3 Engaging Ideas for Teaching Characterization to High School Students

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Teaching characterization is often one of the first, if not the first, things we do before starting a new short story or novel unit. The ability to understand a character’s motivations helps students understand their actions and the way these characters drive the plot. And it helps us as readers relate to the characters. Who are they? Why do they make the choices they make? How do they impact the overall story? 

 

Keep reading for engaging characterization activities to use before and during reading. 

Pre-Reading Characterization activities

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Teaching Characterization with Short Films 

One of my favorite activities for teaching characterization was always to use short films, such as those produced by Pixar. (Bonus: a lot of these films also double as an introduction to other literary devices such as irony, symbolism, and more). 

 

  • Geri’s Game : A short film about an old man playing chess against himself. Ask students to discuss the man’s mental state? Is he an out-of-the-box thinker, devising a creative solution to being alone? Or is he senile? Take it a step further and discuss the thematic meaning of the film. 
  • Lifted : An alien abduction gone wrong. The student alien tries – and miserably fails – to abduct a human. The result is a spaceship-sized crater with a man, still asleep in his bed, in the middle of it. Use this film to discuss the character archetype of mentor/mentee.
    • What are the character traits of the mentor alien? Of the student? 
    • How does the mentor influence/impact the actions of the student? 
    • How do these interactions relate to the theme? 
  • Mike’s New Car : Many students are already familiar with Mike and Sully from the Monsters Inc. franchise. Compare and contrast the reactions of the two friendly and lovable monsters as they attempt to learn the ins and outs of Mike’s new car.
  • Piper: Follow an adorable young sandpiper as she goes on a shell-hunting journey. Discuss how her character changes and what other elements around her (setting, other characters, etc.) contribute to this change. 
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During Reading Characterization Activities

Once students have a grasp of direct and indirect characterization and have practiced identifying both in short films, it’s time to dive into the text. Tracking characterization during reading is especially helpful for longer texts, such as plays or novels, but it can be just as valuable during shorter texts. 

Graphic Organizers and Visuals 

Graphic organizers have been the go-to for ages, and with good reason. The visual layout helps students with the head-to-print connection that so many of our students struggle with. 

You can approach this one of two ways: 

  1. Traditional graphic organizers: standard chart where a student provides textual evidence of direct characterization and the aspects of indirect characterization (STEAL). Effective, but not necessarily highly engaging. 
  2. Visual character analysis: Many of our students today are visual learners; they consume content through pictures and videos way more than text. Why not lean into that? 

I used this method while teaching Nadine Gordimer’s “Once Upon a Time”, and got great engagement from even the most reluctant students. Each student was assigned a character: the mom, the dad, the son, or the maid and gardener (the last two were combined because of their limited appearance). As we read, each student was responsible for finding evidence of the following: 

    • What thoughts were circling the character’s head? 
    • Memorable quote or important comment
    • What does the character need to hold on to? 
    • How does the character view the world? 
    • What burden does the character carry? What does he/she worry about? 
    • What does the character care most about? 

I recently created something similar for my “The Cask of Amontillado” Unit but switched up the visuals to make it a little more appealing. 

You can focus on basic direct and indirect characterization and quotes with this method too: just add some fun boxes or frames, a character outline, etc. 

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Character analysis flip books

Another engaging characterization activity is flip books. You can create whole-sheet flipbooks or mini ones (these are perfect for classes that use interactive notebooks). 

Each character in the story gets his or her own tab/flap. Within these tabs, students can track whatever elements you want them to focus on. 

I’ve used this template to create character analysis mini flip books for Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Great Gatsby. I like to focus on the following for each character:  

    • Background information (this helps explain their actions) 
    • Quote analysis: one important quote and how it impacts the text Theme: how the character helps develop the theme 
    • Characterization: provide textual evidence for direct and indirect characterization
    • Static or Dynamic? Round or Flat?: Choose and provide an explanation 

These flip books could also be used after reading the text. Assign each student or group a character, then have them “teach” their character to their peers. 

short stories for teaching characterization

  1. “Marigolds”: This coming-of-age story resonates with high school students because the protagonist, Lizabeth, is a young teenager. In the text, Lizabeth handles the harsh realities of her life (being poor, her father’s limited work) by taking out her frustrations on the marigolds of the neighborhood recluse, only to later realize the impact of her actions on the woman. The story can lead to discussions of the transition from childhood to adulthood, the impact of our actions on others, and the consequences of rash decisions. 
  2.  “The Scarlet Ibis” Another coming-of-age story. The narrator (who remains nameless) longs desperately for a younger brother that he can play with; what he gets is a brother who is mentally and physically handicapped. The story traces the narrator’s relationship with his brother, nicknamed Doodle. It also contains one of my favorite last lines of any text. This story lends itself to discussions of sibling relationships. It’s also full of imagery and symbolism.
  3. “The Story of an Hour”: Short but powerful, Kate Chopin’s short story traces a woman’s reaction to learning of her husband’s death. Discuss the impact of Chopin’s choice of time frame (the whole thing takes place in a hour, hence the title) and what the text says about women during the time period in which it was written (1894).
  4. “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Another story centered around a woman protagonist – this time, one who is locked up in an old nursery to recover from some unnamed illness. This story also lends itself well to a discussion about the treatment of women in the 19th century (it was published in 1892) as well as questions of sanity.
  5. Pretty much anything but Edgar Allan Poe: The man was a master of unreliable narrators and slightly unhinged protagonists.  

So there you have it. Some of my favorite characterization activities for high school. 

 

Comment below and let me know your favorite activities for teaching characterization. 

 

Looking for an engaging way to study not only characterization in a short story but also plot, theme, and more? Subscribe below and receive your FREE short story analysis mini flip book 🙂 

 

Interested in some no-prep resources? Check out these short stories for teaching characterization. 

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