Building Characters for Maximum Student Engagement
At the end of last school year, I had the pleasure of reading another one of Ben Slavic’s excellent books called A Natural Approach to Stories. (A shout out to Mike Peto for recommending this book!) I had heard about One Word Images and the Invisibles, but I didn’t know much about either until I read this book. Now building characters is a mainstay of my classroom.
After reading the book, I couldn’t wait to try it out in my classroom. Yes, it was after spring break. Yes, both the kids and I were tired. And yes, it’s usually not a good thing to start something brand new at the end of the school year. But I went against all the rules and I’m glad that I did!
One of my students wrote in my yearbook that building characters was the best things he’s done in Spanish all year! 🙂One of my students wrote, 'Building characters was the best thing I've done in Spanish!' Click To Tweet
The idea of the Invisibles is not entirely new, but a rather innovative twist on something we have always done in TPRS—build characters. And what it does better than any other method of character-building, is actively engaging all students, not just the top or the middle ones, but also that lone kid in the back with his head down and eyes shut waiting for his phone to vibrate with a text message or the bell to ring, whichever comes first. And that’s what I LOVE about this technique. Ben along with Tina Hargaden have done some great work in developing this technique and making it good for kids.
Now, I know that I’m probably committing heresy, but I don’t build characters exactly the way Ben and Tina prescribe. I had to find what works in my classroom. And that’s one piece of advice that I have for you—you can’t be me, or Blaine, or Ben, or Tina. You have to be yourself and make different activities and techniques your own and put your own spin on them. You will be more real with your kids and they will acquire more as a result.
So what follows is how I adapted what Ben and Tina call the Invisibles for my classroom and my students. I simply call it building characters.
Creating the Character
First of all, I don’t create an invisible thing in my classroom. It didn’t go over well with my kids. They didn’t believe. But what we still did was have a class artist draw the images in secret until the big reveal. The kids loved that part and were always trying to sneak a peek.
No matter which level I was teaching (I teach levels 1 through 3 in middle school), I always started the same way. I would ask the kids to throw out some ideas in English (because they lacked the vocabulary in Spanish and it would have taken way longer to do in the target language) of what our character could be. The rules were it couldn’t be based off a real person or character, it had to be inclusive (it wasn’t going to be a butt of any jokes), and the best characters usually were inanimate things. The last rule was more of a suggestion, but the kids agreed that the inanimate objects made for the best characters.
Once we determined what our character was, I then transitioned into Spanish and asked some questions to establish the character in our world. I kept the questions simple and few so that when we got to the story part, we could expand upon the character as needed for the story. The four questions I usually would ask were:
- Was it big or small, tall or short, or fat or skinny? (We needed to know what it’s size was in order to draw it accurately)
- What color was it?
- Where did it live?
- What was it’s primary emotion? (This last one was KEY as you’ll see in a moment).
This is all we did the first day of our character. We established these four items. If there was a dispute, we voted as a class. If it was a tie, then we had a “class expert” who broke the tie. We would spend 20-30 minutes creating this character and at the end of the class, we would reveal what he looked like from our class artist’s drawing. The kids were really excited to see what they had created as a class.
End-of-Class Exit Ticket
At the end of class, I would leave 5-10 minutes for the kids to answer two questions in English:
- Why did the character feel the way they did?
- What was the characters deepest secret that no one else in the whole world knew?
Those were two poignant questions that led to the best stories that we would create the next day. I think these last two questions along with the team-work of building a character is what really heightened the engagement for my students. They couldn’t wait to come in the next day and find out what happens to our character.My students couldn't wait to come in the next day and find out what happens to our character. Click To Tweet
After class, I would collect these exit tickets, read them, choose a few of the best ones, and write them down on a piece of 8.5x11 paper. There would be a set for the reasons the character felt the way they did and another set for the secrets. When the students returned to class the next day, their warm-up was to read all of the options and vote for one reason and one secret by writing their name on the paper. I would tally them up and based on the votes. We now had two more facts about our characters. If there was a tie, I would pull the “class expert” up, read to him or her the tied votes and they would make the final decision.
By this time, the kids were beaming, waiting to hear what the class voted on. I can’t even describe the amount of excitement my kids had during these pre-activities. But I wasn’t going to reveal the vote just yet. Neither the class nor our character were ready.
So I start the next phase of the class, after our song, at the computer. I pull up a blank Google Doc, set the font to 24 and we begin to tell the story about our new character. I ask leading questions to set the scene of the character and as the kids answer, I write it down on the computer. Every third character, I would have my students write along with me in their composition books to get some spelling practice, but most of the time, they are just reading it as I write it.
I start by asking what was there. This has already been established, so the kids shout out the answer. To vary things up, I may ask a student rather than the whole class. We then begin to write down the description that we came up with the day before. Once we run out of the information we established prior, I then ask for a name. I ask for a name the same way every time. For whatever reason, this is a very personal thing for the kids and if you let it, it could take the whole period. I first ask the whole class and let them shout out a few names. I then ask five separate students for what their idea is. If there is a consensus, then that becomes the name. If not, we vote and if there is a tie, the “class expert” will break it. I don’t allow more than two or three minutes to come up with a name. We then add a few more details about the character, like their age, if they have a boy- or a girlfriend, what their favorite activity is, etc.
Once we’ve built this three-dimensional character on the page, we then transition to the problem of the story. This is where the answers the kids wrote down the day before come in. I ask the kids how does the character feel and of course, they respond with the feeling that was established yesterday. I then write in the target language, “Oh, no! Oh, no! There’s a problem!” And that’s where we insert the reason for their feeling. It almost always works well to use the reason for the feeling as the problem. In the off chance that it does not (this has not happened to me yet), you can use the secret, but I usually like to hold on to the secret for later in the story.
Now that we have a problem established, the action of the story can start, so now it’s time to get an actor. I ask for a volunteer and I usually have no shortage of choices. The students are so excited and so ready for this story, they are at the edge of their seats.
Now that we have our actor, our story can start and I follow the standard 3-act formula for a story:
- Act 1 – Establish problem.
- Act 2 – Attempt to solve problem, but fail.
- Act 3 – Solve problem.
Now, remember, we haven’t used the secret that the students voted on at the beginning of class and they don’t even know how the vote turned out yet.
I know the secret and I slide it into the story where it fits best. There’s no predetermined place and depending on the secret, you’ll know exactly where to insert it into the story. I always announce a secret with, “Class, so-and-so has a secret. They have a secret that no one else knows.” I never just announce it. I whisper it and I’ve trained my students when I whisper and mention a secret, they are all to lean in with their hand cupped around their ear so they can hear the secret better. I then reveal the secret and move along with the story.
Sometimes the secret creates a story within a story, and if that happens, I go with it.
All throughout this process, the actor(s) are still acting their parts as the story is created and once the story has finished, I then return to the computer and ask the students what happened as I write it down. And that gets us to the end of the second class.
Official Class Storybook and Character Gallery
What I like to do the next day after we finish a story is to work with the reading a bit. I will make a color copy of our character and put it back-to-back with the written version of our story and put that in a page protector which goes in the “Official Class Storybook” so kids can read it again during free voluntary reading. I take the original character picture along with another printed copy of the written version and post it up on our character gallery with the character on top and the story underneath on the wall.
What I don’t like to do is to re-read the same story with my kids. They often will get bored. So I often write a new story using some of the same structures that came up in our class story with the same character. I often, to save time and sanity, combine all of the characters from the various periods of the same level that I teach into one story. We’ll read that one together in class or I’ll have the students read it together in pairs and we’ll discuss it as a class.
And finally, once we are all done, with the oral story and the reading, I want my students to write something (this happens no earlier than November for level 1 and can happen anytime for the other levels).
I usually have my students write one of three scenarios:
- Tell what happened to the character before our class story began.
- Make up a new ending for our class story.
- Make up an original story starring our character.
This usually completes my lesson cycle.
I’ve been asking stories in my classroom since 2001 and every once in a while, I would get that fabled home-run story. It was never the norm and maybe only happened once or twice a year. But, I can honestly say, with building these class characters together, discovering why they feel the way they do and what their deepest secrets are, I have had more home-run stories than ever before. The level of engagement with my students is unprecedented, and the acquisition of language is off the charts.
Have you tried to build class characters in your classroom?
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