The Consequences of Ignorance: Analyzing Character Action and Motivation in Contexts
I never thought I would be a teacher … I certainly never thought I would use my teaching experience to guide my thinking as I begin to work on a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences, but here I am. I am the only one who is surprised.
It has been evident from the beginning of my teaching career that my teaching style differs from those of my colleagues, and it was no secret that many disagreed with my inclusion of 21st Century tools and using discussion as a main form of learning and teaching. But I could see that my methods were working, so I continued on.
In April 2011 I had the opportunity to work with Indiana University professor and researcher, Dan Hickey, and learned that much of what I was already doing in my classroom aligned with a set of principles he and his team had outlined as a framework for developing curriculum. We began to work together to create a module that I could implement in my own classroom based on these principles.
The next work of literature I needed to teach was The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, so that is the context in which the module was placed. The module focused on Common Core Standards, and used traditional and 21st Century tools to engage students and assess learning. A major component was reflection upon practice; my goal was not to test students on a specific scene or line Shakespeare’s play, but rather to provide them with opportunities to use the tool that is character analysis to analyze and dig into the work. What a success we had!
Designing the Module
A challenge when teaching Shakespeare is convincing the students that, while they do not need to love Shakespeare, they can develop an appreciation for the writing and apply the themes in his works to their own lives. Many of my students come into Romeo and Juliet quite resistant and skeptical to my announcement that by the end of the play, they will be able to read a Shakespearean text and that they will be able to appreciate the themes in the work.
Just as most teachers do, each year before I teach Romeo and Juliet I review last year’s experience, think about these students, and design a module that fits this group. Serendipitously, this year I had a group of students that needed more support than past groups and I met Dan Hickey and his Designing For Participation (DFP) principles. These principles put into succinct words much of what I had been doing in my class. We worked together to gather Open Educational Resources (OERs) and traditional classroom tools to design a Romeo and Juliet unit that taught specific skills outlined in the Common Core Standards, 21st Century tools, engaged students in active participation and practice of conceptual tools in different contexts, and assessed students through reflections that demonstrated critical and consequential engagement.
In choosing the Common Core Standard (CCS), I took into consideration the skills the students had practiced thus far and – since this was occurring at the end of the year – the skills they needed to review and master before moving on to the next grade. It became apparent that working on analysis and supporting claims with evidence would provide the students with the best opportunities to practice all that they had learned, so CCS Writing Standard 9 (for grades 9 and 10) was chosen:
“Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
We also decided that a secondary focus would be on procedural writing tools including ideas, organization, style, and grammar.
We broke the CCS down into its components (analysis, reflection, research) and began to search for contexts in which these concepts would be practiced. As the contexts emerged, we made a chart that crossed the concepts by the contexts, and determined which concepts were being practiced and to what degree in each context. The goal was to hit all of the concepts at varying levels in the contexts. Not only was this useful in designing the module, but it really helped me see where I was strongly covering the skill set and where I might be falling short. I was able to make adjustments to the module before implementation, rather than finding out after the fact that I had not quite planned to cover a particular concept sufficiently.
Whole class and small group discussion was the first activity chosen, and is featured throughout the module. I feel strongly that discussing a text, asking questions, positing responses, and listening to these exchanges helps a student (and the teacher) obtain a better grasp on the text, and that the more disciplined discussion is fostered, the more likely it is that students will be able to achieve. Therefore, these discussions run throughout the module.
We also decided to use a literary mock trial as a way to begin to explore what it means to deeply analyze a character’s actions and motivations. We drew on a ReadWriteThink resource for this activity. This required students not only to read critically, but to form arguments, use evidence to support those arguments, and refute arguments made by opponents. Additionally, the “Jury” had to analyze that evidence in order to make a verdict.
The next activity and level of engagement with character analysis occurred in a digital poster, and in critiques and reflections posted to an online discussion forum using Edmodo. Here students analyzed the wisdom and ignorance of characters not only from Romeo and Juliet, but from four other literary texts read throughout the year as well. The point was to show students that these tools – character analysis, research, and reflection – applied beyond the play being read, and to every story we covered, and that they will read in the future.
Finally, students composed a formal essay analyzing secondary and tertiary characters in Romeo and Juliet, demonstrating both their understanding of the work itself, and their ability to research and analyze a character without having exhaustive discussions about that character. In this essay, students made claims about a character and their motivations, and needed to support those claims with evidence. However, students were not graded on their essay. After completing a Networked Peer Review, students reflected critically and consequentially about their own writing and what they observed in others. Their grade was based on their reflections of their performance and how they might improve the essay. Had time allowed, students would have rewritten the paper with these insights in mind.
Each activity included an opening and closing reflection that helped them begin to think critically and on a deeper level about the tools being used to discuss and read Shakespeare’s work.
The Discussions Evolve
The Daily Grind
Online Discussions, postings, and Feedback
The Formal Essay
The Discussions Evolve
In addition to the specific activities outlined in the module, I asked students to read a scene take notes on The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet before class and pose at least three questions about the scenes they read. We would then read and discuss that scene aloud in class. These questions could be anything from comprehension questions to analytical questions to questioning motivation or believability of an action. Interestingly, this activity helped keep the discussions I started at the beginning of the module going throughout the reading and discussion of the play.
By the time we finished Act I, the students were asking fewer questions like “What does ‘warrant’ mean” and instead posed questions such as “Why does the Nurse seem to have a closer relationship with Juliet than her own mother?” Once the young lovers asked Friar Lawrence to marry them, the students wanted to discuss in detail the role of a religious figure and the Friar’s moral obligations. We took an entire class period to debate the Friar’s actions, and all I did was moderate! At the end of the play, discussions were focused not on what Romeo and Juliet had done, but how families and communities contribute to the decisions we make, and the importance of rational thought and communication. I was no longer needing to prompt my students to ask questions – they stopped me to take time to discuss a character’s actions. Some days we did not get to read the play in class much at all because they needed to talk about an occurrence in the play.
This was exactly the outcome I had been hoping for. Now it was apparent that they knew how to analyze a character, not just those in the context of the lesson.
The Daily Grind
Each day I opened class with one or two “warm-up” questions just to get the students’ brains in gear and focused. They wrote down their thoughts, discussed with neighbors, shared with the entire class, and then added any information they deemed necessary to their warm-up. This really helped the conversation get going, and allowed me to hear their initial reactions to a specific theme or issue raised in the play. I could then guide the discussions appropriately for the rest of the period.
The Literary Characters On Trial activity was a huge success – much more so than I had originally anticipated! In addition to learning and discussing what made an effective argument, we had the opportunity to discuss what an argument was not so effective. This was extremely informative both the the class as a whole and to the group whose argument was not so sound because we conducted the conversation in such a way that was educational, not criticizing of the students’ efforts.
In the beginning, we discussed the standard in a bit more detail and why a trial might help everyone learn how to use research, analysis, and reflection to support claims made about character action and motivation, as well as what aspects of argument a trial setting might ignore. The responses ranged from two sentence surface answers to fairly deep conversational thoughts. These responses can be seen in the artifacts provided. Toward the end of a class period, I explained the activity they were entering, and the class lit up. They were very excited to discuss the characters in more depth because many of them are already feeling frustration with the characters’ lack of foresight and irrational behavior.
I asked the class to offer a decision that will have a great affect on the rest of the play, and that could possibly be discussed as a “crime.” Overwhelmingly, they chose the Friar’s decision to marry Romeo and Juliet without the consent of their parents. They wanted to discuss this because we just finished Act II, where the Friar warns the teens that they are moving too quickly, but marries them anyway. I passed out the “Crimes List” handout, and had them take notes of our discussion on the back. First we discussed why the students felt the Friar made this decision (the defensible position), and then why this could be considered “bad” (the indefensible position). This was a very active discussion, as each student had an opinion on the Friar’s actions. At times the students went on tangents, asking about the rules friars had to follow and what the normal marrying age for men and women was in the 14th century. I used this as a way of introducing the non-fictional text research requirement. I saw a couple of students pull out their phones and start browsing the Internet. This was interesting because they were trying to be stealthy by keeping their phones under their desks, but it was clear they were researching as I circulated the room, bringing up an interesting problem in the way technology is seen and treated in the classroom setting.
Students worked together to come up with more characters and situations they could argue, and after discussing the questions on the “Crimes Handout” in small groups and as a class, I explained the structure of the teams and trial. I also passed out the trial rubric, and showed them the self evaluation form on the LCD projector. The students then broke up into groups of four (self-chosen) and shared the crimes they had prepared for homework. Interestingly, may students had written much more than the required amount, and the discussions were quite lively. They were talking about the gravity of each”crime,” the effect it would have on the play, and how each side might argue the problem. After about five minutes, each group had zeroed in on the “crimes” they wanted to try, and began breaking up into teams of prosecutors and defense attorneys. I passed out the “Duties of the Defense/Prosecution attorney” handout. Once they were broken into teams of two, they began brainstorming in more detail how to attack the issue. Then many students asked if they could move out of their groups because they did not want the other side to know their plan of attack! Of course, I let them move, and even those students who don’t usually participate were getting involved in the conversation on some level. At the end of the class period, one group in period three and two groups in period four asked if they might present their arguments the next day if they were ready. I said they may, but that they could reassess this tomorrow, and they did not feel ready, they could have the weekend to work.
When the trials began I gave each student a “Verdict” sheet, and asked them to take notes on a separate sheet of paper. I explained that they should take notes on the evidence presented, make a decision, and then explain their reasoning. I also explained that after deliberating with their peers and writing down their decisions, the class would vote, present the verdict to the attorneys, and offer constructive criticism. Two of the three groups presented lengthy arguments with substantial evidence. After each trial, the four attorneys stepped outside, and while the “jury” deliberated, the attorneys filled out the self-evaluation form.
Inside the classroom, the students picked a foreman (a last minute decision on my part – there was a different foreman for each trial who will announce the verdict) and discussed the evidence presented. In the first trial, the students explained that they voted for the team that “sounded” the most convincing. One student made the comment that one side actually had better evidence, but they just were not convincing. This brought up an interesting discussion about confidence and tone, which ties well into the flow and linguistic precision goal of this module.
The third trial was very interesting in that the students’ arguments were not more than 30 seconds long, and only provided one or two pieces of evidence. In fact, each person presented similar evidence, making the trial extremely repetitive. When the “jury” began to deliberate, they hesitated and asked me what they were supposed to do. I asked them to explain what they meant, and they said that there was not a lot of information provided, so if I was asking them to make a decision based on evidence presented, they couldn’t do it. They wanted to know if they could just use their own opinions. I said no, that this was an interesting dilemma, and if they really could not come to a decision, they could declare a mistrial. It was a very close vote, but a mistrial was declared. In the explanation to the attorneys, many students complemented them on they confidence, but stated that they did not actually argue a case. This discussion was more educational in many respects than the ones that had occurred with the innocent or guilty verdicts because the students led their own discussion on the importance of presenting evidence, and that evidence being relevant to the case.
**Changes I would make to this activity**
The teacher must decide before beginning this activity whether the students will argue from a 14th century perspective or a 21st century perspective. While the debates were interesting, they became difficult at times because students were arguing law from two different thought systems
-Really insist that the second speaker on each team respond to arguments made than make a prepared speech. Redundancy in argument was somewhat of an issue, though many students began to self-correct and respond to arguments while abandoning their speeches after watching the first few trials.
The presentation reflection sheet left something to be desired, so I am designing a new one. The idea is for students to reflect on their performance while the Jury is deliberating. They should answer questions about the arguments they made, how they responded to arguments, what they felt was strong about their own and their opponents’ arguments, and where they felt each side’s argument needed improvement.
Online Discussions, postings, and Feedback
Creating a digital project that visually represents what knowledge and ignorance look like in different texts proved to be a challenge and a great learning experience for the students. Because there was limited space on the poster, they had to be creative in their representations and concise in their analysis.
Once the Glogs (posters created on Glogster) were posted to Edmodo, students commented on them with thoughtful statements about the choices the students made and the clarity of the presentation. These comments were public to the class, and some students even made changes to their posters after looking at the comments. However, most revealing of the impact of the project were the reflections. Students submitted their reflections on the questions outlined in the module to me (as a private assignment submission rather than a public post on Edmodo), and relayed that having to critique others’ posters really made them think about and criticize their own work. Additionally, many students wrote that having to analyze characters in texts read earlier in the semester was challenging, but that they began to see similarities in the stories and the messages they authors conveyed. Most students write that this activity helped them gain a better understanding of what character analysis is, and that they felt they could conduct this kind of analysis in a new book.
The Formal Essay
Once students were demonstrating their ability to analyze characters in depth, the next step was to try analyzing a secondary or tertiary character. This was important because by the end of the play, everyone could say something about Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, and the Friar. But could the students quickly analyze, make claims about, and use textual evidence to support claims about a character that was not discussed in so much depth? It turns out they could! Students were asked to discuss a secondary or tertiary character’s knowledge or ignorance, the role that knowledge or ignorance played in their decision making, and how that character’s actions affected the outcome of the play. Students discussed everyone from Benvolio to the prince to the servants to the Verona community as a whole!
But the essay was not what I used to assess the students. After the essay was completed, I shuffled the papers and passed them out again and conducted a networked peer review. Students read each paper for about five minutes and gave kind and critical comments. Once each student had read at least four papers and discussed them in their group, they jotted down some notes about that they had learned from reading these papers about writing as a general concept, character analysis, and their own essay. The following day students were asked to write a reflection answering questions such as “How did writing this paper help you learn about character analysis?” “What did you notice in other people’s papers that made their arguments particularly effective or ineffective?” “What did you learn about your own writing from reading others’ arguments?” “What would you change in your paper?”
I did this at the very end of the year. Had I the time, I would have asked students to rewrite the essay and implement the changes and knowledge they gained from the networked peer review.
The most revealing part of every activity was the reflections. Each activity had both an opening and a closing reflections, and it was in these that I learned the most about student knowledge and understanding, and where I learned how I needed to adjust my assignments and teaching as the module moved along. Don’t skip on the reflections. Not only did I learn about my students and their progress through these, the students learned the most from the reflections as well. It was in the reflections that students actually confronted the intangible idea of character analysis and made it real. It was here that students could reflect critically and conceptually on the concepts and the contexts in which they were learning. Was this a good context in which to learn this concept? What might be a better context? How have we used character analysis/research/reflection differently in this context than in the prior context? What is the difference between analysis, research and reflection? In research, what does it mean to use evidence to support a claim? What aspects of an argument made it particularly effective?
It is through answering these questions a student will very clearly reveal their grasp of a particular concept, and whether they understand it simply in the context in which it was presented, or if they can transfer that knowledge to other contexts.