Developing Big Ideas About Characters

As an upper elementary school teacher, a lot of the work we do in reading fiction books is developing big ideas about the characters. This is something I have to model continuously through read alouds and then provide a lot of guidance with during small group and individual conferences.

Here’s how it works. As you are reading a book or even a short story, you are having ideas about who the character is as a person. It’s important to jot down those ideas so that you can add to or revise them as you continue to read. Sometimes you realize that the character is in fact changing. Perhaps at first he was self-centered but now he is learning to consider the feelings of others more readily. Noticing character change helps reveal the bigger theme or lesson of the story, but alas that’s for another post. Other times, you realize that maybe your initial impression wasn’t that exact. Maybe the character isn’t self-centered, maybe he’s actually insecure. As your ideas about a character evolve, it’s important to support your thinking with details from the text. At the end of the book, you can pull together all of the different ideas or noticings that you had about one character and then come up with at least one character theory.

My 4th grade colleagues and I decided to teach into this using a picture book read aloud. They recommended Fox by Margaret Wild.

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One day, Dog rescues Magpie, who has a burnt wing. Magpie is devastated and wants to be left alone, she imagines that a life without flying will be impossible. However, Dog is a loyal friend who invites Magpie to ride on his back. He assures her that it will be close to flying. From that day on, Dog and Magpie live a peaceful and harmonious life together. That is until one day the sneaky Fox arrives. Fox is envious of the friendship between Dog and Magpie. He convinces Magpie to go for a ride on his back, assuring her it will be even more like flying. At first she resists, but eventually poor Magpie is persuaded.

As I read this story to my 4th grade class, I had an absolutely captivated audience. Every few pages I asked them to turn and talk or stop and jot their response to the following prompt, “What big ideas are you having about _____ now? What character trait words would you use to describe _______? Use details from the text to support your idea.” Later on in the story I invited them to add to or revise their ideas. It was very important to model this because I have been noticing that most of my readers are content naming one character trait per character and one example from the text per book and then never revisiting this.

This read aloud was perfect for this purpose! The students had so much to say about the characters and about how their ideas changed over the course of the book. They captured all of this in their reading notebooks. At the very end, we came together and explored a little bit of character theory work, but for me the most important part was having them consider the character multiple times.

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