Teaching Character Traits with Perspective

When I first started teaching, I knew that understanding character and character traits would open up the deeper meaning in a story. It would give students the chance to see themselves and others in a different light if I guided them expertly. We could discover the author’s intent or message and this would, well, change our lives. 

Armed with good intent, I asked my sixth-grade students to thoughtfully make a list of the character traits they saw in a partner.  DANGER, Will Robinson! Imagine a room of 11-year-olds attempting this and, of course, it turned into an exercise where students gave compliments to each other. She’s “funny, smart, kind…” and, you get the picture.  We are all funny and smart.

I realized there was a disconnect. Putting a descriptive word to the actions we see in each other can be more challenging than it appears. Our behaviors are open to interpretation and so nuanced that we need context to truly make meaning from them. It is the same with characters in a story – especially those that touch us deeply.

As teachers we learn:

Students need to learn the meaning and nuances of the words we use for character traits and understand that perspective and its context matters. 

For instance, was Jack in “Jack and the Beanstalk”, a boy who was greedy? Was he clever? Was he a thief? Was he gullible? 

Jack could easily be described as a thief since he stole repeatedly from the Giant and his wife, but he could also be considered a clever boy who was exacting revenge on a Giant who had been eating little boys. It’s all about perspective.

Let’s investigate.

From the Perspective of..
The Character of Jack…
The Giant…was a thief who stole the Giant’s possessions. (Never mind that the Giant had stolen the possessions himself.
The Giant’s Wife…was a waif needing to be fed and hidden from her brute of a husband. (Or was she fattening him up?)
Jack’s Mother…was a gullible and lazy boy who listened to an old man on the road and was swindled out of the family cow, didn’t listen to his mother, yet a hero when he returned with the Giant’s possessions.
The Old Man (on the road)…was a gullible boy who could be easily distracted and convinced with the idea of magic beans and was clearly too lazy to walk to the market.

As teachers we learn:

Students need story experiences, and life experiences, that show a character’s traits will evolve.

It’s the overall journey and challenge to a character’s traits that bring power to the story. At NextLesson, we pondered how we can best support that journey for students.

Introduction to Character – A Lesson Series

In our Introduction to Character Lesson Series, we bring students to see a story’s characters as more complex than they may have appeared by listing potential “character traits” for you and your students to consider. 

Teaching with the Introduction to Character Lesson Series

Start by opening the lesson to the list of character traits! 

Step 1:  Add or delete traits from the potential list through class discussion, giving evidence for each change. Students participating here bring their voice and initial thoughts forward.

Step 2:  Rank the traits in order of importance to the character’s journey or based on the driving question in the lesson. 

With a partner, discuss the rankings and agree on the trait’s placement in one joint list, evaluating and discussing the evidence as they go. (Older students can provide their reasoning by writing it directly into the Rank & Reason Tool’s evidence speech bubble.)

Step 3:  Compare everyone’s rankings and ideas together as a class. Students will be ready to share their reasoning because they have rehearsed with partners, but this is also an opportunity to ask if anyone wants to change their rankings based on explanations from others.

Step 4:  The final step is writing a response to a prompt or question about the character. In the Introduction to Character Series, we provide a writing prompt.

The night after I asked students to describe each other’s traits, I did some thinking and looked closely at my own children. 

  • How would I describe them? My lens is colored by my experiences with them and my witnessing of their changes and growth.
  • How would their father describe them? Does he see what I see? Do I see what he sees?
  • How would their teachers describe them? (Do I really want to know this?!)
  • How would a friend’s mother describe them? A soccer coach? The cafeteria manager at school? The bus driver? 

Character traits are open to interpretation and discussion and are based on actions. Reading a story together and discussing character traits in many books will help students see below the surface. They’ll see the depth revealed in some characters and lack of depth in others.

They’ll begin to understand that authors really do have a message for them. And finally, they begin to see themselves in characters, just as we see ourselves from time to time in Miss Nelson from Miss Nelson is Missing. 😏