Character Development, or, Atwell is My Homegirl

As we were so consumed with The Outsiders. . . and with finishing it before break, writing workshop time decreased. We're kicking into full swing when we come back.

For our Short Story unit, I'm sticking with the pro--Nancie Atwell (you wouldn't have guessed)--and leaning heavily on her craft lessons from Lessons That Change Writers. As a new teacher, I've found Lessons. . . to be one of the best investments if not the single best investment in a teaching resource. I can't think of another source I would rather lean on. Anyhow, We've already done Character Questionnaires and some rudimentary exercises in getting to know our characters--basic physical description via an imitation of a passage from The Outsiders; dialogue-response from character perspective using prompts; explorations of how we would want our characters to act in certain scenarios. In these next couple weeks, we're going to continue to focus heavily on character considerations, closely examine short story structure, play with our leads, add thoughts and feelings, and draft, draft, draft!

We'll be looking at mentor short story texts in order to think about how to accomplish some of craft lessons on which mini-lessons will focus. For my mini-lesson on ways to develop a character, I was thinking carefully about how I could demonstrate the concepts of the lesson without having my students read another whole short story. Of course, the next logical solution came to mind--a children's book. Before I get into which text I chose, below is a condensed and shortened list of Ways to Develop a Character, straight from Lesson #33 in Atwell's Lessons. . . The following categories connect to and parallel the 5 methods of characterization I introduced my students to in order to examine craft in The Outsiders. Basic, perhaps, but helpful and direct nonetheless, the 5 methods are: What a Character Says, Looks Like, Does (Actions), Thinks and What Others Say and Think about the Character.

Here is the Atwell list of Ways to Develop a Character:

-Reflection: Show what your character is thinking and feeling

-Dialogue: Get your character talking as a way to reveal himself or herself

-Actions: Get your character up and moving around, doing things both little and big that show what he or she is like

-Flashback: Recall events from the past that show why your character is behaving as he or she does today

-Reaction: Show how your character responds to actions, words, ideas, of others

-Other Characters: Compare and contrast your character's actions, reactions, beliefs, values with those of others. . .

-Quirks: Imagine the habits, interests, skills, hobbies, goals, fears, tastes and preferences, daydreams, and nightmares that will flesh out your character. . .

-Intimate Setting: Create your character's bedroom and fill it with the stuff of his or her life that reveals parts of the past and present

-Beloved Object or Pet: Give your character something to love that reveals his or her private self. . .

Maybe I should say I thought long and hard about some of my favorite children's book characters. But that would be deceptive, because when I thought about well-developed and dynamic characters, there was one children's book character that sprung to mind immediately. I think you'll agree that she serves as a fine example of a developed character. Behold:

Olivia. Pretentious, curious, brave--brazen maybe--easily annoyed at times, hilariously lovable and loving. Intelligent. Olivia! She's perfect.

We'll be reading the original Olivia and Olivia. . . And the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer in order to facilitate our discussion of how to develop characters in short texts. Of course Olivia doesn't fit each and every category listed on our notes, but the books come pretty damn close and I think Falconer's books will serve as excellent mentor texts for thinking about how to do exactly what Atwell so eloquently recommends: "Don't imagine that you can come back later and scatter some thoughts and feelings, or give your character a sense of humor, a past, a daydream, an attitude, a yearning, a personality, after the fact. Invest right from the start in details of characters: collect a person."

What fun! And don't even think about rolling your eyes. Eighth graders turn into instant second graders when a read-aloud rolls around.

On the back boiler: E.Q.'s for our next class novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Just finished it. Whew. Lots to think about. Lots.


Mrs. V said...

I am so glad that you mentioned this Atwell resource. I had been looking at her poetry resource that you had mentioned before just this week. I was torn between getting just the poetry or the bundle with the poetry and the writing workshop resource you mention on this post. Now I know that they are both worthwhile. I will go for the bundle!

When will you start The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? I have not read it before, but I heard it was great. Hmm...one more book to add to my to-read list!

teach people not books said...

yeah it's such a no-nonsense resource. very direct. i don't use her language exactly because it feels unnatural to script what i say--and i don't mean to imply that she even suggests that the teacher use her language. but i do adapt her words to my style and it's so helpful to have them there as a starting point, which i think is her intent.

we will be starting the boy in the striped pajamas probably the 3rd week of january. it was a good book. i appreciated the way the narrator told things through the eyes of a young boy. i'm going to review it soon; i'm sorta just letting it sink in right now, mulling it over.

SSCaldwell said...

I love that you're using young children's literature. I know lots of people think that "picture" books are for kids, but a lot of them aren't. A lot of them are to be read aloud. And everyone loves to be read to. Do you have them sit on the carpet?

teach people not books said...

hi, ss--good to see you!

i'm actually going to do that lesson with olivia for an observation. i'm pretty excited about it. we have a reading corner :]

no carpet yet, though. have to spend my own $ on it, so it's been postponed. . .

Mrs. V said...

I asked my director if there was any funding for the Atwell bundle (I figured it was worth a try before spending my own money on it), and I was in luck. She is going to order it for me. I am excited about using some components this year, but even more excited to use it from the start of the year next year.

I am like you, I don't like to read scripts, but it is nice to have suggestions. I would assume that is Atwell's intent too. She doesn't strike me as an advocate of scripted instruction:)

teach people not books said...

that's awesome! i'm so happy for you. that's right, it never hurts to ask. i'm so glad you'll be getting the materials through school. if it's for the district and not just you, be sure to make binder copies of the complete set!