teaching idea: psychological character profiles

Right now my Provincial English students (English 12 upgrading) are reading Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce. We’re almost finished, but not everyone has read the entire book, so I am trying to do spoiler-free in-class activities that will help them with the literary analysis paper they’re currently writing.

I came across a very good lesson plan from ReadWriteThink that asks students to work in groups to create a psychological profile for a character from a novel. The novel in the lesson plan is To Kill A Mockingbird, but I found it easy to adapt to Through Black Spruce. It can easily be adapted to different course levels as well. The original assignment is intended to be done over several classes; I wanted something the students could work on for maybe 1.5 classes (approximately 2-2.5 hours of class time), so I shortened it.

Here is my adaptation, as I applied it to Through Black Spruce for an English 12 level course.

1. Ask students to free write for 2 minutes on the following question: “In Through Black Spruce, why does Annie decide to stay in the big city and search for her sister Suzanne?”

2. After the 2 minutes are up (I actually set a timer), students pair up and share their answers with each other.

3. Tell students they will be working in groups to create psychological character profiles for the characters Annie and Will.

4. Explain that they will be looking at factors that drive the character’s behaviour–why do they do the things they do? What are the characters’ motivations?

5. Brainstorm a list of possible factors that motivate people’s behaviour and write the list on the board so the students can refer to it later. Factors may include the following:

  • influence of society, family, friends
  • trauma: personal, generational, historical (I used the example of how slavery in the US has affected the Black population there to the present day, or how the children of Holocaust survivors have experienced secondhand trauma; the intention is for the students to remember our previous discussions of intergenerational effects of First Nations residential schools in Canada and how that would affect Will)
  • environment, both physical and social
  • physical traits
  • historical events (non-traumatic)

Once you have a list you’re satisfied with, move to the next step.

6. Explain that students will get into groups and choose one factor to create a psychological character profile for either Annie or Will.

7. Give each group an instruction sheet and a copy of the sample profile from the ReadWriteThink page (on Boo Radley). Highlight each section (i.e. factor, evidence paragraph, quotation plus paragraph explanation, symbol plus paragraph explanation). Emphasize that this is a writing exercise as well, and that group members must work together to craft their paragraphs until everyone is satisfied with the wording–it must be in full sentences, not point form.

8. Give each group a handout with selected symbols and definitions on it from the University of Michigan Symbol Dictionary Project (I chose the symbols air, alcohol, bear, birds, fire, forest, ice, island, journey, and water).

9. Students work on brainstorming ideas, writing out rough drafts of the paragraphs, and finally transferring their writing to a poster paper.

10. Each group presents their factor to the class.

I was impressed by how engaged the students were; they worked steadily and collaboratively throughout the class period. I would definitely do this again in future semesters! And I would try adapting it to other novels and other levels too.

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