Analyzing Characters with WALTeR
- Grades: 6–8
One day, I was driving to school, pondering my frustration over the impending state test dates that were approaching, yet my students were still struggling with identifying specific details to support a character trait. It was apparent they needed another approach. They needed a mnemonic device to help them remember the type of details that would help them succeed, so I created WALTeR, a guide for identifying text-based relevant details that BEST support their claim. Walter needed to be memorable, someone they could visualize and remember. (Clip art created with ToonDoo.com by Mary Blow)
Who, or I should say what, is WALTeR? WALTeR is an acronym. Often, when students discuss characters, they can identify a trait: courageous, cowardly, rebellious, etc. However, they make general comments, neglecting the specific details needed to support their claim. Some students struggle because they don’t understand the concept of a specific, relevant detail. These students don’t take any notes because they don't which details are specific or relevant. Others think that every page is riddled with supporting details. Every class has at least a few of these students. They are the ones who highlight every word in every line. Both responses are understandable because identifying the BEST relevant details to support a claim requires higher level thinking, analyzing and evaluating. Download the Analyzing CHARACTER TRAITS with WALTeR, which is pictured to the right to remind students to focus on specific details related to character traits by suggesting details to look for:
- Character’s Words: What a characters says through dialogue and how he says it gives a clue to his personality. Is the character saying it in an angry, sarcastic, frustrated, or humorous tone? This adds meaning beyond the literal interpretation.
- Character’s Actions: How a character acts or behaves gives insight beyond their words. A character might say he is tough, but does he act tough? Why is he angry when his friends throw a surprise birthday party? Why does he hide when he sees his best friend approaching?
- Character’s Looks: Physical traits contribute to a person’s character. They sometimes create conflicts that must be overcome before there is a resolution. Identify outstanding physical traits that contribute to external or internal conflicts.
- Character’s Thoughts: Climb inside the character’s head. What is the character thinking? When an author invites you inside a character’s head, they are revealing something about the character: fears, dreams, goals, beliefs, etc. Pay attention to the character’s secret thoughts.
- Other Characters Respond: Other characters will react to the main character is a positive, negative or indifferent manner. When other characters respond in a dramatic manner, positive or negative, take notice.
Introduce WALTeR using shorter passages: fables, fairy tale, myths or a short story. Myths and fables are my favorite because the characters depict obvious traits. At this stage, we focus on identifying character traits and find text details to support the claim. Basically, we are forming a literary argument in its simplest form. If your students struggle with this stage, download a Character Traits List to help them identify the best traits to describe the character.
During literature circles, WALTeR guides group discussions. Students discuss how a single character changes over time, using sticky notes and/or a cluster diagram graphic organizer like one shown to the right . My more independent students often prefer the sticky notes. They mark their books, and when they are finished, they evaluate which details are strongest and organize and chunk the sticky notes into paragraphs. Tactile learners usually like this approach. Visual students may prefer to use the cluster diagram graphic organizer.
Holt has a great cluster diagram, it is the first one listed on their page of interactive graphic organizers. I like their resources because students can select a graphic organizer that best meets their needs.
Eventually, the task becomes more complex, and we compare and contrast characters from two or more pieces of literature. If you are tiering lessons, here is a higher level Compare Contrast matrix. I might fill out the first character trait, and the last, but leave the medial traits for students to fill in. I may provide the details for the first trait, so they have a model. After that, they are on their own. Independent students would get a blank sheet similar to the one to the right. Scholastic has a graphic organizer that offers a more guided approach. The same skills and information is required, but the amount of details are limited.
Originally, this activity is designed for fictional literature; however, it is also applicable to nonfiction literature. By the end of the year, we compare and contrast fictional characters to people from nonfiction articles and people in our lives. Whether fiction or nonfiction, literature circles allow students to engage in discussions that deepen their understanding of characters and people in our lives. The outcome for each group is participating in an online discussion forum analyzing and evaluating how a character changes throughout a novel. This gives my students a chance to participate in real life social networking experience. In addition, it addresses the new English Language Arts Common Core State Standards, preparing our students for college and careers.
When they finish reading, they select a character analysis project to share with the class. If you are looking for a good resource with teacher instructions and student handouts, check out Awesome Hands-on Activities for Teaching Literary Elements by Susan Van Zile, amongst other wonderful activities, Susan has included five fabulous character analysis activities. I considered the different multiple intelligences of my students when offering the following choices:
- Character Scrapbook (Scholastic online tool) Students create a digital scrapbook of a character, or they can design a hard copy version.
- Glogster Poster (free educational version) This sample poster explores plot. Students can adapt it to explore character development.
- Create a Profile (Mary Blow): Download a Microsoft Word template that students can use to design a fake social network profile based on a character.
- Character T-shirts Students design T-shirts based on the character in a novel.
- Character Portraits: Students draw a portrait of the character that portrays physical attributes and add a biographical summary that captures internal traits.
- Song or poem: Students write a song with multiple verses that depicts a character.
- Character Poem: Students who require more guidance can create a Bio Poem describing the character. Otherwise, they are free to capture their character in any form they choose.
- Prezi or Microsoft PowerPoint: Students create a multimedia presentation based on a character.
- Reader's Theater: Students use this Microsoft Word template to create a script based on an event that defines the character.
- Character Recipe: Students analyze recipes and design a recipe based on traits a character exhibits.
- Character Scrapbook Teacher’s Guide
- Character T-Shirt Lesson and Rubric (Scholastic)
- Character Sheet & Traits List from Graphic Organizers by Karen Bromley, Linda Irwin-De Vitis, and Marcia Modlo. This interactive PDF handout provides more guidance. Students can type into the document and save it.
- Character Traits is comprehensive and contains high level vocabulary from ReadWriteThink.org.
- Character Trait List is great for students who get overwhelmed with too many choices. This list is brief, but contains great vocabulary. (Scope, September 20, 2010)
- Glogster Poster Sample based on The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen created by Mary Blow
- Reader’s Theater
- What is Reader’s Theater? by Linda Cornwell (Scholastic): This article, directed toward teachers, defines Reader’s Theater and explains how to implement into the classroom.
- Resources for Reader’s Theater (Scholastic): This is a comprehensive list of Reader’s Theater resources and lesson plans.
- Reader’s Theater Sample based on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Scholastic , 1976); adapted by John Scovill.
Please add to the list of student choices by sharing your creative ideas below.