Students, teachers share different views on importance of themes

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The room is quiet, nothing but the sound of pens clicking and papers shuffling to break the silence. Students sit in their desks, hunched over their papers. The five-paragraph story they are writing will account for 65 percent of their grade and is one of the staples in the Central High School experience. These students are taking a theme.

Theme writing is a part of life for Central High students. It has been since 1921, when English teacher Sarah Vore Taylor wrote the original Style Book for Theme Writing and Revision. According to Jodie Martinez, the current Central High English Department Head, Taylor’s Style Book contained practice exercises along with the editing marks that students today are familiar with.

“It was sort of a little mini-grammar book along with being a style book for revising,” Martinez said, “…a lot of the exercises have disappeared and essentially it is just coding for…the correction you need to make for this particular grammar mistake or formatting error…”

However, the question of why Eagles write themes today still stands. Katherine Rude, who teaches Honors English I-II and English VII-VIII, explained why most Central students probably have a theme coming up.

“…students compose themes to improve their writing skills,” Rude said. “Themes require students to come to class prepared, think critically, and articulate their thoughts; these are all important life skills. Themes are an excellent way to measure student learning…”

Many students experience stress during or preparing for theme writing. Oliver Coffman and Sarah Overbeck, both freshmen in Rude’s Honors English I-II class, admit to finding themes stressful. According to Coffman, some students have been forced to write their final outlines the class period before their theme because they have so much other work to do.

Rude did not reference the stress students go through, but Martinez did have an answer.

“I do [think themes are worth the stress],” Martinez said, “What it forces a student to do is concentrate, focus, filter, organize, articulate and these are all skills that you have to be able to apply to all different situations, not just writing a paper, but even buying a house or making a decision; you have to engage your critical thinking.”

Some students do not think that themes necessarily do that. Overbeck believes that English teachers should be teaching students how to write creatively and passionately, not without emotion and following a rule book.

“Themes feel very stone cold to me, like I’m just spitting out facts and putting no emotion into it,” Overbeck said, “I much prefer writing where it’s something I’m really passionate about; I can talk about it and I can put some feeling into it…”

Most students seem to only put effort into their themes because they are summative, not because they want to learn how to focus.

“[I value themes more than other writing I do in English] only because it’s a summative grade,” Coffman said, “I try to put a lot into it, also because it’s a summative grade.”

Coffman also thinks that themes are an inaccurate depiction of real world writing because no job will require one to write a paper in 40 minutes. Martinez responded to this with a common situation students might find themselves in preparing for college.

“That writing will appear on the ACT college preparatory test,” Martinez said, “It’s a skill you need to have the more you do it the more comfortable you are with it where you might have to write a paragraph on a job application or in a college or lots of essays that you will write in response to history or phycology or art or whatever it is; you’re going to need to be able to write on demand.”

Theme writing is part of Central High School’s history. It is what sets Eagles apart from others. Though students may not know it as they write about The Odyssey or The Iliad, their experience writing themes will help them exponentially in the future.

“You have think about how many people go off to college and come back or write back in an email or something and say ‘The theme writing helped me so much in college’,” Martinez said, “‘I was so ready. The teacher said we were going to write this paper. Many students were at a loss of what to do. I wrote mine and the professor used it as an example of good writing.'”

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