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.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting: Epilogue

I finished up Tuck Everlasting with the 5th graders this week. For a final project, I had each of them write a letter from Winnie to Jesse, explaining whether she would drink the water or not and why. Even this on its own is something they seemed to enjoy, but the real fun began in class, when I helped them use tea to “age” the paper and make the letters look like they really had been written a long time ago.

The first week with this book, many of the kids told me they didn’t like it or found it confusing. But by the end, almost every single one of them seemed to love it. We used class discussion to make the confusing parts easier to understand, and projects like writing letters and diary entries to give the kids something fun to look forward to. Even many of the students who struggle the most with reading, and the ones that have the most trouble motivating themselves, ended up telling me how much fun they were having, and there’s no greater reward than that for a teacher.

Except maybe being able to keep on doing it. When I originally started teaching weekly Novel Studies classes, I was filling in for another teacher who was on maternity leave, and the assumption was that it would only last until Spring Break. But now, I’ve been asked to keep doing it for the rest of the semester while she eases back into teaching. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve already been looking at what books are left in the curriculum, and I’ve got some great ideas for how to teach them, so I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about that soon.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting, Part III

We’re over halfway through Tuck Everlasting now, and it’s really been a joy to teach. It was one of my favorite books when I was that age, so I’ve loved coming up with projects for the kids to do. Even if not all of them love the book the way I do, I think they’re enjoying it and really getting a lot out of it. We’ve talked a lot about the metaphor of the wood as the hub of a wheel, bringing the characters together, and we also looked at the pros and cons of living forever this past week. Some of the things the kids brought up were factors I hadn’t even considered, like what would happen to an immortal person if the planet became uninhabitable, or – on the pro side – the possibility of swimming underwater without having to come up for air. It’s great to have them thinking about everything involved, because that’s kind of the point of a book like this – to ask an impossible, hypothetical question and then explore what it would mean if it was possible.

They also turned in their diary entries that I assigned last week. I loved reading them! A lot of the kids chose to write from Winnie or Jesse’s point of view, of course, but I also got one from Mae Tuck, and even one from the toad. Many of them showed not just a solid understanding of the book, but a lot of creativity and enthusiasm as well. There’s nothing more rewarding for a teacher than seeing the class respond so well and watching the spark of excitement you’ve tried to create really take hold.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting, Part II

About two weeks ago, I posted that I was getting ready to start Tuck Everlasting with the fifth graders. Well, we’ve started it, and it’s going great! I decided to use a tri-fold board, like the ones kids use to present research projects, and use each panel for something different:

  • On one side, theories about the man in the yellow suit.
  • On the other, pros and cons of living forever – we haven’t gotten to that yet.
  • In the middle, the “wheel” chart I was talking about last time.


As you can see in the picture, the kids are helping to put the board together by writing their theories, the connections they find, and eventually their pros and cons, on sticky notes. This way, they’re actively contributing and hopefully learning from it. They all seemed very excited, so I think it’s going well.

Middle-Grade · teaching literature

Teaching Tuck Everlasting

One of my favorite things about teaching is getting kids excited about reading. I’ll never forget my own eighth and ninth grade English teachers, who I credit with turning my love of reading into a love of literary analysis, much less the elementary school teachers who nurtured that love of reading in the first place. So it’s with great pleasure that I’ve taken over Novel Studies this quarter for a teacher who’s out on maternity leave. I meet with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders one afternoon a week, for about half an hour, to lead a discussion on a book they’re all reading. I’m starting a new book – Tuck Everlasting – with fifth grade next week, and I’m already working on fun projects to do with them.

One thing I’ve come up with is this:


The book’s prologue uses the metaphor of a wheel, with Treegap Woods as the hub, uniting seemingly unrelated people and events. We’ll talk about what the author means by that in class and add a little more to the wheel each week based on what they’ve read, connecting the characters to the setting and to each other. I’m hoping this will help the kids keep track of all the unexpected connections and peak their curiosity about the novel’s mysteries.

Classics · My Poetry · Shakespeare

Two Answers

I didn’t realize until I’d already written both of these poems how well they mirror each other, and believe it or not, it wasn’t intentional. But it makes sense, in a way, because they both relate to Hamlet’s infamous question and tell the stories of two characters who represent very different answers. Anyway, I decided they work better together than apart. The first one is written from Ophelia’s point of view in Act IV of Hamlet, and the second from Horatio’s viewpoint at the end of Act V.

Not to Be

Remember me with rosemary
And daisies in my hair
Their petals wilted, innocence
Now lost beyond repair

Remember me with rosemary
I’ll give you columbines
And fennel, too, some rue for you
But this one must be mine

Remember me with rosemary
And let me slip away
I’ll live on in your memory
Remember, love, I pray

Remember me with rosemary
And keep me in your thoughts
My violets all have shriveled up
And in the earth they’ll rot

Remember me with rosemary
I’m choosing not to be
Let others ask the questions now
Remind them, love, of me

To Be

You asked a question
A question I will answer
Your last command still echoes in my mind
In life I served you faithfully
In death – your death – I do the same
My prince
Among the bodies buried here today
Why was it I who lived?
No, that’s not the question

You asked a question
In the depths of grief
When reason fled and left you craving some release
My prince, goodnight
After the war you waged within your soul
In sleep of death may you at last find peace

You asked a question
I think you found the answer in the end
When words like yours came spilling from my lips
You stayed my hand and took the poisoned cup
My friend, I shall obey thy final wish
I’ll live
While yet I breathe, thy memory I keep
Thy story shall I carry far and wide
And unto all who lend their hearts and ears
I’ll tell thy fate

You asked a question
I’m living out the answer day by day
I choose to be, I choose to carry on
Let life’s outrageous whims do what they may
And words preserve forever what I say
So we may be remembered when we’re gone