Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Teaching "Theme" with Children's Literature
Lesson 1
Academic Standards
Philanthropy Framework


Students will understand the difference between a theme, a moral, and a topic, and to be able to identify the theme of a piece of literature.


One Fifty-Minute Class Period


The learner will:

  • define a theme in regard to literature.

  • be able to identify the theme of a children's story.

  • speculate on the reasons for an individual's philanthropy in the children's story "The Cello of Mr. O."

    Instructor Note: Address the reasons for individual philanthropy. You can incorporate enlightened self-interest, altruism, egoism and seven motivations for giving and serving.
    Visit www.learningtogive.org to access additional lessons, Vocabulary (click on Resource Room) and themes.
    Before you begin the lesson, inform the learners they will need a children's picture book of their choice. They may select one from home or library.


  • The Cello of Mr. O by Jane Cutler (see Bibliographical References)

  • Student copies of Handout One What Is the Theme?  Spanish version (Handout Two)

  • Children's picture book of each student's choice
Handout 1
What Is the Theme?
Handout 2
¿Cuál es el Tema?

Instructional Procedure(s):

Anticipatory Set:

Ask students to raise their hands if they can define "theme" as it relates to literature. Have students volunteer definitions of "theme." As students discuss the meaning of theme, help them distinguish it from the story's "lesson," "moral," or "plot."  As the terms develop, write the terms on the board and the definitions and examples.

  • Give students the following definition of theme: "an opinion about life or human nature or society that the writer shares with the reader." It is usually not stated directly, but must be inferred. Compare their definition with this given one and refine the definition in the words of the students. 
  • Read aloud to the students the book, The Cello of Mr. O, by Jane Cutler.
  • Hand out Attachment One: What Is the Theme? and have students identify possible theme statements for The Cello of Mr. O. Discuss possible reasons why Mr. O risks his life everyday to play music for the town. (Instruct the students to keep notes of this discussion for reference in future lessons of this unit.)
  • Each student will read a children's picture book of his/her choice and write a theme statement for that book. Then have volunteers share their statements with the class. Have the class evaluate these statements to make sure they are not plots or morals. Let the volunteers revise their statements, if necessary, before the theme statements are turned in for evaluation.
    Instructor Note: If time allows, you may want to also ask them to share the plot or moral of their stories.


Evaluate students' theme statements for the new children's book. Have them re-write for mastery, if necessary.

Bibliographical References:

  • Cutler, Jane. The Cello of Mr. O. Dutton Books, 1999. ISBN: 0525461191

Lesson Developed By:

Serena Fraser Kessler
Romulus Community Schools
Romulus Senior High School
Romulus, MI 48174


Handout 1Print Handout 1

What Is the Theme?


Theme: an opinion about life or human nature or society that the writer shares with the reader. It is usually not stated directly, but must be inferred.
A. For each of the following statements, place a "T" next to it if it is an acceptable theme statement for The Cello of Mr. O, and a "U" if the statement is unacceptable as a theme statement. (There can be more than one acceptable statement.)
_____1. Even when life is at its most difficult, there are always ways to find peace and happiness.
_____2. You should always listen to music when you feel sad about things.
_____3. Music has the power to make us feel more courageous and less afraid.
_____4. A man plays his cello for people in a war-torn town.
_____5. People who are committed to something can always find a way to make it happen, even in the most adverse or arduous circumstances.
B. Write your own theme statement for another children's book. Identify your book in proper bibliographic style.

Handout 2Print Handout 2

¿Cuál es el Tema?

Tema: una opinión acerca de la vida, la naturaleza humana o la sociedad que el autor comparte con el lector.  En general no es indicado directamente sino que debe de ser inferido.   

A. Escribe una “T” en el espacio en blanco para cada declaración que es un tema acceptable para The Cello of Mr. O,  y escribe una "U" si el tema es inaceptable.  (Puede haber más de una declaración aceptable).

_____1. Aún cuando la vida es muy difícil, hay maneras de encontrar paz y felicidad.

_____2. Siempre deberías de escuchar música cuando te sientes triste.

_____3. La música tiene el poder de hacernos sentir más valientes y menos miedosos.

_____4. Un hombre toca su violonchelo para la gente de un pueblo devastado por la guerra.

_____5. Las personas que se comprometen con algo siempre encuentran maneras de hacer que esto ocurra, aún en las circunstancias más adversas o arduas.   

B. Escribe tu propia declaración de un tema para un libro para niños.  Identifica tu libro en un estilo bibliográfico apropiado.


Philanthropy Framework:


Rebekah, Teacher – Gallup High School, NM1/25/2007 8:57:52 PM

This looks great, and will work perfectly as I transition from themes to the hero motif with my sophomores."

joyce, Teacher – N. Windham, ME2/19/2009 9:17:51 AM

I am delighted to find this site. This is exactly the type of lesson I was looking for on "theme". I will be using it with my 5th grade class and I believe it will work well at this grade level, also.

Chery, Adjunct Faculty – San Marcos, CA10/15/2009 11:48:24 PM

I will be teaching a college class to international students on children's literature and American culture. This is great!

May, Teacher – HK, China5/12/2010 6:22:19 PM

This is interesting and useful as I find teaching the students moral values more and more difficult now.

Erik, Educator – Waterboro, ME3/12/2015 1:09:36 PM

Thank you! This was a lot of fun! Worked well with my 9th-grade students!

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