New Teacher Series/ Question 11: What are the best strategies for teaching vocabulary?

Broadening a student’s vocabulary is important and critical to her academic success.  Having a comprehensive vocabulary increases a student’s ability to read with clarity and to communicate both orally and through writing with precision.  Students who are competent and independent readers often absorb much of their vocabulary from reading, but direct instruction augments that word pool even more. However, vocabulary instruction needs to be embedded and experienced multiple times for students to actually learn and use the words.  By introducing words once, then quizzing kids over the list and moving on, the skill developed is memorization and test taking, not literacy and word acquisition. Vocabulary unrelated to an actual personal, social, cultural, or literary context doesn’t stick in the brain.

Good teachers use a variety of strategies to teach vocabulary in concert with one another. Here are 15 Vocabulary Strategies in 15 Minutes   You will also find teachers using word walls, word journals, word maps, keyword methods, flash cards, vocab Bingo, Pictionary or Jeopardy.  Some strategies involve using the vocabulary words to write songs, short stories, or poetry. One of my favorite vocabulary trends was a call and response script – I can’t even remember the patter now – but it called for kids to clap, rap, and spell out the words and define them orally with me sing-songing and beating on my podium too.  It was fun, but I was still only asking kids to define and memorize words in isolation

About five years ago, I noticed several kids in one class were using some of the words from our vocabulary list during discussion.  I discovered these words not only were on their vocabulary list, but they had appeared somewhere in their reading that year, and—this seemed to be the key— they were words I used all the time.  The one I remember specifically was “truncated.” I love that word. I still use it all the time.  I realized that students were using it in their Socratic discussions and debates in class.

Why? Because they saw it and heard it more than once.  I used it all the time; they saw it in their reading; they knew what it meant, how to pronounce it, and how and when it should be used.  They had assimilated it into their lexicon.

From then on, I began to teach fewer words, but teach them more deeply.  I created a context for the words and allowed students to make connections with the words through discussion, reading, semantic maps, games, or even drawing visual interpretations of the words. I also read Bob Marzano’s great book Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary  which provided me with many great strategies.  You will figure out what strategy scratches your vocabulary itch, but here are three broad conceptual stances that I suggest you develop:

  • Use a rich vocabulary yourself. Just as you must be a reader and writer to teach English Language Arts as a practitioner, you must also have a robust vocabulary and use it.  When you are leading a discussion, when you are describing something in the reading, when you are conferencing, or even lecturing on a concept, use precise, exact language.  You don’t want to use $50 words for the sake of using them; you want to use the specific and accurate word because you are articulate and have a range of rich, complex words to choose from. Develop your ability to speak with depth, nuance, and sophistication.   Describing something as “small” sometimes isn’t sufficient; sometimes that small thing is actually trifling or trivial or insignificant or inconsequential or negligible or nugatory (what an insanely fabulous word!) or infinitesimal.
  • Tap into the emotional shading of words. When you teach vocabulary, suck the marrow out of those words.  Ask kids what emotional baggage a word like “hysterical” channels.  Ask kids to chart the words on a positive to negative cultural continuum.  Ask kids how different generations might perceive a word.  The dictionary definition is flat and static, but the connotative meaning of the word is rich and varied and often dependent on culture, regional geography, and social class. Turn kids on to both the social- and psycho-linguistic power of words.
  • Be a language freak. Create a culture of language in your classroom.  In the words of my colleague Bob Howard when he calls on kids to analyze art in his Art History class, “Remember, we use big words in here! Big, huge, glorious words!”   Point out especially dizzying words in the reading.  Share new words with your students that they won’t be assessed on, just words you have discovered and fallen in love with.   Have a Word of the Day calendar and use it.  Assign this as a job to a kid.  Start your day off with language, maybe challenge kids to use that word throughout the day.    Show kids how to use the online OED

New Teacher Series/ Question 8: How does a teacher organize attendance and make-up work?

I’m the worst person in the world to ask about attendance because our attendance clerk calls my room daily, screaming, “POST YOUR ATTENDANCE NOW!!”

When the kidlets bumble into the room and the energy starts rolling, I want to grab hold of all that great boo-yah and channel it with a great activity or conversation, and I just forget to take attendance. However, taking attendance accurately and consistently is one of the most important systems you need to develop, so I attempt to keep myself organized.

There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets and templates for tracking attendance on TeachersPayTeachers, and Pinterest has over 1000 boards of trackers. There are also great lesson plan books, such as those at Erin Condren, that come with absentee logs, personalized quotes, and fru-fru designs, but these can be quite expensive, and I like to spend my money on swank shoes.

While your school will require you to post attendance and grades in Infinite Campus, which is the student information system used by Kentucky, I prefer to have a hard-copy for everything in case a rogue nation-state destroys our power grid, and I need to know who hasn’t turned in Chapter 11 vocab words.  I’m old school, and while I am gradually moving toward the paperless universe, I still have six actual paper management strategies I use:

Attendance: I keep attendance in a large three-ring binder with tabs for each class.  In each divided tab, I place weekly rosters for each class with the student names down the first column and the date and day of the week across the top row.  There are approximately 36 weeks in a school year, so each week has a separate roster followed by a blank page for notes.  I like making notes for the future fourth-block me when I’ve forgotten my own name or where I’ve parked. At my school, tardiness is tracked through our office with a system called Tardy Table, but if you don’t have that system where you teach, you can also use your attendance log to track tardies as well and then deal with habitual tardiness according to your classroom policy.

Make-Up Work:  At the end of the day (i.e. before I forget what actually happened that day) I fill out make-up slips for students who were absent and place it in their student folders (see below.)  These 3×5 yellow forms are very simple.  They say: Hey, we missed you on _________________ (date).  This is what you missed:___________________ (description of activity/lesson/quiz/etc).  This make-up work is due on __________________ (date). When you turn this in, please staple this form to the front of your make-up work and drop it in the MAKE UP WORK box on top of the black filing cabinet.

Some teachers create a make-up work file for each class somewhere in their room, and it is the student’s responsibility to consult the wall calendar to see what was missed and retrieved the missed assignments from the file. Other teachers post everything on their website, and it’s the student’s responsibility to retrieve and complete it in a timely manner. You will develop your own system, but it’s important to have a system because otherwise, you’ll be standing in front of your class with five kids pestering you for make-up work while you’re trying to begin the next day’s lesson.  And invariably one of them will utter the ridiculous question: “Did we do anything important yesterday?” to which you should devise an answer for right now. My top three are: 1) No, the world stops spinning when you’re not here, 2) We sacrificed a goat and the gods of chaos showed up, or 3) Everyone in class got a $1000 from Oprah, but you had to be present to win.  Sorry.

Bathroom Passes: To reduce the amount of rambling around in the halls during class time, our school policy states that each student has four bathroom passes per class per semester.  That means all students who are in four classes a day (we are on block scheduling) would have 16 bathroom passes or 32 passes for the year in addition to the time between classes and the time going to and from lunch.  If a student needs to go to the bathroom more than this for a medical reason, she is issued a special permit.   To keep track of these passes, I created another large three-ring binder with rosters per class with four columns titled “Pass1, Pass2, Pass3, Pass4” and position it next to the hook where I hang the physical hall pass.  The students are responsible for recording the date of their bathroom pass, and I initial it. I check this often for shenanigans.

Student Work Folders: If someone hooks you up on DonorsChoose.org/teachers and agrees to finance your organizational dreams, you might be able to purchase student drawers or cubbies or mailboxes to file student work, but I have found that a hanging file folder crate (one per class) at less than $10 is a great investment.  Each student has a file with his/her name, and in this file, you can organize return papers, make-up work, parent notes, or school/district forms that need to be filled out.  You should also purchase an expandable file folder for student work you need to take home and grade.

Homework Trays:  The art teacher at my former school hooked me up with some fab storage bins that I’ve been using faithfully as homework trays, (Thank you Becky Banks!) but you could easily use the lids of copy paper boxes.  Just mark them according to class, example: ENG I- A2, ENG II – A3, ENG I – A4, etc. and establish a procedure within the first weeks of school for students to submit all homework and/or seatwork in that box. Remember, the efficiency of this system is designed to free up time for learning, discovery, and general educational merriment.

Substitute Binder:  This is a necessity for all classroom teachers.  Keep your sub folder up-to-date in case your own child projectile vomits across the breakfast table, and you have to call a sub an hour before school starts.  Make sure you include class rosters, a bell schedule, an attendance log, a map of your school, instructions on what to do in the event of a fire/tornado/earthquake/active shooter drill, important phone numbers like the front office, a list of your daily duties, such as bus/hall/bathroom duties, plus a set of emergency lesson plans for every class, and a list of students in every class that are trusted helpers.

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/Question 6: How regimented should I be during the first few days of school?

Regimented, as in organized, controlled, and on top of your game? Yes. Regimented as in mean, militaristic, and Machiavellian?  No, no, no.

There should be clear consequences of ignoring your classroom expectations, and you should be ready to address those during the first two weeks when students test your boundaries, but how you address those behaviors will set the tone of trust, respect and positivity for the rest of the year.

New teachers are often told “don’t smile until Christmas,” and several very successful teachers I know run their class like a boot camp until October, but ultimately, every teacher works out her management style through trial and error. Personally, I could not drive to a job every day for five months where I couldn’t smile.  And even though I can be very intimidating, I have zero drill sergeant skills, so boot camping is not an option for me.

My approach is more like, “I’m a professional teacher who wants to arm you with the tools for a better life and help you discover and respect your own mind.  I will expect nothing less than your best. I will honor that by bringing my best. I will not waste your time with busy work, but you will not waste my time with drama and trifling. In this class, we are about learning, as individuals and as a community.  I take my role very seriously, and you should know your role too.  You will be a better thinker, writer, reader, and human being for having been in my class.”

Think this to yourself every day.  Walk into that classroom with this disposition on your face.  Then make it happen. Exude positivity and confidence.  You can truly change their lives.  Believe that.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Connect with every kid that first week. This could be a home visit, a letter, or a call home just to say hello to her parents. Ask your bandies what instrument they play. Ask your ballers about their strengths. Ask your corner reader if she has read X; if she hasn’t, give her a copy to take home.  These small things state an important message to kids:   I see you. I see you as an individual.  I know you.  In high school, especially, kids can move through the day and never have a meaningful conversation with an adult if they don’t want to. Make sure every kid is on your radar every day.
  2. Greet kids by name, welcome them, and then immediately engage them. If you haven’t read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, you need to read it.  Wong suggests you stand at your door and welcome kids with smiles and instructions. They will be nervous that first day.  Be positive, be inviting.  Check out these step-by-step scripts for a smooth first day.
  3. Good idea – Always explain why a rule is a rule. Better idea – let the kids create the classroom norms. They will create seriously good rules, and there’s immediate buy-in because they’ve established their own boundaries.   Make sure kids see why the rules you (or they) have chosen serve the community. Make sure they understand how the rules protect and aid everyone.
  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. They’re watching you. Students want to know if you’re one of those teachers who has rules, but doesn’t really enforce them.  They’ll know this in two days.   Address every infraction in a calm, confident and firm manner.  Remember, you are the adult in the room. You don’t have to threaten, scream, or belittle kids; deal with everything explicitly, stating this is what you’re doing, this is the rule, this is what I expect.  And don’t wear everybody out with giving a dozen warnings. Act fairly and decisively.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  5. Make the consequence match the offense. The consequences should be established long before the rule is broken. Deal with small offenses in your classroom, and lean on your administrators for the big stuff. Don’t send kids to the office because they didn’t bring a pencil. And always be fair.  If your favorite kid in the class is breaking a rule, exact the same consequence as if another kid had broken it.  Then get back to the business of learning.
  6. Always be alert. You can sense a shift from positive to negative energy.  When you feel that shift, move quickly to bring things back in line with your lesson.  Step into a group, shift focus, crack a joke.   Every kid in that room is just as exhausted by drama as you are.  They want you to deal with the issue.
  7. Never create a show-down with a student. If you yell across the room at a kid for doing something, all heads swivel.  You’ve now put her in the position to either comply or tell you to go jump in the lake.  You can imagine which one she’ll choose.  Don’t ask kids to make choices like that; you will lose.   Move in close, address the offender quietly by name, tell her exactly how she can get back on task. State the offending behavior, state the correct behavior, give her an opportunity to change.
  8. Being prepared, professional, and positive will curb 95% of all classroom management issues. Being prepared will guarantee your students are engaged which cuts down on chicanery.   Sometime between now and when school starts, read Teach Like a Champion 2.0 , which offers 62 strategies for engaging students and maintaining high expectations.  The book also comes with a DVD with over 70 videos of real teachers using these strategies.
  9. Don’t let kids talk over you. I’m always surprised by how many teachers allow this. If I’m giving instructions or explaining something, I expect all kids to be listening. Do not tax them with long, boring lectures, but expect them to listen when you are speaking.   Deal with the offenders individually; don’t punish the whole class.
  10. Always be real, which sometimes means pretending you’re a better person than you really are. To paraphrase Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. Every teacher must know when to use the hammer and when to use the kid gloves. You need to be versatile and self-aware enough to tap into which persona the situation demands:  the magician, the healer, the listener, the guru, the crazy aunt, the wise sage, the storyteller, the performer, or the professional.  And at the center of all these multitudes is an authentic person who is honest and caring, led by an ethical vision that far exceeds whatever is educationally trendy.

 

 

 

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 4: What system do you use for planning?

On average, a new teacher hits her lesson planning and teaching stride during her third year.  Don’t despair.  It will feel like you are drowning, flailing to stay just two days ahead of the kids. This is normal.  It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It means you are a good teacher getting better to become great.

I’m a big picture planner, and even though I know daily what I’m shooting for (often called a learning objective or learning goal), I hate making rigid lesson plans.  If your plan is too exacting, it may leave no room for speeding up and slowing down, for the teachable moment or for the re-teachable moment.  An unexpected detour can often be the most productive part of the day.

Sometimes a lesson plan can be like a train you force your students to board. You’re the crazy engineer yelling, “We’re on this train, and no one’s getting off until the test!” That feels damaging to me because it doesn’t allow for student choice, intervention, or enrichment.

As a new teacher, every time I committed to some rigid plan, dragging the kids along with me, it failed.   Learning isn’t neat; it doesn’t often happen on a timeline, in a nice tidy box.  That’s both the reason you have a plan, and the reason you develop the versatility to abandon the plan for a better one.

Here’s a simple planning equation:  Know your standards + Know your students = Plan accordingly.  I know how irritatingly simple that sounds, but that’s basically it:    deeply understand the skill or concept you are teaching, then figure out what your students know and don’t know about that concept or skill through inquiry, then build a bridge between those two camps.

“Backward design” describes developing lessons based on the end goals or the desired results.   When teachers use backward design to develop curriculum, they start with the goals of their unit and work backwards to determine what lessons need to be mastered to achieve the goals. Share this term with students. Ask them how they might learn the content best. Start the unit by giving the students the unit test.  It’s not “teaching the test,” but teaching toward the test and allowing students to gain proficiencies as they master those standards.

Let’s say you are charged by the commissioner of education to teach kids how to make delicious mashed potatoes.  The standard states:  Students will produce savory mashed potatoes with a smooth, fluffy texture and a nice white-golden tone.

Here are ten tips for planning that:

  1. Know how to make mashed potatoes yourself. Teach yourself if necessary, but never attempt to teach a skill or concept that you don’t deeply understand.  Kids will figure out you’re a faker in about two minutes.
  2. Figure out exactly what your students know about taters. Create an assessment, either verbal or paper/pencil, that gives you some data about their prior knowledge and their mashed potato readiness.  There will be kids that don’t know the difference between a turnip and a tater while other kids already know how to make mashed potatoes while dancing the mashed potato. It’s your job to engage them all; welcome to public education.
  3. Tap into students’ prior knowledge and interests. This is important.  Students have to know why mashed potatoes are important to their lives. One cannot divorce the process of learning from the person who is learning, and if the plan does not address the learner, then even the best planned lesson will be useless.
  4. Break down the skill or concept into its smallest components and develop smaller lessons that lead students toward proficiency. This is a potato. This is butter. This is how you boil water.  Some kids will already know that, so you’ll need a different approach for them.
  5. Plan lessons that allow students multiple opportunities to apply the skill and practice. You will then create a new lesson (sometimes on the fly) to give feedback, reteach, ferret out misunderstandings, maybe reteach a third or fourth time. Give them as much practice as possible with feedback, not failure.
  6. Don’t absent-mindedly print a worksheet or an activity offline without understanding how it helps your students meet their goals.At the same time, don’t re-invent the wheel. Beg, borrow and steal all good lesson plans and tailor them for your kids.
  7. Don’t plan a lesson that you wouldn’t want to do yourself. Think of yourself as a teen in your class. Would this lesson make you want to hurl yourself out the window?
  8. Design lessons that hit multiple skills and concepts at once. Skills should not be taught in isolation.  One rich project-based assignment can hit dozens of standards.
  9. Some plans fail miserably; others succeed brilliantly. A lesson plan that worked fantastically first period will almost always fail after lunch. Be willing and able to abandon the plan mid-lesson and adapt on the fly.
  10. Struggle is good for students, but if you see students struggling to the point of frustration, stop everyone and say, “Hold up, what’s going on, why are you guys struggling with this?” You develop this intuition through failure, but don’t let that defeat you. The lesson plan is only as good as the reflection that follows it.

New Teacher Series/ Question 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was king.  If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war.  But luckily we live in an age of standards.  Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level.  For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.

These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom.  A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.

Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals.  This big picture is called a curriculum map.  The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on.  The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold:  so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year.  Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.

Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers.  Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.

Here are some more tips:

  • Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out.  The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you.  They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states.   They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
  • Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
  • Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know.  In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
  • Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own.  Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
  • Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional.  You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.

 

 

 

 

Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥