Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know
As English teachers, we are in a unique position where we not only shape and refine students’ writing skills, but also, possibly, hopefully, their world view. We are able to do this because most of  the literary works crucial to our curriculum were written with the intention of inspiring profound and controversial thought. Here are three thought provoking themes that are essential to teach high school students.

Sometimes, in order to foster a student’s growth for the better, it is beneficial to show them a monster rather than a role model - an anti role model if you will. Showing examples of humanity’s inhumanity can be quite revealing in regards to our own character flaws. After all, oftentimes the reason we do not like someone is because we see an aspect of ourselves which we hate within them. In Elie Wiesel's novel, Night, Elie recounts his first hand experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Aside from the infamous atrocities committed by the the Nazis, Elie recounts the noteworthy observation that cruelty breeds further cruelty. Fellow prisoners and even family members would betray and fight each other to bolster their own chances of survival. Studying cruelty and its effects can help students realize the consequences of their own actions, such as bullying and gossiping, and hopefully dissuade them from spreading cruelty themselves.

Novels with Inhumanity as a theme: Night, Animal Farm, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lord of the Flies

There are many interpretations to how the American Dream is defined, but generally they all allude to the naive belief that an individual is guaranteed to achieve material wealth, success, and/or untarnished happiness through some combination of hard work, honesty, and morality. Regardless of the interpretation, the ideal of the American Dream profoundly shaped American values and culture, so much so that you may even want to coordinate lessons with whomever teaches History. It can be argued that immigration to America was largely motivated by the American Dream as it seemingly promised that anyone could achieve prosperity regardless of their social status, ethnicity, or nationality. However, many immigrants were disappointed to find that prejudice, amongst other barriers, limited their choices within the land of opportunity much like it did for the Lithuanian family in Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

Another reason to study the American Dream is to show students how even ideals with the best intentions can be corrupted. After World War I, in the 1920’s era, many Americans became disillusioned with America’s traditional cultural values and morals after witnessing the widespread chaos and carnage. This disillusionment combined with the sharp upturn in the stock market after the war led to rampant hedonism. Noble ambitions fell out of fashion as Americans chased a new, perverted American Dream which revolved around attaining money and pleasure without the previous notions of honesty and morality. F. Scott Fitzgerald vividly portrays this period of excessive greed and vice in American history in his novel, The Great Gatsby.

Novels with the theme of the American Dream: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman

This theme is sure to strike a chord with students as they are all in their formative years and are still figuring out what they find to be meaningful as well as who they are as an individual. In my opinion, the most important lesson that can be gleaned from this theme is how potentially harmful it can be for someone to force an identity upon another. Most people have at one point in their life been a victim of such a crime; they’ve been called a nerd, or a jock, or a diva, or worse. Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, the protagonist, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a badge identifying her as an adulteress as a means to humiliate her. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator finds the development of his identity stunted by the emphasis everyone, including the people he considers to be his allies, places on his race. Students will likely find inspiration in the methods these characters employ to develop their identities while rebelling against societal forces which try to steal their identities from them.

Novels with the theme of self discovery are also helpful in giving students examples of pitfalls to avoid during their formative years. For instance in J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden, alienates himself from other people as a means to protect his identity, but his isolation proves to be harmful as most of Holden’s pain can be attributed to his loneliness and his inability to understand others. In Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, most of the characters within the story do everything they can to distract themselves from developing their own identities, foregoing any form of self reflection in lieu of  drunkenness and other forms of escapism. As such, their lives are completely joyless and stagnant, the kind of lives we hope for the next generation to avoid.

Novels with the theme of Finding One’s Identity: The Scarlet Letter, Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Beloved
Three Universal Themes Every High School Student Should Know

Scaffolding the Literary Analysis Response

For several years now, I’ve watched students struggle year after year with the same concepts. They have a difficult time analyzing literature on a deeper level, and they also struggle with properly embedding their quotes. Rather than face the same struggles again this year, I anticipated the struggle and revised how I teach my students to read and write about short stories. It is working. Not only is it working, but it is working far better than I ever could have imagined. My students are understanding the stories more, and their analytical writing has improved leaps and bounds since the first assignment.

I began my short story unit by directly teaching various literary devices and how to properly embed quotations. I also placed an emphasis on close reading with my Sticky Note Literary Analysis graphic organizers. Then, I started small with a super short story and an even shorter writing response.

We read Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, and I assigned my students this short, little three-sentence response writing assignment. While I expect more than three sentences from my students by the end of the year, I wanted to start short so that I could help remediate writing in an effective manner. Even though the written response was only three sentences long, it was no picnic in the park. I told my students that I would only assign 2 grades: an F (50%) and an A (100%). I only assigned two vastly different grades for this assignment because I wanted my students to continuously work toward the A. They had infinite chances to keep revising their response for full credit. I really focused on having students properly embed their quotations and provide insightful analysis.
Because the writing prompt is so short, I can quickly grade each student’s writing and provide meaningful feedback during the class period. The quick access to meaningful comments and feedback allows students to learn from their mistakes and grow as writers. Also, only needing to rewrite one or two sentences in a short response is far less intimidating than needing to rewrite an entire essay.

Before moving on to a lengthier response, repeat the 3-sentence response a couple times. This way, students learn how to properly write literary analysis without being too overwhelmed with a major writing task. I did this two times with two different stories in my classroom, and it was a major game changer. Within the first two weeks of school, I the vast majority of my sophomores were writing thoughtful and intriguing literary analysis responses with properly embedded, cited, and explained quotations.

3 Skills I Teach With Nonfiction Text

I like to incorporate a lot of nonfiction in my curriculum. While I love fiction and make sure I include it in my instruction, I also firmly believe that studying, analyzing, and writing about nonfiction is vitally essential for today’s learners.

When I teach argumentation and nonfiction texts in my classroom, there are three skills that I intentionally teach toward the beginning of the unit: paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing. While I believe that teaching specific rhetorical devices and strategies are important, I save those lessons for when my students are able to correctly paraphrase, quote, and summarize any piece of text.

In my opinion, I believe that paraphrasing text is a bit easier than summarizing text since it is essentially rewriting the entire text in one’s own words. One of the pitfalls in which most students fall victim to is failing to properly cite paraphrased text. This is because so many students assume that just because the text is in their own words that it is theirs, and this is not true. When I teach paraphrasing, I place great emphasis on the need to properly cite their research and the work they are paraphrasing to maintain credibility and avoid plagiarism.

When I teach summarizing, I place an emphasis on finding the main idea and supporting details in the text. When students summarize an article for me, they should always include the article title, author, the main message, and how the author delivers that particular message.

One of the most challenging writing skills for students to master is how to properly embed quotations in their writing. When I teach students to embed quotes (whether from fiction or nonfiction) in their writing, I focus on having the students introduce the quote in their own words with a transition word or phrase and contextual information, and then complete the sentence with a quote that grammatically fits within the sentence. I tell my students their quotes should be seamlessly written into their papers, and that they should never begin a sentence with a quote.

When students know how to properly paraphrase, summarize, and quote text, they will have the skill set necessary to take rhetorical and textual analysis to a deeper and more meaningful level. Some great sites to access nonfiction text include,, and

In my classroom, I use these lessons to teach these skills to my students:

Introducing Complex Ideas to Students

I teach a lot of nonfiction in my junior-level and senior-level high school English classes, and oftentimes these nonfiction articles and speeches deal with new, complex topics. Before we read the article, I want to access my students’ prior knowledge on the topic, as well as get them thinking about the topic in an effort to properly prepare them to read and understand the text.

One such way to introduce new and complex topics to students is by having them create collaborative brainstorming posters. These posters are simple and require minimal preparation, but they generate excellent classroom discussion.

The materials you will need for this assignment:
  • Butcher or poster paper
  • Markers

To complete a collaborative brainstorming poster in class, have students get into groups of three to five students. Each group will get one piece of butcher paper, poster board, or chart paper. Each member within the group will select one color marker that they will use for the entire project.

Instruct students to write the topic in large print in the middle of the paper, and then have each student contribute to the poster using the color they’ve chosen. Each student will be responsible for contribution to the poster, and the marker colors help keep students accountable.

Each student in the group will be responsible for adding the following items to the poster in their selected marker color:
  • the definition of the word/concept in their own words
  • 2 or 3 traits of that concept
  • A person who embodies or exemplifies the concept
  • A famous quote related to the concept

I give my students about 15 minutes to form groups and complete this task. The posters do not need to be perfect, final drafts. Instead, they should be a starting-off point that introduces the topic to the students. Once they are done with the posters, I have students groups present their posters, with one or two students from each group sharing various elements of their poster.

To maximize the benefits these posters provide, I put them up on the classroom walls and refer back to them throughout the rest of the unit when we discuss the article.

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech in High School

When we read over and begin grading our students’ writing assignments for the first time in a new school year, we are able to assess their writing capabilities.Within a matter of a few sentences, we can see if a student is a struggling writer, or if writing comes more naturally to them. After reading, analyzing, and grading student writing over the past several years, I’ve come one big conclusion: the reason why some students struggle with their writing is because they do not understand the basics of how to form a sentence.
Throughout my years teaching, I’ve worked at two different high schools with two different student populations. No matter what a student’s language, cultural background, or socioeconomic status is, if they have a difficult time writing, it is more than likely due to the fact that they do not know the parts of speech and how and when to use them properly.

Students are taught the various parts of speech early on in grade school. While I think it is necessary to teach students the parts of speech early on in their academic careers, I also feel that it is essential to continuously teach and review parts of speech with middle school students and even high school students.

If a high school student knows what a noun, pronoun, verb, conjunction, adjective, and adverb are and how and when to use them effectively, that student is more likely to be a good writer. Knowing the basic parts of speech, even if it seems like an elementary concept, is so crucial for high schoolers, that I continue to teach and review parts of speech with my high schoolers. Whether I spend one day reviewing parts of speech or many weeks teaching and reviewing parts of speech, I always see an improvement in student writing.

So, the real solution to this problem is simple. We don’t need to worry about parallel structure, active and passive voice, and tone just yet. Let’s review and teach the parts of speech to our middle school and high school students, and really begin to see their writing improve. Sometimes, we just have to get back to the basics to see true growth. And for writing, those basics are teaching and reinforcing the parts of speech.

Here are some age and content-appropriate resources and tools to help you teach and review parts of speech in your classroom.

This teaching bundle has everything a secondary ELA teacher could possibly need to teach parts of speech. For each part of speech, there is a separate unit that contains an editable PowerPoint presentation to use for direct instruction, a secured-PDF file with pretests, student reference sheets, practice worksheets, and a final assessment.

This is a fun and interactive teaching resource that engages students and they review the parts of speech. This mini flip book can be used on its own or as part of an interactive notebook.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Mini Flip Book

Unlike many parts of speech tasks cards out there, these task cards are age-appropriate for middle school and high school students. The last thing we want to do is offend the teenagers in our rooms with childish educational resources meant for third grade. There are two different sets of task cards in this resource, and each set has 40 unique cards. With 80 task cards total, this resource can be used for several days.
You may also want to see my Pronouns Task Cards
Teachers can create free account on to help students learn grammar. There are a couple different sections and lessons that focus entirely on parts of speech alone.