A Generative Theme Approach to Teaching Reading and Writing at Elementary Level



Generative themes are topics of great interest to learners that can easily generate class discussion. In this paper I will present a way of teaching the young adult novel “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” by Eleanor Coerr, using Paulo Freire’s generative theme approach. Generative words are words used to introduce new syllables. The lesson is centered on one theme, while the teacher and the students make new words from combinations of syllables using new and previously taught syllables. Students then write personal thoughts about the newly generated words and share them with the rest of the class. Various teaching methods will be suggested that discuss the chosen book in-depth: timelines, map recognition, letter writing, arts and craft, interviews, analysis of media, and poem writing. 


This paper draws on my ongoing efforts to transform my students into better critical thinkers and empower them with the tools needed to understand and challenge the world they live in. During the first semester of the 2008-2009 academic year, I read, with my Grade 5 students, a young adult novel as part of the school’s reading program. The novel used was Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by American writer Eleanor Coerr (painting by Ronald Himler), a retelling of Sadako’s sad story. Sadako was a Japanese girl who died of leukemia due to radiations from the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end World War II.

The reading lessons that I conducted were teacher-centered, with the students reading the book out loud as a class and sometimes individually. Assessment was carried out using comprehension worksheets. In this paper I will present a different way of teaching the same young adult novel, but this time using Freire’s generative theme approach. An appendix, which includes the plot summary and the cover of the book, precedes the references list.

Literature review

At the bilingual school in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was teaching English at that time, reading was taught through the use of basal readers, direct instruction and standardised testing. These teaching approaches have been referred to by Paulo Freire as “banking” methods of education, where the teacher’s role is that of putting deposits of knowledge into the students’ heads (Freire, 2003). These classrooms are teacher- and text- orientated, with little discussion and reflection taking place. Discussions that require open responses involving the students’ opinion are rare, students taking on a more passive role. In the banking method of education the students are supposed to give the “right answers” in periodical criterion referenced tests (Peterson, 2003).

The methods applied in teaching reading by both a traditional and a progressive teacher are distinctly different than that of a Freirian teacher (Peterson, 2003). A traditional teacher takes on the role of the expert, the one that conveys knowledge that has to be assimilated by the students if they are to succeed (Barr, 1996). A progressive teacher organises the class based on child-centered and holistic activities, with the belief that students learn best if they have a genuine interest in the subject matter presented (Peterson, 2003). A Freirian teacher consciously tries to blur the boundaries between knower and known, between learner and teacher, while taking on the role of initiator of dialogue (Diem, 2007).

The alternative proposed by Freire (2003) is a dialogical “problem posing” approach, where teachers and students communicate together to arrive at a mutual view of the world. Through the use of open-ended questions, the students are encouraged to engage in critical thinking, the core of the curriculum being based on questions, rather than answers.

The Freirian approach puts a lot of emphasis on the students’ experiences and an acceptance of their cultural and linguistic background. Lectures and root learning is replaced by dialogue and reflection. The students are given as much power as the teacher can give them, while problem-posing questions are raised to make the students aware of the world around them. It is imperative to create a special atmosphere in the classroom, one that makes the students confident enough to see the world in a different light and act upon their beliefs to transform it (Freire, 2003).

The teacher-centered and textbook-driven curriculum only disempowers students, who are not involved in any decision making, but just subject to uninteresting worksheets and curriculum. In a teacher-centered classroom students are not taught to take responsibility, be independent and self-disciplined. In Freire’s opinion, such a curriculum transforms students into “objects” that can be acted upon by the school and society. Instead, Freire proposes a curriculum based on dialogue, reflection, and interaction that helps the students become “subjects” ready to understand their world. Nevertheless, educators are aware of the fact that transforming students into “subjects” is not an east task, and requires a lot of collaboration between the teacher, the school, and the community (Peterson, 2003).

Teachers need to devise activities that train the students become more responsible. Researchers have suggested that the first step in empowering students is by increasing their self-esteem and reducing their anxiety level. This can be achieved by creating a positive atmosphere in the classroom and preparing activities that develop the student’s self-awareness, respect and cooperation. Through these activities, the students will develop their listening, speaking and collaborating skills (Peterson, 2003).

By empowering students, teachers do not give students absolute freedom in the classroom and school nor are the students given the impression that they are their teachers’ equals. The teacher’s role is that of creating an environment that stimulates learning, one in which students can take on more and more responsibilities (Peterson, 2003).

In his teaching, Freire used generative themes and words supported by photographs as a starting point of his reading and writing lessons. Generative themes are topics of great interest to learners. These themes can easily generate class discussion. Generative words are words used to introduce new syllables. The lesson is centered on one theme, while the teacher and the students make new words from combinations of syllables using new and previously taught syllables. Students then write personal thoughts about the newly generated words and share them with the rest of the class (Lane, 1999).

Researchers believe that using words that are significant to the students would motivate the students into learning. It is also important to center the students’ learning in their own experience, language, and culture. Such an environment can be achieved through a generative approach (Peterson, 2003).

Due to the fact that students are trained to look at the problems in their communities and use their skills to improve their lives, Freire’s instructional program is also known as the problem-posing approach. This kind of approach is student-centered, with the teacher being the facilitator, but at the same time a learner too, as opposed to the all-knowledgeable traditional teacher (Lane, 1999).

A Generative Theme Approach


Sadako Sasaki’s monument in Hiroshima Peace Park

Generative themes can develop from writing, reading, talking, and reflecting and they can generate discussion, study, and project work (Peterson, 2003). From the very first page of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes the main theme that arises is that of the destruction caused by war and the need for peace in the world. Following are examples of activities that a Freirian teacher would engage the students in when using the young adult novel by Eleanor Coerr.

The materials needed for the following activities are: copies of the book under discussion, a map of the world, whiteboard, markers, plastic binders, blank A4 sheets of paper, soft colored paper, scissors, computer with speakers, and internet access. The classroom management and organisations varies according to the planned activity: rows for presentation, groups for discussions and team work, and a circle or semicircle for students’ presentations.

First, the teacher starts with a lesson on the student’s own family background, placing their birthdays on a timeline. The students are also asked to put pins in a world map indicating the places of birth. Then the teacher introduces the books to the class. Each student browses his/her own copy and then the whole class concentrates on the cover of the book. The picture of the girl on the cover of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes has the role of supporting the generative theme. The students are asked to guess the age and the nationality of the girl on the cover and then check their answers by reading the prologue individually. Using the information from the prologue, the students place Sadako’s year of birth (i.e. 1943) and death (i.e. 1955) on the timeline, as well as her place of birth and death (i.e. Hiroshima, Japan).

Second, the Prologue also introduces the theme of the book: how children are affected by wars and the need for peace around the world. The readers are told about World War II and the conflict between the United States of America and Japan. Once again, the students put pins in the world map to indicate the two countries. A Freirian teacher then asks the students questions using the theme of the book as the object of reflection. Following are some examples of possible questions: “Why are there so many wars?”, “Why are there more wars in some parts of the globe while very few or none at all in other parts of the world?”, “Why do countries start wars?”, and “Who takes responsibility for all the child casualties?” Engaging students in reflective dialogue on controversial topics, such as war, is the bellwether mark of a Freirian teacher (Peterson, 2003).

Third, the teacher asks the students to do some research about World War II, and the atom bombs dropped by the United States Air Force on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. When back in school, the students are asked to make a booklet using their findings. The students write and draw about aspects that they found interesting regarding the topic under discussion. The unedited papers they worked on are then put together into a plastic theme binder, creating thus their own booklet about World War II. The action of collaboratively making a booklet based on the student’s findings provides a benchmark upon which, as the students read the assigned book, growth can be judged. Also, modeling organisational methods for students, such as ordering paper in a binder and placing it on the proper shelf, are tools that help develop independence and self-esteem (Peterson, 2003).

Sadako Sasaki

Fourth, as the students read the first three chapters, they find out about Sadako’s family, hobbies, dreams, and secrets. The teacher asks the students to write a letter to Sadako, telling her about themselves and the community they live in. These letters are then shared among the students and put together in another plastic theme binder, creating thus a booklet about their own lives. The students are then asked to read their classmates’ letters and make a list of similarities and differences between the lives they live and Sadako’s life. The harsh realities of post-war Japan and the problem-free life of the students will probably be one of the most striking differences.

Fifth, as the students read the next four chapters, the theme of peace and hope surfaces. Sadako believes that if she folds one thousand paper cranes, the Gods will grant her a wish and thus she will be well again. Her strong desire to live and her hopes for peace around the world are symbolised by the cranes she folds every day.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes ends with detailed instructions on how to fold a paper crane. Following these instructions, the students can start folding their own cranes, creating thus a message of peace. These cranes can then be sent to Hiroshima International School from Japan, a school that receives every year thousands of cranes from schools, organizations, and individuals from around the world. Then “middle and/or high school students [from Hiroshima International School] take these cranes to Peace Park, and hang them at the Children’s (Sadako) Monument on behalf of the senders. It is with pride that we make this small contribution to peace” (1000 Cranes, 2008).

Sixth, the students read Chapter 8, the second last chapter entitled “Last Days.” In this chapter, Sakako seems to get better, so that doctors allow her to go home for a visit. The students are asked to write or tell about what would happen if they were to take Sadako to their own homes or school for a few days.

Seventh, the students read “Racing with the Wind,” the last chapter of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and learn about the main character’s tragic end. It is a sad ending with a strong message that speaks about the innocent casualties of war: “Sadako sighed and closed her eyes. She never woke up” (Coerr, 2000, p.63). The teacher asks the students to write a different ending for the book and then share their ideas with the class.

Eighth, the students read the epilogue of the book and learn about the aftermath of Sadako’s real story. They learn about Sadako’s classmates’ effort in raising enough money to build Sadako a statue in Hiroshima Peace Park. A field trip to the park would be ideal, but it is not likely to happen due to the high costs involved in transportation and accommodation. Nevertheless, the students are asked to find pictures of the Sadako’s statue and make a collage. Using ideas from this collage, students can design their own statue that symbolises peace.

Ninth, for a Freirian teacher it is very important to bring the world into the classroom, thus giving the students the opportunity to reflect on their own lives (Peterson, 2003). As the students have finished reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and have been involved in various activities, the teacher arranges for them to view three very short movies about the damage done by the atomic bomb. These movies are The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (2005), Atomic Bomb Damage to Hiroshima (2005), and The Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki (2005).

For homework, the students are asked to find newspaper articles or news about wars that are taking place at the moment in the world. Class discussion can be focused on what the students can do to help those who suffer from the destruction caused by these wars. After further researching the issues, students can collect signatures and write letters to international organizations advocating peace.

Tenth, the students are divided into pairs. One of the students acts out the role of a Hiroshima bomb survivor while the other is a reporter asking questions about the way life has changed for his interlocutor ever since the atom bomb was dropped by the U.S. Air Force. By interviewing each other, the students practice their public speaking and listening skills (Peterson, 2003).

Lastly, the series of lessons about Sadako can be concluded with the students writing a poem that addresses the themes discussed, just like the poem engraved at the base of Sadako’s statue from Hiroshim: “This is our cry, / this is our prayer; / peace in the world” (Coerr, 2000, p.65). Their poems can later on be published in the school magazine, displayed outside the classroom, or put together in a booklet and shared with the rest of the community.

In a generative theme-oriented classroom, the teachers usually try to cover too much in a very short time. It is better to concentrate on one thing in depth (Peterson, 2003), in this case study, the destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the message of peace that arises from the young adult novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr.


In this paper various teaching methods have been suggested that discuss the subject matter in-depth: timelines, map recognition, letter writing, arts and craft, interviews, analysis of media, and poem writing.  Regardless of the kind of activity, in the generative theme-oriented classroom, the focus of instruction is the learner rather than the teacher. The quintessence of the theme-based approach is the connections that it built between the topic under discussion, the student’s lives and the world around them (Peterson, 2003).


Plot summary

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coer (with paintings by Ronald Himler) is the story of a 12-year old Japanese girl who died of leukemia in the aftermath of World War II. Although she was only two at the time of the explosion, Sadako Sasaki is a victim of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She is a child full of energy who enjoys sports and dreams of becoming the best runner in her school. But her dreams are shattered when she is hospitalised with leukemia. Chizuko, Sadako’s best, makes for Sadako a crane from a golden piece of paper and tells her that if she folds one thousand paper cranes, the Gods will grant her any whish. Dreaming of being healthy and able to run once again, Sadako starts folding paper cranes, but she eventually dies without completing the task. The novel was first published in 1977.


  • 1000 Cranes (2008). Hiroshima International School.
  • Atomic Bomb Damage to Hiroshima (2005). AJ Software & Mutlimedia. Retrieved October 11, 2008 from http://www.hiroshima-remembered.com/movies/hiroshimadamage.html
  • Barr, RB. & Tagg, J. (1996). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 28 (2), 42-47. Retrieved October 9, 2008 from http://critical.tamucc.edu/~blalock/readings/tch2learn.htm
  • Coerr, E. (2000). Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. New York: Scholastic Inc.
  • Diem, J. & Helfenbein, R.J. (2007). Unsettling Beliefs: Teaching Theory to Teachers. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
  • Lane, M.A. & Walter, L.B. (1999). The Freire instructional program.
  • Preire, P. (2003). From ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed.’ In A. Darder, M. Bartodano, and R.D. Torres (Eds.) The Critical Pedagogy Reader. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Peterson, R.E. (2003). Teaching How to Read the World and Change It: Critical Pedagogy in the Intermediate Grades. In A. Darder, M. Bartodano, and R.D. Torres (Eds.) The Critical Pedagogy Reader. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (2005). AJ Software & Mutlimedia. 
  • The Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki (2005). AJ Software & Multimedia.

Initially published in “Educatia PLUS” (pp. 174-183, nr. 10(b), 2009)

Author V.M. Simandan

is a Bangkok-based Romanian-born writer, archer, speaker, traveler, and vlogger.

More posts by V.M. Simandan

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