Not too long ago, I finally watched the musical Hamilton, which all my friends had been raving about. Like them, I was strongly moved by the production’s music, dance, and costumes. But even more, I was drawn into the fascinating storyline, which details the struggles and triumphs of one of our nation’s most influential founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
However, as I was viewing, I couldn’t help thinking, “What about Eliza?” Elizabeth Hamilton, Alexander’s wife, plays a role in the musical, but the audience sees the events mostly from Alexander’s point of view.
But what about Eliza?
Once the musical ended, I just had to know more about Eliza and how she experienced the tumultuous events of this time period, like attacks on her home and fledgling country, the deaths of her loved ones, and her struggle to memorialize her husband. I ended up finding the book My Dear Hamilton, by historical writers Stephanie Dray and Laurie Kamoie. In it, I was able to read about the same events highlighted in the musical, but this time through the perspective not of Hamilton, but of his wife. It was eye opening to say the least.
Stories can teach our students a lot of things: facts, vocabulary words, comprehension skills, etc. But importantly, they also teach readers about perspective, and how a person’s point of view colors and shapes a story.
We decided to capitalize on this concept while writing lessons for the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes.
Teaching “Flowers for Algernon”
We asked ourselves, “How can we help students consider characters beyond Charlie? How are others affected by this experiment and his changes? What are they going through?”
This is when we created a character journal activity for students to participate in. In our experience, young readers love the challenge of seeing a story from another’s perspective.
The great part is that character journals can be used for most short stories or novels. If you’re looking to add this technique to your own unit, here are the steps we recommend to make your activity as effective as possible.
As you are creating your lesson, plan ahead in order to provide a smooth, comprehensible task for students. Here are some questions to consider when writing out the directions of your activity.
- Which characters lend themselves well to a character journal? We highly recommend giving students a choice, if possible. Choice almost always increases engagement and interest, no matter the activity. But don’t direct students to just pick any character; provide a list of characters that are given enough detail for students to work with. While character journals are fictional, students will need to justify the choices they make. This means they will need some details from the text to work with.
- How many entries do I want students to write, and how will I spread them out? The number of entries will depend on the length of your text, as well as the time you have for this lesson. It’s helpful to spread these entries out throughout the text, so students can see a character’s growth or changes throughout the story. For “Flowers for Algernon” this was easy because the “chapters” are set up by dates. However, you can also assign entries by chapter or page number.
- What format will these journals take? Are students going to be writing in their own notebooks, or will you create a character journal booklet for them? Personally, we find that character journal booklets are a little more engaging for students and can keep them (and you) more organized.
- Will my students be writing while reading the story, or after the story is finished? When making this decision, first consider the length of your story. If it’s a very short story, then pausing reading to write journals may disrupt the flow of reading and disengage students. If it’s a long story or an entire novel, it may be easier to pause after certain sections, so students can write. That way the information is fresh in their minds, and the task seems more manageable. Finally, consider the details of the story. Is something going to be revealed late in the story, that will drastically change readers’ perceptions of a character? Then you may want to hold off on any writing until the story is finished.
#2 Before Writing
Before students begin writing their character journals, provide them with a focus so that they can analyze effectively. For “Flowers for Algernon,” we included a mini lesson and handout for four areas to focus on when considering the perspective of a minor or supporting character. These areas will work well for other stories, too:
- Content (what is happening in the story at the time of these entries?)
- Personality (what is their chosen character’s personality? How do they react to things?)
- Tone (what tone would this character convey in each entry?)
- Language (how does the character speak? This should be reflected in the entries’ writing.)
Providing students with this background knowledge helps them to focus on their particular character and key in on important details without feeling overwhelmed. Of course, you can tailor these areas to suit your own objectives.
#3 Time to Write!
For most writing assignments, we first like to give students the rubric and review it as a class. This activity is no different. There’s nothing worse than completing an assignment only to realize you’ve missed the mark and taken your writing in the wrong direction! To keep things simple and support their learning, we based our rubric on the four areas students are focusing on in their journals: content, personality, tone, and language. We also included a section for mechanics because hey, it’s a language arts class.
Additionally, it really helps if you can show students a sample of a journal entry. This will give students an idea of the level of detail they will need in their own. If you’re worried that students will copy your sample instead of using their own ideas, you can write a sample based on a different text that students have read.
#4 After Writing
We’re not done quite yet! Once students finish their character journals, a reflection can give you some insight into their reasoning and analytical skills.It also helps students to explore their own thinking processes.
You can include a reflection at the end of your character journal booklet, if you’d like. This gives you one less thing to pass out, plus it gives students a chance to consider their decisions while they still have time to go back and make changes or add details. Again, we focused on the areas we taught in our mini lesson and included in the rubric. So for “Flowers for Algernon,” the questions look like this:
- Content: What did you choose to have your character focus on in his/her journal entries? Why?
- Personality: What personality traits did you choose to highlight in your character’s journal entries? Why?
- Tone: Which tone(s) came across in your character’s journal entries? Why did you choose to write in these tones?
- Language: Choose a few words or phrases from your character’s entries that especially typify your character. Why were these choices appropriate?
Hopefully, you will get a chance to explore this resource and engage in this fascinating story with your students. But even if you don’t, we highly encourage you to employ character journals with other classroom texts.
There’s no feeling like teaching a skill that students will use beyond the classroom and subject matter. When you are developing a person’s ability and desire to consider things from another’s perspective, you are making a great contribution to our world.