A Lesson I Love: Channeling Understanding by Design to Create Themes


“Am I really teaching my students what I need to teach them? I mean, I’m meeting the standards, and they’re doing work, reading things, writing things, and whatnot, but… Are they really getting… what I want them to get from this?”

I’m pretty sure that every teacher has moments of existential crisis like this. Teaching well over 100 or even upwards of 150 students day with various learning needs, personalities, and backgrounds does leave even the best of the us with the haunting feeling that perhaps we’re not getting to the depths that we should with them.

This sentiment is summed up well by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design. Wiggins and McTighe pose the rhetorical questions that teachers should be asking as, “Why are we asking students to read this particular novel—in other words, what learnings will we seek from their having read it? Do the students grasp why and how the purpose should influence their studying? What should students be expected to understand and do upon reading the book, related to the goals beyond the book?” (15).

Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design Framework has helped me structure my units in a way which gives me confidence in answering those rhetorical questions and has also inspired the lesson that I love: my Big Ideas to Themes lesson.


The UbD Framework revolves around the principle of Backwards Design. A teacher must establish their end goals for a unit up front and work toward those end goals throughout the unit. Otherwise, we tend to end up marching through a text, having students complete activities for the sake of completing them without thinking about the bigger picture of the overall learning they should be gaining. Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design describe the latter as “throw[ing] some content and activities against the wall and hop[ing] some of it sticks” (15).

In the UbD Framework, there are three overarching steps that a teacher must plan before ever starting a unit:

  • Identify Desired Results: What understandings and/or skills do we want students to take away long-term from the unit?
  • Determine Acceptable Evidence: How will you measure whether they have achieved those understandings and/or skills?
  • Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: What day to day activities work as pieces of the puzzle to create the overall picture that you want to form by the end of the unit?

For English teachers, the first step of the UbD Framework of identifying desired results for a novel unit places a lot of emphasis on conceptual planning up front. English teachers must consider the piece of literature as a whole and determine the following:

  • Big Ideas: What are some large concepts that I want my students to grapple with throughout this text?

Example: In Romeo and Juliet, some big ideas are love, hate, youth, family, mortality, fate and free will, marriage, impetuosity.

  • Essential Questions: What questions can I form from these big ideas to drive my students to consider how they function in the story?

Example: For the big idea of love in Romeo and Juliet, essential questions could be, Is there such a thing as love at first sight? Can teenagers know what true love is? Does love truly transcend all? Does family love trump romantic love? Is love the most powerful of human emotions?

  • Enduring Understandings: What conclusions do I want my students to draw about the big ideas from the stories? In other words, what are the themes of the story—what is the author trying to say about the big ideas through the story?

Example: For the big idea of love in Romeo and Juliet, enduring understandings or themes might be, Love makes people impetuous, Love cannot exist without hate, Friendship can be a love as strong as family love, Love can transcend prejudice, Mistaking lust for love brings tragedy.

Once a teacher determines these big ideas and themes up front, it makes it much easier to emphasize them throughout the reading. You then have themes in the forefront of your mind as you are planning day to day activities which allows you to scaffold your students’ understanding towards those overall themes.


However, I don’t want to be the only one in my room going through the Ubd Framework process. This structure for thinking about pulling themes from a text has transformed my mindset as a reader, so I wanted to give my students the same opportunity to build understanding of themes for themselves.

I do start out every novel unit with some sort of anticipatory guide. I ask students their initial thoughts on some of the essential questions formed from big ideas which are going to be important throughout the book and we have a class discussion on them, usually in the form of philosophical chairs or Socratic Seminar. This helps to center their attention thematically on the questions we will be tackling over the course of the story. I also purposefully reinforce thematic content as we see it in the story. For example, I make sure to point out references to fate in Romeo and Juliet over and over again as we come across them so that it stays at the forefront of their minds.

At the end of most of my novel units, I then have my students do a lesson which I call “Big Ideas to Themes.”

Step 1: Assign Big Ideas

I break my students into groups of 3-4 and give each group a different big idea from the text. It is their job to become experts on that big idea and how it functions in the particular story that we just read.

I have found that the website Shmoop is an excellent resource for this activity. For most commonly taught stories, Shmoop has a variety of student-friendly resources pooled for that text. The theme section is especially helpful for this lesson. Though Shmoop calls the section “Theme,” according to the UbD Framework, the words listed there are actually big ideas because they are concepts that are important throughout the course of the text. For example, check out the Shmoop big ideas for Romeo and Juliet; most of my earlier examples of big ideas in Romeo and Juliet were inspired by this page on Shmoop.

Step 2: Answer Essential Questions about the Group’s Big Idea

Shmoop is also wonderful in that they also provide several essential questions for each of their big ideas for a certain text. I use these questions (and weave in questions of my own creation) and have each group start by answering these essential questions together based on what happened in the novel. This centers my students around their particular big idea and how it plays out in the story.

Step 3: Listing Examples of the Big Idea in the Story

I then have students list the three times when their big idea was most important over the course of the story. I make them find a quote in the story as text evidence of their example.

Step 4: Creating a Theme

Once students have grappled with the big idea in the above manner, they are more prepared to create enduring understandings, or themes, for themselves. I ask them to think, “What is the author’s point about this big idea in the story? What does he or she want you to learn about this big idea by reading the story? What is the point? What is the moral of the story?”

Step 5: Teaching the Class

After this high level of analysis and synthesis by my students, I want them to be able to share their findings with the class. I have every group create a poster showing their big idea, their examples of the big idea from the text, their theme based on the big idea, and an image that visually represents their theme to help the class understand it. I have each group present to the class, and I have their peers take notes on their big idea, examples, and theme.


One of the biggest reasons why I love this lesson so much is because of the lack of direct teaching that I do combined with the depth of understanding that the students gain. I love when I am able to put the ball in the students’ court. This is where we want to get to as teachers: equipping our students to create deep meaning for themselves. If a unit is structured using the principles of UbD and Backward Design, the students will be ready to tackle these deep questions when we get to them. They will be able to answer them, create meaning, and then teach their peers about their discoveries. Getting to observe the fruits of what the students have gained over the course of a unit is one of the most rewarding parts of being an English teacher.

Pushing my students to themselves go through the UbD Framework also gives meaning to their learning. If students see reading a novel as a game of remembering character names and plot events, they aren’t going to care as much. Who cares if Bob actually kills Bill in the end? Bob and Bill aren’t real anyway—they’re not my friends. This isn’t my life. Having my students create themes from big ideas allows them to see the transcending power of literature. Shakespeare wasn’t just writing Romeo and Juliet as a sad play about two teenagers who die; he was answering big questions about life that are still applicable today in our universe.

Our students crave depth. They crave meaning. They crave purpose. And the lesson I love helps my students derive all of these things from the texts we read.

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you engage your students in themes with a text?
  • In what ways do you think that you could adapt the UbD Framework to fit the needs of your classroom?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

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