Lesson Plan Friday: Identifying Character Traits

Lesson Plan Friday @ The EnglishistI actually got the idea for this activity from The Bedford Introduction to Literature (10th edition) edited by Michael Meyer. One of the creative response assignment suggestions is to have students write an obituary for the character of Penny from the play Dead Right by Elaine Jarvik.

In order to have students complete the obituary and to understand both characters, I had them do this little activity, which I think I’m going to use to introduce/explore characterization from now on. This activity is much more effective than asking the students to “characterize” a specific character or to describe the character’s traits. It teaches them how, exactly, to do that and where they get the information to characterize the characters.

In the book, Dead Right is a short play that covers four pages. I assigned the students one of the four pages to read. I then broke down the activity in the following steps.

1. Write down the facts the audience is given about Penny and the facts the audience is given about Bill. (I remind them that facts cannot be argued. Some of my students also think that they can remember everything they read, so I tell them that they have to actually write the facts down.)

2. Now, write down how you would describe each of their personalities (in other words,  their character traits) and what words/quotes from the play help you characterize them that way.

3. Then, we went over the facts and character traits, starting with the facts about a character before moving onto their traits. I put the lists up on the projector. This was an excellent way to reinforce the difference between facts (or details) and character traits. While doing the facts, students would sometimes say that a character was, say, “self-centered” or “rude” and I was able to say, “Well, that can be argued, so you’re moving into character traits. We’re doing facts now. Hold onto that for a minute.”

4. During the character traits discussion, I would always ask what made them describe the character that particular way and, most of the time, they referred back to the facts on the board or details from their assigned page.

5. Once our discussion was over, they were assigned to write Penny’s obituary as she herself would write it or as her husband Bill would write it. (I assigned them to either Penny or Bill.)

That last bit is also a little bit of a test in reading comprehension since Penny says exactly how she wants her obituary written. I always ask my students to share if they’re willing. If they’re not, I ask them what they did, so we can discuss their choices and why they made those particular choices. Students usually think they just come up with details in their writing out of their heads, so I use those moments as an opportunity to show them how they use details from the text in their own writing or how the details from the text inform their writing.

As I said, though, this can be easily adapted for another play or with different characters. My plan is to use this activity (minus the obituary) with a short story. That should be particularly interesting because that story is told with a first-person narrator. We’ll see how it goes.

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This work by Akilah @ The Englishist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Lesson Plan Friday: Clothes and Character

Or costumes and character. Whichever is your pleasure.

Welcome to my new feature! I’m going to start blogging about teaching here since (a) I hate having two blogs and (b) academia is part of what makes me an Englishist. My plan is to post a lesson plan or assignment idea every other week.

I used this particular activity in my Writing about Literature class the Friday before spring break. My students and I didn’t feel like doing much work, so they (of course) opted for watching something. I told them we don’t just watch stuff for funsies. If we were going to watch something, they had to do some work. This activity could also easily be turned into a paper or short assignment to further explore character or used to discuss visual argument in a non-literature course.

I used the television show Parks & Recreation for this activity, but any TV show or movie will do. Our class meets for 50 minutes, so a 22-minute episode was the perfect length for watching and discussing. 

I have three lit classes, so I chose three different episodes of the show (one for each class). I used:

  • “Greg Pikitis” (Season 2, Episode 7)
  • “Ron & Tammy: Part Two” (Season 3, Episode 4)
  • “The Fight” (Season 3, Episode 13)

In order to do this lesson, students should already have a firm grasp on the literary elements, particularly plot, character, and setting. A familiarity with irony is also important.

Before watching the episode, I went over the purpose of costumes in drama. Students were then instructed to watch the episode, paying special attention to the characters’ clothing.

During our discussion we talked about how clothing related to character traits. Since the “Greg Pikitis” episode takes place on Halloween, we were also able to discuss what the Halloween costumes revealed about the characters.

Since Parks & Recreation mostly takes place in an office, we discussed how the characters felt about their jobs, what their duties might be, and how seriously they took their jobs based on their clothing. We were also able to explore what the clothing revealed about a character’s economic status.

We also talked about how clothing was related to the action of the plot (this can be done using the plot pyramid) and to the conflict. 

If I do the activity again, I will probably assign students to track a specific character throughout the episode to better focus their analysis. Since some characters feature more prominently than others, assigning specific characters will give students a chance to pay attention to the minor characters as well as the main characters.

A good companion activity would be for students to then take a character from a play and decide on a costume for him or her based on the text.

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This work by Akilah @ The Englishist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.