The Heart of the Matter: An Activity That Has Always Worked
Lou Spaventa, US
Lou Spaventa teaches and trains in California, the USA. He is a regular contributor to HLT - The Heart of the Matter series. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
One day in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I got my hands on Alan Duff and Alan Maley’s book, Literature (Oxford University Press, 1990), which, as the cover informs me, won a “highly commendable” ribbon in the Duke of Edinburgh English Language Competition. In that book, I found my hobgoblin, my little creature who shifts shapes, my Robin Goodfellow, who has always done me a good turn and never played a trick on me. I accept the consistency, so I guess I might also have to accept the “little mind” dig of RE Emerson. However, what I found in Literature was an activity that has always worked for me over at least twenty years, with different groups, and with different texts. Let me explain.
Exercise 1.6 Word Portraits is an intermediate to advanced level activity in which students read a passage that has one or more characters in it, and then select words from a list that could be applied to a particular character on the basis of the passage under consideration. Students read the passage silently (you make copies of it for each of them), then discuss which words fit the character best. These words are chosen from a group of words the instructor has selected and written on the board, on an overhead, or on a word processor with projector. Some of the words, mostly adjectives or adjective phrases, fit the character quite well; others might fit, and some don’t really seem to fit. But, the key is that none of the words is totally unrelated in some way to a reader’s interpretation of the character in the passage. The discussion can be a group discussion as Messers Duff and Maley suggest – groups of three is what they write, or it can be a whole class discussion after each student has had a chance to choose words from the list that he or she thinks appropriate to the character in the passage.
In describing why they developed this exercise, the authors refer to composition questions for which students are directed to “describe the character in your own words.”
Duff and Malay suggest that a student may feel he or she has nothing to add to what the author of the passage has already written about the character. Then, too, just a few words may not be enough to describe a complexly-drawn character. Using this list of words -constructing this list well is the great key to this activity working for an instructor and for students – students can refer to what is overt and what is implied in a text. In other words they can read between the lines, using their real world experience to make sense of a reading passage by making inferences.
To give the reader a flavor for the Word Portrait activity, I have used the adapted short short story “Mother,” by Grace Paley. I cannot reprint it here, but refer the reader to the story. It can be found in the volume Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Eds. Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1986). In it, the writer is prompted by an old song to remember how she misses her mother, and then revisits in her mind some poignant scenes from her interaction with her mother, and then ends with an unhappy interchange between her mother and father which illustrates their estrangement from each other. Here is my list and the instructions to my students.
Look at the vocabulary words below. Which words would you choose for the daughter? the mother? the father?
This passage and activity I did with a group of teachers on an enrichment course. The conversation it evoked, the synergy of ideas, and the refusal to settle on a single interpretation, kept the activity going until I brought it to an end. It could have easily gone on for more than the half hour we took to explore it.
I am currently working with Jeannette Walls’ memoir of her extraordinary family life, The Glass Castle. I have tried another variation of the Word Portrait activity by giving the students a list of words for Rex Walls, the alcoholic autodidact, who is the father of the family. Students have been given a homework assignment to choose words from the list that they find are good fits for Rex’s character, and then write a paragraph which describes why the chosen words make sense given Rex’s actions in the story. The results of this iteration of the activity remain ahead.
What has made this activity such a permanent part of my teaching repertoire? For one thing, I can choose a passage that I like and I can tailor that passage to my audience’s language level and level of literary sophistication. For another, the activity is open-ended and depends upon student interaction to succeed. With a well-chosen list of words, the possibilities for student discussion are great. Yet another point in favor of this activity is that it gets at the crux of why we read – we live vicariously through the characters we encounter in literature and we measure ourselves against them or identify with them or feel repulsed by them. In short, we dialogue mentally with the text. The discussion that ensues from the activity often can have the nature of synthesis/antithesis. One student proposes a word based upon his or her perception of the character’s actions or words and a second student brings those same actions and words to another level, forcing everyone to rethink meaning.
On a practical level, Word Portrait hones vocabulary skills, adding to students’ understanding of a word’s domain. It practices subtle noticing and inferring skills for reading. It is open-ended enough for students to enter the activity at the point from which each one begins. In other words, some students will be stuck at literal meaning, perhaps for the whole activity, while others will dive right into the nuances of a given word.
So bravi, Messers Duff and Maley. Your work endures. A well-constructed language activity is a joy to carry out, and Word Portrait is such an activity. I would love to hear from other HLT readers who have used this activity, developed spin-offs of it, or have gone in a totally different direction in the same vein of vocabulary development and inferential comprehension of a literary text.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.