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Teaching Characterization With Short Stories

    teaching characterization with short stories

    Are you teaching characterization in your classroom? Short stories might just be the tool you need. Read this post to learn several tools, tips, and titles to make teaching this abstract concept more engaging and effective for students. 

    We all have characters we love – and hate – right? That, my friend, is the power of characterization. A skilled author uses direct and indirect characterization to paint a picture of who a character is, what they want, and how they feel. However, understanding characterization involves more higher-level thinking than one may assume.

    Yes, secondary students usually have a basic understanding of characterization. However, it’s time to move them toward a deeper understanding of characterization, how to recognize it in a text, and how to analyze it for deeper meaning.

    Whether you’re gearing up to teach characterization for the first time or are simply looking to refresh your approach, this post will review tools, tips, and titles to help. 

    Overcoming the Challenge of Teaching Characterization

    The biggest challenge of teaching characterization is that it is an abstract concept. Therefore, before you dive in, make sure your students have a solid understanding of how to make inferences in a text. This will help them build a foundation for understanding indirect characterization.

    Then, help students understand what characterization is and why it matters. Explain that characterization is crucial to making a story enjoyable, developing themes, and driving the plot. Once they grasp that, they can move on to learning how to identify and analyze characterization.

    Introducing types of characterization

    When teaching characterization, it’s imperative to explicitly explain the various ways authors convey information about their characters:

    • Direct characterization: The author explicitly tells the readers what they want us to know about the character by clearly stating details about the character.
    • Indirect characterization: the author shows who the character is through their speech, thoughts, motivations, actions, and interactions with others.

    From there, students will better understand what they should be looking for as they read. Additionally, developing a solid understanding of characterization will only help students when it comes to understanding other literary elements like theme, plot, and point of view.

    Teaching Characterization With Short Stories

    Short stories offer students a manageable chunk of text while offering complete character development. Additionally, due to their shorter nature, short stories tend to focus on one main character rather than several. Therefore, students can gain a clear understanding of the main character.

    While short stories contain great instances of indirect characterization, authors tend to be more clear and concise due to their limited length. Therefore, teaching characterization with short stories presents the right balance of achievability and challenge. Then, they will be more equipped and confident to think more deeply about texts of higher complexity and their more complex characters.

    The Best Short Stories for Teaching Characterization

    While short stories are a great teaching tool for characterization, not all short stories (and their characters) are created equal. Therefore, seeking out stories with strong, compelling characters is essential.

    While there are many stories out there that meet those standards, here are a few of my favorite titles for teaching characterization with short stories:

    1. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes

    As the story begins, Roger, a young teen, attempts to steal an older woman’s purse. However, readers quickly realize there is more to the woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, than meets the eye. Ultimately, Hughes surprises readers with an unexpected twist as Mrs. Jones showers Roger with care and generosity.

    Have students track both characters to analyze as individuals or compare to one another. By the end, they will be ready and eager to discuss the two characters and the interesting experience they share.

    2. “So What Are You Anyway” by Lawrence Hill

    The story follows young Carole as she is seated next to an older, presumably white couple on an airplane in the 1970s. The couple, Henry and Betty Norton, incessantly question Carol about her race. This leaves mixed-raced Carole confused and unsure how to answer, ultimately leading Henry to blurt out the question that gives the story its title: “So what are you anyway?”

    While there are strong examples of direct characterization, like Henry’s “sunburnt face,” this story is rich with indirect characterization. Students have to work to read between the lines to understand the tension between Carole’s innocence and the Norton’s overbearing arrogance.

    3. “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

    The story focuses on 12-year-old Merci as she and her brother tag along with their Papi for a painting job during summer vacation. Told through Merci’s point of view, students can track how her character is revealed by her words, thoughts, actions, and interactions with those around her.

    “Sol Painting, Inc.” does a fantastic job illustrating characterization as Merci’s understanding of her father and the sacrifices he’s made for his family develops with each page. Furthermore, students will have a lot to discuss when it comes to comparing the three main characters, each revealing as much about themselves as they do each other.

    4. “The Jacket” by Gary Soto

    Soto’s “The Jacket” is perfect for middle-grade readers learning or practicing characterization. While the story centers on the titular jacket, students will quickly realize that the piece of clothing is much more than a jacket. Instead, it’s a symbol of the narrator’s characterization and development.

    At first, the young narrator blames the “ugly” jacket for his misfortunes. However, as the narrator’s view of the jacket changes over time, students can track how that represents a change within the character and his self-identity.

    5. “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin

    The story follows Mrs. Sommers, the story’s protagonist, on a day away from her household duties as a mother and wife. As the only main character of the story, students can easily track her actions, thoughts, desires, motivations, and changes throughout the text. As students quickly realize, a day out shopping reveals a lot about her character.

    Have students track Mrs. Sommers’ change in character as the day progresses, and she succumbs to the allure of materialism. At the end, ask students to use what they’ve learned to decide if Mrs. Sommers is truly happy or not in her present situation.

    6. “American History” by Judith Ortiz Cofer

    Taking place on the day President JFK was assassinated, the story hardly focuses on the tragic piece of American history. Instead, the event serves more as a backdrop as the fourteen-year-old protagonist, Elena, struggles with her own tragedies.

    The story is rich with telling action and emotion, and there is much to pay attention to as Elena, a Puerto Rican immigrant, navigates issues of prejudice and belonging. Direct students to pay close attention to the interactions between Elena and others and how these interactions have a lasting impact on the young girl.

    More great titles for teaching characterization with short stories:

    Guiding Questions for Teaching Characterization with Short Stories

    One of the best tools for teaching characterization with short stories – or literature of any length – is providing students with guiding questions:

    • What is the character’s role in the story?
    • What are the character’s significant character traits?
    • How does the author describe the character?
    • What does the description reveal about the character?
    • What is the character motivated by?
    • How does the character respond to the action or event? 
    • What are their relationships with other characters in the story?
    • Does the character change throughout the story? How? Why? When?

    Providing students with these questions will help guide them to identify and make sense of direct and indirect characterization.

    Teaching Characterization With Short Stories Using S.T.E.A.L.

    The acronym S.T.E.A.L. is another effective tool for teaching characterization. Not only is it easy for students to remember, but it targets elements of both direct and indirect characterization. Consider providing students with a S.T.E.A.L. character tracker where they can answer the following questions as they read:

    • S: What does the character SAY, and what does that reveal about them?
    • T: What does the character THINK, and what does that reveal about them?
    • E: What EFFECT does the character have on others? Consider what their interactions with others reveal about them.
    • A: Consider the character’s ACTIONS. What do they do and what does it reveal about who they are?
    • L: What does the character LOOK like, and what does that reveal about them?
    steal characterization chart
    steal reference guide

    More Tips for Teaching Characterization with Short Stories

    • Begin with a fun introduction, like a Show, Don’t Tell warm-up activity to practice indirect characterization. Write several character traits on slips of paper and put them in a hat before having each student select one. Give students 10 minutes to write a scene that showcases a character with the said trait. Then, have students share as other students guess which trait their character possessed.
    • Promote the use of textual evidence. Some students struggle to draw the connection between what is explicitly stated and what is implied. Therefore, encourage the use of textual evidence through graphic organizers.
    • Ask plenty of follow-up questions. Again, students can struggle with implied characterization. Therefore, encourage confidence in their inferences by asking follow-up questions regarding what students know about a character.  A simple “how do you know?” or “why do you think that?” will do the trick.
    • Allow students to creatively express their understanding and analysis of characterization. Have your students create something to represent a character in a short story or a novel. They can create a character playlist with explanations of why each song represents a character. They can create a character collage, a one-pager, a character social media profile, or even write diary entries from their perspective.

    The more I think (and write) about it, there are tons of ways to make teaching characterization with short stories both engaging and effective. I hope this post gives you some inspiration and ideas to bring to your classroom. However, if you have any short story titles or teaching tips to add to the list, be sure to leave a comment below!

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