teaching literature

Teaching Character Analysis

When I read Tuck Everlasting with the fifth graders, one of the questions I set out for them was, “Who is the man in the yellow suit?” I gave them a chance to speculate on this every time we met, and some of their theories were pretty close to the truth. But when it came to the chapters where his identity is revealed, I realized some of them were struggling, because … well, we’re never told exactly who he is. He’s never even given a name. We know his grandmother was friends with Miles Tuck’s wife, we know he wants to sell the spring water, and we know a bit about his personality, but even once all that is revealed, he’s still the most mysterious character in the story. I’m glad I had them speculate and discuss it, but I feel like there’s room for improvement. There’s room to focus more on character analysis, and not just with the one book.

So when we get back from Spring Break, I’m going to start talking about characters with the fourth graders. We’re starting Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo, which luckily is the perfect book for that, both because of its large cast of unique and vivid characters, and because the book itself contains a perfect activity for character analysis.

Early on in the book, Opal – the main character – asks her father to tell her ten things about the mother she never knew. Near the end, when her dog goes missing, she comes up with a list in her head of ten things she wants to remember about him. This is the perfect opportunity to discuss the different things kids notice about the characters, things that go beyond basic facts like their names, ages, and even personality traits. Amanda Wilkinson, for example, is pinch-faced and stuck up, but only seems unpleasant because she’s sad about her little brother’s death. Miss Franny Block, the librarian, tells fantastic stories that should probably be taken with a few grains of salt. You could easily make a “Ten Things” list for any of the main characters and only scratch the surface of all the layers and detail they’re given.

Which is exactly what I’m going to ask the kids to do as a final project. Not before lots of class discussion about exactly who these characters are, of course. Each week, as the kids read, we’ll talk about what they think of the characters and what they noticed about them. What I want them to get out of it is that book characters are deeper than just their name/age/basic description, and that it’s the colorful details that make them who they are. Then, at the end, they’ll choose a character and put together a list of ten things they’d tell someone about that character, using the ones Opal and her dad make as a framework.

The next book in the fifth grade sequence is Sounder, and for the sixth graders it’s Esperanza Rising. Both of those books have complex, dynamic protagonists who grow and change over the course of the story, but more limited casts of supporting characters, so we’ll focus more on the main character’s journey there. I have a plan for that, too, but I’ll make it a separate post so that this one doesn’t get too long.

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