Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

When Teachers Write: Strategies to Build Better Characters + 2 Free Resources!

I'm a HUGE Robin Williams fan. His rapid-fire comedy fascinates me, and I can't help but think that perhaps his synapses fired a little faster than the rest of ours. His visit to the Actor's Studio is one of my favorite recordings to revisit.  He takes a woman's scarf and riffs over 20 characterizations with it, like a scatting jazz artist. Every time I watch it, I can't help but wonder what kind of characters he would've created had he turned his attention to writing. 

Creating characters with students is so much fun.  The possibilities are endless. However, if we want our students to "go deep" with their characters, we need them to write with intention.  How do we get our writers to engage in that kind of thinking in writer's workshop?

Believe it or not, it happens in reader's workshop! As teachers of reading, we are so adept at talking about characters.  We compare and contrast them and make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections.  We pay attention to their actions and personalities to predict their next moves. We use their inner worlds to make inferences about their problems.  We often miss out on transformational discussions if we go no further than that. 

Think about reader's and writer's workshops as two hemispheres of the language arts brain.  The two hemispheres are connected by a corpus callosum. There must be talk that bridges the two workshops in order for students take their learning about characters into their writing.  The particular type of talk and thinking you do with your students about the author's writing acts as the corpus callosum between the two workshop hemispheres.  

For example, my students and I were reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson.  We were discussing the Jesse character.  As readers, my kids were drawing parallels between Jesse and Hollis Woods in Pictures of Hollis Woods. They noticed that both characters used their art as a way of connecting with others. Both characters were emotionally isolated.  Both characters transformed because of their artwork. This was good stuff. This was deep stuff. But, I wanted to go farther. I wanted them to think like writers. So I asked, "Why do you think Katharine Paterson and Patricia Reilly Giff give their characters their art props...their art habits? Why did they make those decisions?"

This type of questioning opened up our dialogue about author's craft.  Students began and then continued to notice the intentional decisions our authors were making.  This helped them make better reading predictions because they realized that there are no accidental happenings in stories.  "Katharine Paterson didn't just wake up one day and say, 'Hmmmm. I think I'll make Jesse an artist instead of a jock.'" I told them. 

When this type of  talk and thinking go on over the course of an entire school year, writer's workshop comes alive. The questioning you do in reader's workshop is like a massage for the language arts corpus callosum! One of the side effects of thinking like a writer in reader's workshop is that students will begin to apply that thinking to their own characters.  

You can see it when you hold writing conferences with your students.  Recently, I was conferring with a student about a fiction story he was writing.  He had created a "Captain Underpants" kind of character. Inwardly, I cringed a little.  It wasn't the depth of character I was hoping to encounter in my students' writing. But I kept an open mind. 

Me: So tell me about the thinking you're doing today as a writer.

Student: Well, I'm creating this superhero character. He's going to be a character who defends older brothers and sisters against their little brothers and sisters.  

Me: Tell me more.

Student:  In the scene I'm working on, the big brother and little brother are at the water park.  The little brother keeps giving the big brother wedgies in front of his friends.  

Me: So what does the superhero character do?

Student: He's going to swoop down and teach the little brother a lesson. 

Me: Like tell the parents?

Student: No. My superhero character wouldn't do that. 

Me: What do you mean? Why not?

Student: Superheroes are supposed to give out their own justice. They don't call the cops. 

Me (working hard to suppress a giggle): Ohhhh. I see what you mean. So what powers does your superhero have? How will he enact justice?

The writing conference continued.  When I look back on this, I notice something important. My student was being intentional. He was thinking about who his character was going to be and what actions made sense based on those rules. Even more impressive, he felt empowered to defend his writing decisions.

Check out some questions that can massage your students' corpus callosums below. If you click on the graphic, you'll find a downloadable version.

Teaching writing is not an easy task, especially when you don't view yourself as a writer.  But in order for your students to think like writers, there has to be a connection between the reading and writing workshops. The corpus callosum must be massaged...frequently!  Higher level questioning is just one way to help your students develop their characters. 

I've included a writer's notebook page for your students to use when writing and crafting new characters.  You can find a downloadable version by clicking on the chart below.

Next Wednesday, we'll be exploring setting and descriptive writing, as well as a new product that will help your writing conferences pop with power! Until then, write on!

If you missed last week's post, the start of this writing series, click here!

1 comment

  1. First of all, LOVE your blog. It looks amazing and so much fun. And I also love reading your post and I can see how much fun you had to write and create with your students. Thanks for sharing.