Teaching Literary Elements: Character

September 29, 2017

When learning about characterization and character types, students begin to examine an author's craft. Why did the author describe the character that way? What does the author's description allow the reader to learn about a character indirectly? Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, you'll find activities and resources below that will benefit all levels of students.

Terms to Teach
At the start of my teaching career, I taught primarily ninth grade students at an urban, Title 1 high school. My students came from a variety of K-8 schools, which meant they came with varying English Language Arts experiences. To ensure that all of my students started high school with a strong foundation in the literary elements, I found it best to give direct instruction followed by ample opportunities to apply terms and practice skills.

During my direct instruction, I introduced students to the following terms: direct and indirect characterization, protagonist, antagonist, and round, flat, dynamic, static, and stock characters. Many of my students were unaccustomed to taking notes so I provided them with a guided note taking template. This three column sheet provided a structured space for the term, definition, and examples.

Activities for Reinforcement
Before applying these newly learned terms to a short story or novel, I like to give my students opportunities to practice using shorter texts or media. For character, using short video clips provides great visual reinforcement. I have collected examples of character development in this playlist. I play a few and have students identify any character types they spot: protagonist, antagonist, and round, flat, dynamic, static, and stock characters.We also discuss the traits of different characters and how those traits are developed through dialogue, action, appearance, etc. I then have students select one of the clips and write a paragraph or two of what that character development would look like in a book instead of a movie.

If I have students who are still struggling to identify the different methods of characterization after a few practice opportunities, I pull them into a small group and do some "drill and kill" with these free characterization practice handouts. In a small group, I can get a better understanding of where the root of their confusion is and give them immediate feedback as they work through a series of examples.

Incorporating Movement and Hands-on Activities
One year I taught at an all boys school so giving them opportunities to move around and get some of that energy out was a must. Using stations focused on conflict and characterization is one way I did that. I pushed together desks, but you can also use tables, to set up six stations around the room. At each station, students completed activities such as matching terms and definitions and categorizing types of characterization. Because all of the station activities involve matching, sorting, or sequencing, they are easy to check and offer feedback to students on their mistakes.

Another way to incorporate movement is having students act out different character traits: friendly, grouchy, determined, lazy, tidy, disorganized, etc. To make this a little more challenging, I will limit the ways in which they can show this trait, i.e. only through actions, only though thoughts, etc. I'll have other students try to identify the trait and the method of characterization.

Texts to Read
I often teach character along with conflict, so my favorite short stories are the same for both literary elements: "Thank You M'am" by Langston Hughes and "The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton. Both of the stories offer complex characters.

In "Thank You M'am," a young man tries to rob an elderly woman, who turns out to be not so helpless and in the end, shows tremendous kindness to her assailant. The story can lead to interesting discussions about antagonists; sometimes a story has more than one, sometimes an antagonist is not a "bad person," and sometimes the protagonist of a story is his/her own antagonist.

In "The Lady or the Tiger?" a princess must decide whether her lover will be married off to another woman or mauled to death by a tiger because her father, a barbaric king, disapproves of her relationship with a commoner.  Students are desperate to know to which door the princess sent her lover and go through the short story with a fine tooth comb looking for evidence to support their belief about whether she sent him to the lady or the tiger.

Creative Application
Once students seem comfortable with the terms or if students need a challenge, I introduce students to a digital breakout, "Character Witness" for additional practice. A digital breakout is an online scavenger hunt-like game where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a series of locks.

In this breakout, students are asked to serve as a character witness for a friend who has been accused of a crime he didn't commit. As a character witness, students will testify on his behalf about his positive traits, high moral standards, and upstanding reputation in their community. Since they've never done this before, their friend's lawyer sent them some notes on what to say, which are saved on a password protected flash drive. Students have to interact with a variety of text and media to solve a series of puzzles and and help prove their friend's innocence.

In addition to needing content knowledge to successfully complete the game, breakouts require students to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and use creativity. I also love breakouts because they provide students with many opportunities to fail and try again. Every unsuccessful attempt to open a lock forces them to reexamine their information and their thinking.

Assessment
While many of the activities described above allow students to show their understanding of skills and terms, as a summative assessment I use a set of text-based assessments, each with a reading passage and 10 multiple choice questions, to assess my students’ knowledge of characterization and character types. The variety of passages and text complexity levels allows me to retest students as needed and make accommodations for struggling readers. The variety was also helpful in the years that I had classes whose eyes tended to wander during quizzes or tests.

You can find all of my resources for teaching character here.

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