Friday, July 1, 2011

National Writing Project Day 4: Character

One of our peers, Katie, presented an engaging lesson on character which can be easily adapted to any classroom at any grade level.  The focus of the presentation was having students analyze and create character within the same lesson--of course you could break this up over a couple of classes.  We completed the lesson within the hour.

We were first asked to think of a strong character who appealed to us and then write a list of all of his/her traits.  I chose Granddaddy from Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I remembered his many strengths even though I'd read the book several months ago: intelligence, curiosity, humble, loving to his granddaughter, mysterious, private, independent, strong, perceptive, generous, and courteous.  I failed to add that I imagined him physically as the spitting image of Mark Twain.

After we shared some of this prior knowledge, we were reminded that strong characters are alive, believable, and relatable.  All of these applied to the character I chose.  It was a grounding moment and a good way to build a sense of community within a lesson.  Many heads nodded or carried pleased grins because their characters also fit the attributes presented by the teacher.

Using Ralph Fletcher's tenets of a strong character (What a Writer Needs) our next activity was explained.  We were to use physical traits, personality, a telling detail, spoken words, and gesture or motion to build a strong character.  We would generate this by writing in our daybooks.  However, Katie used a charming method of moving the group into having some fun with the task while also providing us an unobstructed path into writing almost immediately.

We sat in groups of 4 or 5 and were told we were cooks in a diner.  We even had fun short order cook hats which she made.  Katie came to each table and placed her order as our customer.  At our table she ordered one of each of the tenets of strong character.  Her specific request for our table asked us to focus on height, frustration, a pet, whispering, and the adjustment of something.  Given ten to fifteen minutes to write I found that this specific request was so focused that it immediately gave me a way in.  Yet, it was also broad enough so that our creativity was not corralled into so narrow a chute that our group developed similar characters.  Quite the contrary, everyone came up with dramatically different characters.

We were then asked to read our entries to our group members and then highlight the lines which they believed captured one of the tenets quite well.  We searched for lines within our group until we could fill the columns labeled: physical traits, personality, a telling detail, spoken words, and gesture or motion.

Katie asked for two volunteers to share their character for the entire class and a partner for each.  As one read to the room the partner would ring a bell each time he/she heard one of Fletcher's tenets of building strong character.

I don't have the direct quote, but Katie posted a quote on the board by education pioneer Donald Graves which nailed the importance of doing such an activity with students: fiction offers children an opportunity to analyze human characteristics.

This struck me as a perfect lesson to process summer reading in districts where students are given a variety of choices.

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