First, a brief explanation of character work. There is reading for plot, and there is reading for characters. The latter means reading in a way in which one follows the characters, lives the story alongside them, feels their emotions, gets to know them perhaps better than they know themselves. When teaching students to become deeper, more insightful, more engaged fiction readers, character work is everything. Readers who read strictly for plot nearly always remain stuck in literal interpretations of text. They can retell and summarize, and they can determine when meaning has broken down. But, they typically struggle with more complex reading skills such as inferring, predicting, determining themes, and interpreting lessons. If you’d like to teach your students to become more insightful readers, start by teaching them this one radical shift in approach: teach them to read for the characters, not just for the plot.
Walk into a classroom where students are engaged in book club conversations, and it may look as if the teacher has an easy job. She (or he) circulates, dropping in on this conversation, then that one, offering a tip, whispering encouragement to a club member, making a salient point about a book. She may even stand back, observing students while they talk. It appears as if students are doing all the work: they huddle in groups, leaned in toward each other, listening fervently, jotting notes, flipping though pages of their marked-up books.
Nothing screams “over the hill” quite like hearing you need hip surgery. A few years back, I learned the cause of some intense pain I was having—a bone spur and cartilage tear—and I discovered the solution was a procedure only performed by a small, specialized group of surgeons around the country. Of those surgeons, my primary care physician advised me, I should select the one with the most experience. “You want the surgeon who has done the procedure thousands of times, with so much motor memory that he could do it in his sleep.” Apparently, I wanted a hip-mending machine—someone with a keen eye who could diagnose each condition in a flash and perform every intricate repair with automaticity. Forget about personality and bedside manner. Experience is what matters.
One of my first moments of seeing the power of visuals in math learning came over a year ago, in June 2016. I was teaching fifth grade, and I gave my students an open-ended math task on a green sheet of grid paper with two different right triangles printed on it. I chose this task from several I’d gathered at a math conference that March.
This task held the promise of a different, and I hoped better, way to teach math. Until then I had been teaching each lesson pretty much as it was written in the curriculum guide, following along as best I could and finding myself unsatisfied and discouraged year after year.
I have a confession: I love to cut. Almost nothing pleases me more than to read through a manuscript and find a sentence, a paragraph, a page – entire chapters – that can be placed under the guillotine and dispatched into history once and for all. My general rule of thumb? If I can’t cut at least a quarter of my first draft then I’m not doing my job.
Fortunately, the majority of early drafts contain more fat than Iowa-raised bacon. Let’s talk about Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style cuts – you know, hacking off large sections of your manuscript to make it better. How do you know where to begin?
I was mostly disinterested in the Atari that my brother got for Christmas in the late 1970s; the excruciatingly slow back-and-forth of Pong bored me. But when Pac-Man was released in 1982, I was intrigued; fleeing a ghost made sense to me. Still, I was confused by Pac-Man’s motivation when it came all to those wafers. One after another, screen after screen, he just kept gobbling them up.
“Why is Pac-Man always so hungry?” I asked my brother while awaiting my turn at the joystick.
His explanation was offered with an exasperated eye roll, “He isn’t hungry. You get a point for each one.”