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Critical Thinking Skills for the English Classroom

Section II: Character Analysis

Overall Purpose To promote critical thinking skills using character analysis in fiction as an opportunity for students to form a holistic and objective view of a character, to adopt multiple perspectives, to identify multiple factors that define, influence, and motivate each perspective, and to consider the relationships between characters towards generating their own interpretation and/or as preparation for participation in a group role play.  It should be noted that our intervention is designed to be used with any piece of fiction. Our prototype will use Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as the sample text.

 

Audience We expect our users to be middle school students studying a work of literature in a classroom context with teacher support.  While a designer could easily provide novel-specific questions and names of characters (indeed these could be supplied as save files) it seems a more useful to expect teachers to visit our program and enter the names of characters they want their students to analyze, taking full advantage of the program's flexibility in handling any work of fiction and providing their own (or editing existing generic) "Go Publish" prompts that will be presented to the student on screen.  At the teacher’s discretion, students could also input the character’s names and perhaps edit prompts for other groups of students.

Environment We intend for our program to be used by individual students in a classroom or computer lab setting.  We expect students to have access to a word processor and a Web browser.  One publishing option available to students prompts them to share their character studies with the class via a network. These suggestions represent functionality that we will not realize in our prototype.

Description We have developed a prototype for Section Two: Character Analysis which is conceived as one section of a larger program. Part one is conceived as a tool to help students become proficient with plot analysis.  Part three would help students with themes, symbols, and literary devices. Our prototype design for Section Two can be best described as a constructive learning activity.  There are no right or wrong answers, though we will "recontextualize" student inputs through our Idea Spinner so that gaps or errors will be presented for re-evaluation (if not correction).  Ultimately, character analysis is an art rather than a science.  By providing organization and structure we hope to elicit more thoughtful responses from students and direct them towards more challenging "publishing" avenues as a result of our intervention.

 

A Few Questions for Feedback

  1. Should overt didactic instruction about character analysis and critical thinking be more prominent.  Currently we have tried to make the instruction easy to access from the students' activity of recording their observations and actually doing character analysis.  Should the program situate the activity after a tutorial or would that compromise the accessibility of the tool (hopefully a versatile tool that could be used repeatedly).

  1. Can textual analysis be transferred to the screen as we have attempted to do here?  Is it simply too jarring, too different, to visualize characters in your head as characters on the screen?  What could be done to lower this conceptual barrier?  Does it seem "forced" and do traditional worksheets do a better job by being less interruptive? 

  1. Will students feel like they are answering worksheet questions more than using a tool for their own ends?  Will students feel that they have to answer all questions before moving on?

  1. A teacher understands his or her involvement in introducing a text or a worksheet to the class.  Is there a danger that teachers will be uninvolved and sit back when they see a program that "moves on its own"?  How can we provide a teaching tool that invites or makes clear to the teacher that their involvement with students is an absolute necessity?

Please email your insights, criticisms, and queries to:

decker@post.harvard.edu