she’d given me total freedom in designing my lesson.
I realized quickly that freedom meant all the decisions were mine. What to talk about? What not to talk about? And how to engage students with the chosen material?
Oh, and the novel in question? Jane Eyre. But how to review a novel of over 500 pages in a single 90 minute class period?
I decided to focus on the titular character. Jane’s journey of self-realization parallels the author’s own and is what makes the book so relatable for readers. To help students better understand Jane’s growth over the course of the novel, I divided them into pairs or trios and assigned each small group a pivotal moment from Jane’s journey to study in detail. I then gave each group a copy of my Stick Figure Snapshot activity.
While most of the character studies and body biographies I’ve seen used in the classroom offer a holistic look at each character, encouraging students to pull details from anywhere in the text to support their analysis, Stick Figure Snapshot is designed to help students analyze who a character is at a particular moment in time. Rather than simply asking students to describe a character, I ask students to answer ten questions about their assigned character within their assigned moment/page limit:
- What is the character doing?
- What is the character thinking?
- What does the character hear?
- What does the character see?
- What does the character say?
- How is the character feeling?
- What is/are the character’s strength/s?
- What does the character want/need?
- Where is the character going?
- What is the character’s greatest weakness?
Intentionally, some of the questions are straightforward while others require the reader to draw inferences from the text in order to make claims about the character. While you could stop there, I require my students to provide a quote from the text to support their answers. Once students have completed their stick figures, I also have them present their work to the class, or we post them on the walls and conduct a gallery walk.
This activity has been a staple in my teaching for three reasons: generalizability, ease of use, and versatility.
I have used this assignment in nearly every English class I have taught, from 7th grade ELA to AP Lit. The generic nature of the questions make them applicable to any text. To name a few, I have used a Stick Figure Snapshot with Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, Frankenstein, Macbeth, and a variety of short stories and even nonfiction texts. My students have also used this assignment with their own choice texts during independent reading projects as a way to highlight key moments in their character’s development.
Stick Figure Snapshot is one of the lowest prep activities in my teacher toolbox. While students can be allowed to choose their own scenes to analyze, I find that the assignment works best when I choose the scenes and their page limits. The scene/page limits selection can take some time, but it is relatively quick work when you are familiar with the text, and once you have a list of pivotal scenes, this assignment becomes one that you can implement with essentially no prep at all.
Depending on the levels and needs of your students, you can easily adjust the assignment to meet your learning goals. It can be scaled down or up via text/character selection and by modifying the answer requirements for students (e.g. copying from the text, using their own words, integrating quotes into full sentence responses, etc.). You can also ask students to move beyond the literal in their responses to each question (e.g. instead of merely hearing something said by another character, they might hear a betrayal, a promise, a secret, etc.).
Students can trace the development of one character across an entire text or analyze multiple characters in a single scene to break down interpersonal conflict and get a better handle on perspective and character motivation. This activity could be particularly helpful with understanding character development in books like Robin Benway’s A Year to the Day that employ an unusual narrative structure (in this case, telling the story in reverse chronological order) as it would allow students to reverse engineer a character’s development arc.
While initially designed as a lesson for a single class period, Stick Figure Snapshot can be customized and used as a foundation for a variety of other activities and discussions either as students are reading or after they have completed a text. I have also found it to be a great introduction to close reading and textual analysis. Its simplicity makes it accessible for students of all levels to complete independently or in groups. Just as anyone can draw a stick figure, anyone can engage in character analysis.
Samantha Duke is a doctoral student at North Carolina State University studying Literacy and English Language Arts Education. Before beginning her graduate studies, she taught English at both the middle and high school levels.