Preparing to write: Two tricks for expanding students’ grasp of character

by Mr. Sheehy

I participated in theatre a bit in high school, not so much that I began down the road of marked skill, but enough to appreciate it and taste the thrill. One thing I recall is how similar the work of the actor is to the work of a good reader or writer. For example, my director for the one play I was cast in during high school asked us during a rehearsal to spend some time considering our characters and what they were like beyond the text we were performing. What were their homes like? Their bedrooms? What decorated the wall? What kinds of things did they do while there? To consider these questions we were required to make firm decisions about the character traits we were portraying on stage and to extend them into an unfamiliar arena. Using details unknown to the audience, we created a detectable depth of character.

I thought of that today while working through Aimee Buckner’s book, Notebook Know-How. I am undecided whether I will implement a writer’s notebook–I tend to think it not worthwhile to make 16-year olds who know they hate writing to pretend they are writers (especially considering that they are two years away from never having to write again unless forced to). In essence, it is this idea of pretending to be a professional writer that undergirds many notebook and writing workshop strategies–hence the myriad quotes of writers on writing that we use in those contexts. Annie Dillard’s scenario comes to mind again, as it often does: the student asks, could I too could be a writer? And the writer responds, “Well, I don’t know – do you like sentences?” Many of my students most assuredly do not  like sentences, and I am not foolish enough to think that in the time we have together I will convince them otherwise.

That said, I agree with Buckner that fluency in writing is important, and I agree that a writing notebook and workshop approach is one way to improve fluency, but I don’t think it’s the only way, so my approach to Buckner is more to look to what she does and glean ideas I can use in what I do.

With all that anti-workshop attitude out in the open, I should also point out that I like the way Buckner uses the writer’s notebook. For her classes, it is not a journal or draft-book, but a book of preparation and learning of strategies and skill. Thus, today I considered with her a handful of strategies for extending a topic, and the two I most appreciated rekindled the preparation techniques I used in that high school theater.

Favorite Collection

Favorite collection is one strategy I would like to use, both in writing pieces and as a general strategy for analyzing characters presented in literature. Essentially, Buckner’s idea here is to think of the collections a museum might put together to display the essence of a topic or person. If we had to put together a collection of our favorite and most significant items for display, what would give onlookers the fullest idea of who we are? A particular time I could see using this strategy would be when I ask my 9th graders to write their “coolest person” essay, where they write about a person who is particularly great. It is not a story, though I have had them turn it into that before, but it is about a person they know, and I think it would be helpful to create a list of the things that might be memorialized in that museum space. What do the items show about that person? In the end, I could see this exercise generating lots of particular details. I think it would also be helpful for my “Odysseus and Me” essay, as they could design a collection for Odysseus and in looking at those items they would see a pattern of what Odysseus is like.


The other strategy I would like to implement are interviews. These are particularly like the theatre strategy, as they require students to make the character talk outside the text that is being considered. Thus, interviews strike me as a helpful way of moving into uncharted areas and drawing out the things we don’t know. Through an interview question a student can easily realize what they don’t know about their character, especially if we design a batch of standard questions that we should be asking a character about him or herself. Once the lacuna is exposed, the student can address it, maybe through research, or maybe through further character development or analysis. Like with the favorites-collection, this strategy could be applied to the writing process or to literature analysis, giving it that flexibility that makes it worthwhile.

I have a note above my desk that asks me an important question: “What have you done today to improve your students’ writing?” I find that the NCLB data does not bring this question up much, and when it does, its focus is so strange as to be amusing. I therefore ask it of myself, urging myself to push my students, because even if they avoid writing for the rest of their lives, I want to ensure that the reason is initiative, not ability.

Thanks for reading.