Helping students analyze texts
Higher levels of critical analysis writing require students to think across texts and authors. Often this practice requires an ability to put aside author style momentarily in order to get to the bottom of how an author has developed a character.
While writing style, pacing, and many other elements of fiction should not be overlooked, there are times when a more perfunctory means of gathering evidence is very helpful for students who are developing analytical skills.
We never want to turn critical thinking into a series of perfunctory tasks; agreed. At the same time, step-by-step scaffolding can definitely help struggling readers and writers internalize some processes that can become very helpful. Consider how a database of characters might have a place in the classroom.
- Find a way to collect information on characters.
Depending on the resources available to your students, this system may be as simple as chart paper on the wall. If you have the option, a Google sheet or a shared Excel spreadsheet would be much more efficient for later use. If you have the option for a Google Form with drop-down menus, that tool would provide an easy way for students to complete this exercise.
- Clearly identify what types of characters will be the focus of this data collection, and give each type a label.
- Tertiary Character
- Archetypal Character
Your list may look very different, but these are suggestions based on overarching character ideas. Depending on where your students are in the study of the literature, this list can become more or less complex. For instance, if readings have focused on moves of a main character through multiple challenges in adolescence, then readers are likely focusing on protagonists and antagonists. They may be looking for those characteristics that classify each type of character.
- Use descriptors that are generally accepted for the types of characters being studied. Make a list of common adjectives that students can select and assign to specific characters.
- Kind and caring
- Determine the evidences that are important in supporting the descriptions selected.
- Author description
- Actions, thoughts, or words of other characters
- Actions, thoughts, or words of the character
Keep these categories broad so that students have opportunity to seek evidence without being hindered by a label. Encourage them to think broadly about how they have decided a character is creative or jealous. Allow them to connect ideas across the text, and then they can label the type of evidence they will cite.
- Include a space for students to record page numbers and cite text.
It is important that this exercise focuses on very specific wording from the text. Students should be given time to dialogue about language and how the words a writer has used may have led the reader to draw conclusions about a character.
The spreadsheet might look something like this as students are collecting information:
How to use the evidences collected
After reading multiple pieces of literature, begin sorting and filtering the evidences for each type of character. Using a Google or Excel spreadsheet comes in very handy in this part of the cross-textual analysis.
- Filter the information by character type
- Sort by characteristics
- Use recorded evidences to dialogue about how each author developed a character by using:
- Other characters
- Actions, thoughts, etc., of the character
By creating a bank of author moves around character development, students are developing multiple skills at one time. They are learning about writing techniques, learning denotation and connotation of language, identifying common story elements that authors use to develop characters, and supporting their own ideas with specific evidences.
This type of skill development requires space for dialogue and reflection. Without these offerings in a safe environment, this work could indeed remain perfunctory. That is not the goal.
As the log of information grows, students students should make their critical thinking visible. They need to be encouraged to think across texts and begin connecting the dots of what good writers do. The database might even come in handy in developing a classroom character that students create collaboratively!
Get creative and enjoy with work your students.