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Tips for Teaching Characterization Using Body Biographies

    tips for teaching characterization using body biographies

    Tired of the same old approach to character analysis? Try body biographies instead! Students must dig deep into characterization and work together to create a visual representation of a specific character. This post covers everything you need to know before assigning this engaging project.

    If you’re looking for a hands-on way to get your students engaged in character analysis, the body biography project is it. As much as I love teaching characterization, I wanted something more than just asking students to list character traits or the traditional essay. I wanted to find a something my students would always remember.

    Enter: Body biographies.

    With body biographies, you will inspire your students to think critically about characters and encourage them to synthesize their findings in a unique, creative way.

    Keep reading to learn all about my favorite teaching tool for character analysis. By the end, you’ll know what a body biography is and how to incorporate this engaging hands-on activity into your classroom.

    The Importance of Teaching Characterization

    You can’t teach literary analysis without teaching characterization. Not only do characters play a pivotal role in moving a plot forward, but they also provide a lens into the broader ideas presented in the text, encouraging readers to engage with diverse perspectives and experiences. As a result, readers can explore and understand the themes, conflicts, and deeper messages of a narrative more thoroughly. Understanding characterization on a deeper level allows readers to engage with the entire text on a deeper level, encouraging thinking critically, making inferences, and fostering empathy.

    Body biographies engage students in a fun, collaborative, and hands-on exploration of characterization, opening the door for them to learn more about themselves, others, and the world around them. (#Goals)

    What is a Body Biography?

    A body biography is a hands-on project that requires students to analyze and represent characters in a visual format. Rather than having students write yet another analysis essay, body biographies invite students on a creative, yet in-depth exploration of character. (That said, it can also be a wonderful activity to help students brainstorm before writing a more traditional character analysis essay.)

    This collaborative project involves coloring a large outline or silhouette of a character’s body and filling it with visual and symbolic representations, textual evidence, and annotations that help unpack different aspects of the character’s identity. Students must dig into a text to determine a character’s personality traits, speech, thoughts, actions, and interactions. They will find supporting textual evidence to back their analysis, enriching their overall comprehension of the literature. Therefore, the project goes beyond your typical character analysis activity by encouraging students to engage with characters on a more complex level by integrating textual analysis with creative artistic expression.

    As an added bonus, body biographies are designed as a group project, engaging students in important 21st-century skills like collaboration and communication.

    How do Body Biographies Help Students Analyze Characterization?

    Body biographies offer students a holistic approach to character analysis by encouraging them to explore various dimensions of a character’s identity, including physical appearance, personality traits, challenges, goals, relationships, and significant events in their lives.

    So, yes, body biographies are a fun way to illustrate a character’s literal looks, but they’re so much more than that. The visual element of the body biography encourages students to explore visually symbolic representations of characters as well. Students must look at the text closely, digging into any narrative descriptions, thoughts, actions, and interactions of their chosen character. As a result, students gain a deeper understanding of how different aspects of characterization interact and shape the character’s development and role within the narrative.

    Examples from literature

    Looking for some examples to help you understand how body biographies can help students explore characterization? I’ve got you. Here are a few body biography analysis ideas from some of my favorite novels to teach:

    • The Giver by Lois Lowry: Students can create body biographies for the protagonist, Jonas, to explore his journey from conformity to individuality. Consider how they may depict his physical appearance, personality traits, emotions, and significant memories or experiences as he learns more about the past, present, and future of the world around him (and his place in it).
    • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Students can create body biographies for Jay Gatsby, exploring his mysterious past, ambitious aspirations, and illusions of the American Dream. There are so many fun, creative ways they could represent his extravagant lifestyle and hopeless romanticism, as well as the symbolic nature of the green light across the bay.
    • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Students can create body biographies for Ebenezer Scrooge, highlighting his transformation from a miserly and cold-hearted businessman to a compassionate and generous individual. There is plenty to pull from his interactions with various characters, including Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and the three Ghosts.

    A Step-by-Step Approach to Body Biographies

    Here are the basic steps for setting your students up for success with the body biography character analysis project:

    • Group Students for Collaboration: Divide students into small groups of 2-4 students, allowing them to collaborate and share responsibility. 
    • Be Clear with Expectations: As with any creative project, it’s important to provide clear instructions and expectations for your students. Review the directions, objectives, and assessment criteria (including any rubrics) for this project.
    • Show Examples: Show your students examples of completed body biographies to help students grasp what the final project will look like. This will also allow students to visualize and understand the project expectations. You can find plenty of examples online if you’re just getting started!

    The Outsiders Body Biography Project

    • Assign Characters: Depending on the novel, you can decide if you want every group to analyze different characters or the same character. If the latter, be sure to take time at the end for the groups to discuss the similarities and differences between their analysis.
    • Start with Brainstorming: The character analysis project is certainly fun—but may be overwhelming if students try to jump right in. Instead, scaffold the activity by giving students time to gather their thoughts and find strong supporting textual evidence.
    • Schedule Enough In-Class Time: Plan enough in-class time for students to work on this collaborative project. I recommend at least three days, from start to finish. You may decide to add another day for a gallery walk or an engaging discussion.

    More tips for making the most of a body biography project:

    Here are additional tips for a fun, engaging, and successful body biography character analysis:

    • Select Appropriate Texts: Technically body biographies can work for almost any novel or short story. However, students will be most successful if the text features complex characters with a lot of details to analyze.
    • Scaffold the Activity: Break down the creation of body biographies into manageable steps, providing templates, graphic organizers, and guiding questions to support students’ understanding.
    • Encourage Creativity: Foster creativity and individual expression by allowing students to choose how they represent different aspects of the character visually, whether through symbolic or literal drawings, collages, or mixed media.
    • Incorporate Textual Evidence: Make the most of this activity by requiring students to select key quotes or passages that reveal aspects of the character’s identity and back up their creative interpretations. Students can annotate the body biography with these excerpts or supplement their visual with a page of written explanations.
    • Facilitate Discussion: Body biographies are a perfect springboard for class discussions about characters. Before, during, or after the activity, facilitate classroom discussions where students can share their character interpretations and insights.
    • Connect to Writing: Looking for an extension activity? Integrate body biographies with writing activities such as character analysis essays or creative writing assignments that require students to further reflect on their understanding of the character.
    • Display the Final Products: Whether you opt to do a gallery walk, have students present their projects, or simply hang the posters around the room, give students a chance to showcase their hard work.

    What to Include in a Body Biography:

    Before your students can create a body biography visual, they have to do some investigating and character analysis first. That means diving into the text and looking for specific examples, descriptions, and instances of direct and indirect characterization.

    Here are some of the traditional elements to consider as students plan for their body biography:

    • Physical Appearance: Find descriptions of the character’s appearance, including features such as age, hair color, eye color, height, and clothing style.
    • Personality Traits: Determine adjectives or descriptive phrases that capture the character’s personality traits. These may be mentioned directly or inferred.
    • Actions: Analyze how what the character does reveals their personality, emotions, and motivations. 
    • Inner Thoughts and Emotions: Find quotes or textual evidence that reveal the character’s inner thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires.
    • Motivations and Goals: Explore what drives the character’s actions and decisions, including their long-term goals or aspirations.
    • Relationships: Look for details in their relationships and interactions with other characters in the story.
    • Challenges and Conflicts: Identifying moments of internal conflict, struggles against external forces, or moral dilemmas, and how they respond to them, can say a lot about a character.
    • Significant Events: Add annotations or symbols representing key events or experiences in the character’s life that shape their development or influence their actions.

    In the body biography projects I like to use, I incorporate supplementary elements that I require my students to analyze, as they are integral components for practicing characterization. These alternative/additional elements include:

    • Speech: Find a direct quote that showcases a personality trait from a certain character. What a character says and the manner in which they speak can tell readers a lot about that character. For example, it can reveal how educated they are, how they treat others, or what they consider to be important.
    • Dynamic or Static: Dynamic characters are those who undergo significant changes, growth, or development over the course of a story. Static characters remain relatively unchanged throughout the story. Recognizing dynamic or static characters allows students to appreciate the complexity of narrative arcs and the transformative journeys characters undergo.
    • Effect on Others: It’s important to consider what other characters say or think about a character. By analyzing how characters influence and interact with one another, students gain insights into the complexities of relationships, power dynamics, and societal structures depicted in literature. Understanding these effects fosters empathy and critical thinking skills as students consider the ripple effects of characters’ decisions on the plot and other characters.
    • Flat or Round: Flat characters are one-dimensional and lack complexity. Round characters demonstrate a range of traits, emotions, and experiences that make them more realistic and relatable. Students will decipher between flat and round characters and explore why authors incorporate both minor and major characters into a story. This will help them understand how each character individually adds depth to the plot.
    • Passions: By examining characters’ passions, students will gather valuable insight into their motivations, desires, and values. Review what is important to each character and what drives them to make certain choices.

    My complete body biography character analysis project includes a brainstorming worksheet to help students analyze various aspects of the character. The worksheet guides students through an in-depth character analysis backed by textual evidence.

    How Do I Grade a Body Biography?

    Grading any sort of creative assignment can be tricky–especially if it involves group work. It’s important that you don’t grade the body biography as if it were an essay. Instead, consider the needs and requirements of this particular project, including appearance, participation, cooperation, and attention to detail. Of course, you also want to assess students on their analysis of the character, including providing supportive evidence from the novel.

    I’ve always preferred using an easy-to-follow rubric for my students’ body biographies. To make life easier for you, I’ve included the exact rubric I’ve used in my character analysis body biography project.

    Enjoy This Creative Twist on Character Analysis

    Not only will you enjoy shaking up your approach to character analysis with the body biography project, but I guarantee your students will, too. This hands-on project engages students in a dynamic (and, dare I say fun!?) approach to character analysis while promoting creativity and collaboration. As students combine classic textual analysis with creative visual representation, they must rely on critical thinking, interpretation, and innovation. In the end, they will develop a deeper understanding of the novel, its characters, and the overall complexities of human nature.

    Ready to transform the way you approach characterization in your classroom? Access my character analysis poster template perfect for any novel or short story!

    Psst… I encourage you to pass this project along! The activity requirements and expectations can be adjusted to make this project suitable for students of various ages and disciplines—so feel free to share this engaging hands-on activity with all your teacher friends!

    Next up? Consider giving the collaborative author biography poster project a try!

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