My First Unit in 7th Grade: Investigating Characterization
Updated: Nov 30, 2022
At the date of this posting, it's summer after my first year teaching a 7th grade section of E.L.A. I've always taught 6th (and 5th grade for a few years before that). I struggled with how to change things up for 7th grade (you can read all about that here), so I turned to the Units of Study to get me going.
One of the units is called Investigating Characterization. In 6th, I use the Deep Study of Character and I stick to it pretty closely to the unit (you can get my digital notebook for that here). I decided to align my lessons with the ideas in the unit, but I never fully do everything outlined in the units. They are too wordy and open-ended; my unit narrowed it down to author's craft and yes, characterization.
The Texts and the Mentor Text
So, if you've been following me, you know that I always have students use choice reading and I use a read-aloud as a mentor. Since the focus on this unit is on author's craft, I started with short stories and authors recommended in the unit. I did use the read-aloud in the unit. My mentor was "How to Transform an Everyday Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium" by Matt De La Pena (such an annoyingly long title haha).
The two books I pulled from were what you see above. There are some really great stories in those anthologies, and I am tough to please!
When I choose stories or books, I ALWAYS make sure as many cultures and identities are represented. Here are the short stories I printed out for students:
The first chapter of All-American Muslim Girl.
"Home" by Hena Khan
"The Difficult Path" by Grace Lin
"Choctaw Bigfoot" by Tim Tingle
"Flying Lessons" by Soman Chainani
"Sol Painting" by Meg Medina
"Main Street" by Jaqueline Woodson
"Secret Samantha" by Time Federle
They chose which ones they wanted to read. I gave them a brief Doc with summaries of each story.
Students then decided what author they wanted to focus on through a Google Form survey. I went to the library and got books by those authors for them to read independently. I did try to group the kids, too. They had to have read a short story by the same author.
These are the books I used.
The rest of All-American Muslim Girl
Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle
School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle
I am in the midst of changing up some of these texts. I am going through the texts you see in my Reel below right now to determine what I could switch up. The texts were fine last year, I just felt some of the book options were either too easy or too intense for the beginning of the year. These texts are all YA and I already know some of the stories are way too intense for the students, but there do seem to be some good options. I will keep you posted!
The Unit in Action!
Once students have their first short story, they spend time reading it during independent reading time. I did print out versions of the stories so students could physically highlight. We spent one day (I had a shorter period for that day) highlighting the man character's wants and barriers. This was done after I had read the mentor text, modeling the same work. They then took notes on this in their digital notebook.
Since majority of their work is digital, I love having them take pictures of pages and text excerpts to highlight text details. In the grand scheme of things, it's quicker than them typing out all the text detail. I tell them to highlight lines with a specific focus (read more about close reading here).
Here, they had to discuss a minor character's impact on the story.
I also have them do a lot of discussing with other students who are reading the same story. It does take a lot of manipulating to make sure everyone has someone to talk to, but it's important they can bounce ideas off of each other.
Going back to the digital benefits, I then do a lesson in which they have to use Flipgrid to answer questions about their own personal feelings about the main character and how their impressions changed. They also have to read a text excerpt. My students always moan about Flipgrid, but I honestly think it really helps them so much with their verbal skills. If they are absolutely mortified to do it, I allow them to do no video and just a voice recording.
Point-of-view is a big part of characterization, so we do a refresher. We get into how the point-of-view affects the the story. Remember, I show all of this with a mentor.
At this point, they would have started their novels with a small book club. They get together and label parts in their books that were emotional moments for their characters. They then analyze how these small moments reveal details about their character.
This has become a big focus in 7th grade for me. I do a unit later about this for essay writing (read about it here).
I give them a slide with a list of different strategies authors use while writing. They look for those in their books, and start with just using text detail to show the author is doing that strategy. We have a lesson the next day that focuses more on specifics, to explain how how the text detail shows the craft. This is a bit difficult explaining here and I may tweak this next time. The general idea is the students had to explain how the author used a specific literary strategy to show something.
For example, the author may have showed inner thinking. He/she/they may have done this to show or create empathy for the character.
We then dive back into characterization. I have them find a scene that supports a first impression the reader may have had on the character. Students screenshot this and explain. They do the same for another scene, but this time, focusing on how their impression changed.
Time shifts are another area of focus. We get into flashback, flashforward, etc. I do feel this is more just a taste as you could spend an entire week or more on these skills. These are still difficult for them to grasp. Students can usually identify them decently, but it's tough for them to understand the significance. For this unit, we connect it to the character.
One of the last major skills we do is theme, but again, connecting it to characters. Students list significant character moments, explain why the author presents the character the way he/she did in those moments, and how that could lead to a theme.
As an end-of-unit assessment, I have them do a little one-pager. I give them the specifics below and they get a blank page to fill out the information.
It is really helpful to have the Lucy Calkins' unit to do this unit, however, there is a lot here you can sprinkle into your own units. Also, it builds really great off of a unit in 6th about character.
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Read more about how I teach 7th grade by clicking the picture below.
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