Thursday, 9 August 2012

Exploring characters in a novel

Exploring Character in Texts - focusing on questions
For the past four years I have been working  as an Assistant Core Curriculum leader of English, or, second in department, for those that loathe business speak being used in schools – I am one who abhors it. My first day was one that I will never forget; all for the wrong reasons. I had spent weeks sorting out my outfit, shirt and tie combination, layout of classroom, SOWs, and many other frivolous things. I was armed and prepared. I had even bought myself a new satchel. Black leather. For satchels are the sign of someone organised and studious, in my rose-tinted world.  
The birds were singing as pulled up into my new school. I was prepared and ready to work, and, make an excellent first impression. I thought I’d just pop to the photocopying room to do some last minute preparation for lessons. The photocopier was working well. I photocopied 25 sheets. Then, I decided to cut the sheets up using the guillotine.  I split the sheets into two piles. Guillotined the first pile in half. Then the second half. Had I ruined the sheets? No. Had I broken any of the machines on my first day? No. Had I covered myself in ink from the photocopier? No. What I had done is probably worse, and, more embarrassing. In my haste to cut the paper, I had guillotined the bottom half of my tie off. Thinking I could escape the embarrassment, I left the room to walk into another member of staff. I was mortified. They looked down at the sad remains of my tie.
Anyway, one of the items on the agenda for my first staff briefing was a health and safety issue. We were instructed to take more care, when using school equipment, such as the guillotine. The whole room looked at me and laughed. I went a wonderful colour of red and smiled.  A colleague told me afterwards that was a great way to make a first impression. She told me that the whole experience made people warm to me in a way that I hadn’t predicted. In fairness, I was probably too focused on my professional appearance, and, as a result  of this accident demonstrated to my new colleague how human I was – I make mistakes and I can laugh at them too.  However, I don't advise people to walk around with their skirt tucked in their knickers or toilet paper stuck to their shoes. There are much better ways to show you are human, or normal.
Where am I going with this? Easy – character. It is sometimes the smallest of things that generates a greater understanding of people, or the world around us. My first few years of teaching 'character' in English was pants. It tended to revolve around a sheet of adjectives to describe a character or their personality and students would find quotes to support their choice. There might have been a bit of analysis of the quotes, but we would finish by looking at what the writer had done. It wasn’t really inspiring and was a bit functional. They got some good ideas, but there wasn’t a level of engagement that I wanted.
In the last five years, I’d say that I have given the character question in English a lot of thought. There tend to be two main questions when exploring a character:

What is the character thinking or feeling in this extract?
How is the character presented in this extract?
There are many more, but they tend to be variations of the same two questions. For example: What is your opinion of the character?  This could be answered by answering both of these questions. Originally, I think I was just too focused on labels to describe the character. Most of my teaching was simplistic and it was focused on finding and selecting words or quotes. It wasn’t really thinking about the character, or how the character was constructed. It was thinking about getting quick answers to the question, and ignoring the detailed thought and understanding that must happen before they answer the question. I always nag about thinking and planning time, yet I wasn’t building it into my teaching.

Therefore, I thought about asking questions that made students think and engage in the character. I selected these questions before they started answering the following question: How is the character of George presented in the novel 'Of Mice and Men'?

What two sides does the character have?
What does the character learn by the end of the novel?
What is the character’s emotional journey in the novel?
What is the character’s weakness?
What is the character’s strengths?

Note that these questions all start with what. This could be changed to a how and the question reordered to make an even more effective question, or a step up once students have asked the first questions:
How do we see the two different sides of the character?
How does the character learn a valuable lesson by the end of the novel?
How does the character’s emotional state change in the novel?
How do we see the character’s weakness?
How do we see the character’s strengths?
These questions are working with character in far more detail than saying that George is grumpy  because he is mean to Lennie. It allows students to think of the whole picture, rather than isolated sections. Furthermore, we could change these questions to introduce the word ‘why’ and have even more challenging questions.  
Why do we see the two different sides of this character?
Why does the writer make this character learn a valuable lesson by the end of the novel?
Why does the character’s emotional state change in the novel?
Why does the writer show this character’s weakness?
Why does the writer show this character’s strengths?
When they have answered these questions a group of students is much more able to answer main question set as they have explored the character in greater detail. They are mainly opinion based questions. Something students are happier to share. We are using their opinions and thoughts and feelings before answering questions about what a character is thinking or feeling, or the presentation of a character.
I think my original mistake was to leave out the thinking time. For me to generate interesting and detailed answers to a character question I need to build in discussion and thought.  I can’t just leave it to simple comprehension tasks, which is what I used to do.
What sort of things do I do now?
These are just a few things I get students to do before they approach a character. Some of them are original. Some of them are old hat. But, I think they are worth doing if you are wanting them to say something more meaningful than Curley is aggressive because he is short.

·       Coins – Students make a ‘coin’ with the character’s head on it. On one side they write characteristics that are positive and on the other side they do the same for negative things. They make a great mobile in the classroom.
·     Tracking their journey – Rather than plot tension in a novel or play, plot the emotional journey of a character on a graph. You could link to tension later., if necessary. If you want to do a quicker version, ask them to write 6 emotions that a character feels in the book.  Place them in the order they appear in the book.
·       Body Language – Give students a lesson on reading body language and analyse a clip from a film for body language.  
·       Creating ‘foils’ – I love looking at the concept of foils in texts. What does placing Curley next to Slim teach us about Curley? Making unusual connections between characters is great fun.

·       Zoom in on one specific thing – look at a specific moment and think of its ripples. In ‘Of Mice and Men’, what does the first appearance of Curley’s Wife show us? What are the ripples from that one moment? What could George have done at that moment to prevent later ripples?

·       Outside the box thinking /Symbolism – What music would Curley listen to? If Slim could paint the bunkhouse, what colour would he pick? Justifying the answer is fun. Why would Slim pick pink? Is it that he is comfortable with his masculinity? Or, could it be he is thinking of making the place more appealing for women? Who knows?

·       Balloon debates – Your hot air balloon needs to lose some weight. Which character are you going to throw overboard? Why them?

To push students further, I sometimes look at stock character types and apply these to the text being studied, so that students can focus more on the role of the character, and see how the writer has used the character. Shakespeare is fantastic for showing how stock characters are used by writers. 'Much Ado About Nothing' has a few candidates for 'the fool'. What might be interesting is thinking about these stock characters in a modern novel? Who is 'the fool' in 'Of Mice and Men'? Is it Curley? Or, does the role of 'the fool' move around characters? This takes the idea of the character further, but I need to provide students with the tools and terminology for discussing this. Tell them the types of character that a writer might employ in a story.

Additionally, I may look at the characters in terms of the overall story. Are these characters three-dimensional or two-dimensional? Is their behaviour predictable? Or, is it unpredictable and three-dimensional? Do the characters in the story change over the course of the story? Or, do they stay constant? Several years ago I taught 'Of Mice and Men' after teaching 'Oliver Twist' and Steinbeck's realism contrasted well with Dickens' satire and comedy. Using a previous novel helped to see the text in a different light. It made a great point of comparison and a way of building and extending their existing knowledge. Through comparison, they were able to learn more about the character.   

The more I think about character, the more I think ‘hot-seating’ is a great task that I don’t use enough in lessons. It makes them think of effective questions to probe their understanding of a character further. Also, it makes them think of the answers to the questions. It makes them more independent about their learning. Getting inside a character’s head will only help them. I think the next time I use ‘hot-seating’ I am going to spend more time on the questions. I will spend a lesson of students getting their questions and drafting and redrafting them. Then, I will get them to stack and evaluate the questions and push them to ask more effective and meaningful questions. David Didau’s brilliant 'The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson' has a really good section on questioning and I think it is a good starting point for this.

So, what lesson have I learnt? Well, two lessons really. The first is to build thinking time with character questions. Spend a large amount of time ‘digging deeper’ into the character and the text’s meaning. The second is questioning. Ask intelligent questions that elicit higher level thinking. Get the questions to push the students and don’t narrow the questioning to focus solely on the end assessment. Oh, and stay away from guillotines when wearing a tie.
Thank you for reading my blog and a big thank you to @Gwenelope for her help and support with this .

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  1. Really like your 'what' 'how' 'why' progression in the questions. That's a great idea.

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