Digging In Deep For Characterization

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When it came to teaching characterization to middle school, I’ve always taken the direct approach. Explicit notes, concrete definitions, and an assumption that students were coming to me with a very solid idea of how adjectives and character traits are one and the same.

Until this year.

I have a cohort of students who are, as we say in our district, “low” in terms of English content knowledge. They struggle to identify nouns, verbs and adjectives from each other. It was a very slow beginning to the year, starting from scratch, and getting them up to speed for 7th grade content.

With this group, explicit note-taking techniques did not always prove to be successful. Most 7th grade students are disorganized, yet this group seemed to make disorganization an art form. Any notes they DID take were somehow lost in the abyss of their backpacks or lockers. I knew I had to flip my normal teaching  routine to reach them.

So, when characterization identification came up as one of their weaknesses even halfway through the year, I decided to make it interesting. When the students entered the room, I had drawn an outline of a body on the board. Around the body, I labeled the Head, Mouth, Hands, and Feet.

Then, on a separate white board, I defined each of the body parts.

Head: What does the character think or wonder about that reveals a character trait?

Mouth: What does the character say that reveals a character trait?

Hands: What does the character do that reveals a character trait?

Feet: Where does the character go or spend significant time that reveals a character trait?

I then gave each student a Post-It Note and broke them into groups of four students. The groups sat together and determined which student was in charge of which body part. As a class, I informed them, we would be performing a Character Autopsy. Whaaaaat? The reaction was priceless. We would be cutting into the “guts” of our character to find the deeper character traits within! To make it simple, I assigned the same character to each student.

It was each student’s responsibility to think about their body part and come up with a character trait from our class novel (we were reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton) and write it at the top of their Post-It note. Underneath the trait, they then needed to skim the chapters we had read in class and write down evidence that supported the character trait they chose. On the back of the Post-It, they needed to explain HOW that evidence supported the trait they had chosen.

Students were in their small groups of four, which helped them have little discussions if anyone was confused on a certain trait, or needed help finding a particular piece of evidence. I circulated the room, checking Post-Its as they worked and guiding any students who were completely off-base with their answers.

Then, students were given a Characterization Autopsy handout. Within their group of four, students traded Post-It notes and filled in the different body part sections. It is interesting how critically middle schoolers examine the work of their peers! Many groups worked together to hunt down better evidence for some character traits, and eventually each group had perfected their character’s “autopsy”.

If you find that your students are struggling to understand characterization, and need a different approach for finding evidence to support the character traits they do identify, this activity has limitless potential for being fun, engaging and down-right educational!

 

Other Creative Lessons from The Genius Educator

Connotation Lesson Using Paint Strips

Contraction Surgery Lesson

Generic Plot Chart


Why I Teach Graphic Novels In My Classroom

I grew up during a time where reading the Sunday comics was considered a quick pass time, but most definitely not considered reading. My family raised me on the belief that reading was sitting with a book and absorbing multiple chapters, not a quick read through something with PICTURES. Pictures were for elementary students and didn’t give me the same benefits that reading something substantially larger would provide.

Well, after nearly 30 years on this Earth, I’m here to respectfully disagree. Here’s why:

Graphic Novels Require More Thought and Creativity Than a Traditional Novel 

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Before I can introduce a graphic novel to a student, even my most advanced student, I always find myself having to teach them the technique of reading this type of medium. We teachers spend so much time showing students how to read paragraphs, articles and traditional novels yet the structure of a graphic novel is a foreign country to their brains.

Students must be taught about frames, panels and how something like the color scheme affects the tone. Dialogue and narrative are represented in different ways, and students must learn how to pick each one out. In between each panel is something called the “gutter”, or the gap between two panels where action occurs that the student’s imagination has to create without words or images to aid them. In traditional novels, these small moments are often detailed to them. Reading graphic novels is actually working more parts of their creative brain – and it offers a slightly different experience to each child since humans experience every day reading based on their OWN previous experiences.

Students will also need to recognize how the artist dresses each character in some familiar clothing, or continues to keep the same hair, facial features, significant detail to represent one character! This is the only way, unless the dialogue addresses the character in EVERY panel, that the student will know which character is present. There is a LOT of imagination and creativity that goes into reading a graphic novel, that students do not experience in such fullness from a traditional novel.

Graphic Novels Make Harder Concepts Available to Struggling Readers

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Kids that do not enjoy reading because they struggle to sound out words, comprehend what they read or have attention issues will suddenly have an avenue into more difficult concepts. Graphic novels offer these students an image-dense, text-light approach to understanding concepts such as theme, tone, characterization, etc that they may be missing due to their reluctance to engage with traditional texts. Graphic novels are a GREAT building block to catch struggling readers up to their grade-level peers while you continue to work with them on traditional reading strategies.

Let’s be honest – we do not care HOW they get to that Aha Moment… we just want them all to enjoy reading and learning. We want them to know that they are capable of this material, and are intelligent, just like their peers, DESPITE their struggles.

Graphic Novels Are Engaging So Kids Want to Finish Them

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This ties back in with your struggling readers. You know the kid, you may even have one or ten in your classes. The student who seemed to fall more and more behind each year until they finally felt like such a failure that they started to give up on trying to keep up with their peers. It was easier to just shrug and act like they didn’t WANT to finish the assigned reading rather than continue to struggle and fail. Yikes.

Graphic novels are illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the world. Some are black and white, some brilliantly colored in every hue imaginable. Some graphic novels feature characters bursting out of their frames, others have one page with over 40 different panels all with a different image and piece to the puzzle. Bottom line – they’re stinking INTERESTING! They aren’t just letters on a white page, but letters mixed with cool images that get the kids imagining their own stories. They’re easier to absorb because they don’t feel like work, but rather like something they are reading just for fun.

Graphic Novels Often Make Kids Think Harder Than a Traditional Novel

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One co-worker of mine scoffed at lunch one day when I mentioned that I would be teaching MAUS Part I to my 8th grade class. “See how well these students do on the state exams by learning about reading COMICS”, they further commented. I smiled at our district librarian, who winked at me. Later that day, I brought the graphic novel to my co-worker and asked that they take the time tonight to skim through Chapter One. The next day, my co-worker handed me back the book and said, “Do they have one of these for the Civil War Era?” Success!

Graphic novels are NOT easier to read than a traditional novel… if you are teaching students how to read them properly. Sure, a student could skim the images quickly and say they are finished but upon a quick test we would find that they did not pick up much information. A student who soaks up the information from each panel and knits them together in their brain is actually working harder than a student reading the same text written traditionally. Simply because, the student reading the graphic novel has to pick up on subtle cues from color, structure, dialogue, narrative, panel placement, and more in order to make sense of the story.

Scott McCloud has the BEST book for teaching YOU how to read a graphic novel called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which you can then use to teach your kids how to read one! He breaks all aspects of a graphic novel down into bite-size amounts, so even if you’ve never even looked at the Funnies in the Sunday Paper, you’ll feel comfortable with teaching them to a room full of excited kids.

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This is my own copy – as you can tell, it is WELL loved and ear-marked because it is a goldmine of information.

Graphic Novels Offer a New Perspective on A Character, Without It Being a Movie 

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I tell my students one thing when they first meet me – if we read a book in this class, and there is a good movie interpretation of it, we will watch that movie. They get so happy, as if I am giving them a gift when really, I am exposing them to the important themes in a more absorbable way (no text comprehension required), and letting them experience how a film director interpreted the plot compared to how they did. So often, kids watch the film version of a book and I hear, “But that’s not how I pictured THAT character, at all!” and it always makes me smile. Bingo! Made ya think.

Graphic novels can be much the same. Some years I will have a student fly through a novel we are reading together in class. They are lightyears ahead of their peers, comprehension comes easily, and they simply are tortured to drag along at the pace of the class. When I am able, a student who admits to reading ahead (even though I often discourage this to try to keep us all together), I will give them the graphic novel version to read. Their brain lights up as they watch scenes unfold in ways that they did not imagine, or they notice details they missed during their first read. Essentially, they are doing a second read of the information (shhh, don’t tell them) that is allowing their brain to focus less on content and more on technique! WHY did the author make this character act in this way? Ohhh… now that I’ve read the whole novel, this all makes sense. Graphic novels aren’t just for struggling readers – they can be an extension activity for your advanced students as well.

Now, I’m not saying the ONLY texts you should teach in your classroom are graphic novels…but I hope this article gives you some encouragement and courage to maybe, in the future, give it a try.

I teach MAUS Part I to my 8th graders (disclaimer: you will need to provide background information on World War II and the Holocaust because most of this age group has VERY little knowledge on these topics) and it is SO much fun. I know… very odd to describe teaching about the Holocaust as “fun”.

Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, illustrates his characters as animals in a purposeful way of creating metaphor! The Jewish characters are rats, since the Jews were treated as vermin, the Nazis are drawn as cats since cats are the natural predators of rats, etc. This allows a serious topic (the Holocaust) to become accessible to students while teaching them about metaphor. Win-win for the English Teacher. I offer a creative and thought-provoking study guide for Part I of MAUS on my TpT store for the educator who wants to leap in with both feet and get started with using this graphic novel.

 


Using Paint Strips to Teach Connotation

Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.

Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.

Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms

You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.

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This is the scaffolded version of my Connotation Sunburst Worksheet

Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms

Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.

Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation

Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.

Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips

I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.

The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.

Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.

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Paint Strips Ranking Worksheet

Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.

Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence

From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.

If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.

I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!