I can accept failure—everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.
How long do you have to watch Michael Jordan playing basketball before you realize you are watching something truly special? The answer: about 10 minutes. But it wasn’t always that way. It’s a well-known fact that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and eventually became a legendary basketball player. So what does Michael Jordan have to do with reading and teaching theme?
It’s that time of year when our third graders are knee-deep in their Patricia Polacco author study, and once again I am hearing from teachers about the challenge of teaching the concept of theme to their third-grade students. In an attempt to look for a new angle for scaffolding and teaching theme, I found myself rereading the text Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen. I am not sure how I missed this on my first read, but the book has brilliant QR codes that when scanned provide readers with titles, authors, and digital bins of resources. I scanned my first code on themes not knowing exactly what I would get. I hit the jackpot and found a wonderful list of new resources to scaffold students when introducing them to the concept of theme.
I was immediately drawn to the strategy of viewing commercials to explore theme. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I had never thought of using commercials as a launching point for theme. One of the recommended links was Michael Jordan’s Failure commercial. Wow! This 30-second commercial was powerful.
I tried this strategy on a classroom of third-grade students. Students were hooked as soon as they knew the ad was about Michael Jordan. His legend lives on, even for kids who were not born when he was in his prime. The students were eager to identify the theme of the commercial and found evidence from the video to support their thinking. After watching the video four times, we had identified a theme as a class and jotted down what we considered evidence that supported/proved our thinking.
We then viewed another commercial, Maybe It’s My Fault, with Michael Jordan. We watched the commercial. We again started to generate possible themes. We rewatched the commercial and added to and deleted from our theme list. Not one student complained about rewatching the video. In fact I watched the boys sit up straighter and prouder each time the commercial was played.
Then it happened . . . the ultimate teachable moment. After watching the Maybe It’s My Fault commercial for the third time, Molly raised her hand. With a perplexed look on her face, she said, “I just don’t get it. What did Michael mean at the end of the commercial when he said, ‘Maybe I destroyed the game or maybe you are just making excuses’?” It was at that moment that I realized that the power of this lesson was not so much about the strategy of teaching theme as it was about linking rewatching the commercials to rereading texts. Rereading texts helps us deepen understanding, untangle confusion, and clarify thinking. Reading takes practice and hard work, just as Michael Jordan taught us through his commercials depicting his basketball career.
I asked Molly what would help her clarify her thinking. She replied, “Watching the commercial again.” I said to the class, “Really, you want to watch it for a fourth time?” It was here that I pointed out that our reviewing of these commercials was just like rereading with a purpose. Several students interjected that reading was hard and that it was too hard to reread books. The conversation transitioned from a focus on theme to why we reread. We ended the lesson with one more viewing of the commercial and quietly transitioned back to our author study. We had students reread the Patricia Polacco book Thank You, Mr. Falker so that they could practice gathering evidence from the text to support their individually identified themes.
Just as Michael Jordan conveyed the message that he worked hard at basketball every day of his career, I hope students walked away from our “theme lesson” thinking about the hard work and perseverance that we as readers need to put forth when interacting with books. Reading is a skill that proficient readers work at every single day, just as Michael Jordan worked to hone his basketball skills. I sometimes wonder if we truly convey that message to students.