groups will be different.  This being said, I think a debate could even ensue on which narrative arc structure is most accurate or logical.

I would really like to do more work with these in the classroom.  I think they are an interesting tool that has a lot of possibility.  In addition, I have been fortunate enough to be in direct contact with their creator, William Kenower, and he has created some short videos for us about the teaching the intentional arc in literature.

Here is the first of the three videos:

The rest of them can be viewed on his Youtube channel.

Here are the resources for this lesson:

Extended Looking: Using Images to Build Theme Statements

I worked with Kristina Claytor and Allie Sberna this week using a strategy learned/modified from the Pages program at the Wexner Center.  This learning activity is one I have utilized many times, and it was a pleasure to work with two patient, flexible and talented teachers trying it out with a new group of students who are learning to “look deeper” and explore thematic connections.

The “product” of the strategy is the creation of a single sentence theme statement that is supported by multiple pieces of evidence from an image students have studied.  Here is the image from which students gathered information.

Garden of Selves

This image is from Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Here is a link to the original image online.

Here are the learning targets provided to students:

  • I can look carefully and  critically.
  • I can contribute meaningful ideas to a collaborative conversation.
  • I can write a theme statement that reflects a deep understanding of a theme.

I usually introduce themes to students as topics (or “big ideas” if you prefer) plus an opinion about that topic.  Here are some of the “big ideas” or topics students were able to come up with using this strategy:


We explained a theme is one of these big ideas/topics above, plus what they think an author/artist is saying about this topic (his/her opinion).

Example: Topic (Creativity) + Opinion (can require seeing/doing what others may not yet understand).

So a theme statement might be: Creativity can require seeing and doing what others may not yet understand.

Students might support this theme statement with evidence from the text by saying that, “The man represents creativity because he is the only one ‘seeing’ what is in the distance, so he is the only one willing to escape the box.  The others remain curled in the containers because they don’t believe in or have knowledge of this new understanding.”

This is a very difficult concept for students; it takes practice.  They may have to look back at and revise the theme statements after the teacher collects them and gives feedback.  However, this is also an essential skill for literary response.

The following is a handout I have given to teachers to explain the activity step by step.  I have also attached the instructions as a downloadable document at the bottom of the post.

Extended Looking Activity: Learning Goals  

This lesson is a scaffolding tool to help students understand theme in literary works.  The learning goal is to have students be able to write a “thesis statement” for what they think the piece means; they must base it on evidence they have gathered from the piece itself.


Extended Looking Instructions

  1. Look and observe the art – you can move around, get closer etc. Write down observations and questions about it (5 min.)
  2. Discuss the visual image.  What is happening in the photo?  Here you are noting details and making observations, no talk of meaning yet (5 min)
  3. Make connections to and ask questions about the art in writing. What are your thoughts about the piece, what does it make you think of, does it remind you of anything etc.  (5 min.)
  4. Discuss the connections students found in the piece and continue to have students use the evidence they have gathered to support their perspective ( 5 min.)
  5. Introduce and model a theme statement for students.  Have students write a “theme statement” for what they think the piece of art means and support it with evidence from the art itself (10 min.)
  6. Tell them the name and a little about the artist. (I do this the next day and build suspense!)  Does this change your perspective on the piece?  Are you glad you know?  (They usually are not.)


  • Before step five, have students write short form poetry about the art or a piece of narrative
  • Talk about the process of how the art was created and use it to model students own work in writing after the activity

Connections to help students make:

  • Literature and art are very similar and we can talk about them the same way and go through the same process of analysis with them
  • An artist or writer has an intent, but viewer/reader also bring their own experience to the table to create “meaning”
  • This activity shows how argument is developed because students needed to use support for their ideas

This activity was modified from the 2011-2012 PAGES summer workshop for teacher-partners at the Wexner Center, and photography used to conduct the activity was created by Robert and Shana ParkHarrison from The Architect’s Brother collection.

Here is the printable resource Extended Viewing Activity 2