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Teacher Jeanne Seiler-Phillips has created an activity that challenges students to think carefully about character traits in literature. The "character transformation" activity motivates students to think critically and write with a purpose as they develop characters in their writing. Included: A list of literary characters who experience or cause a transformation plus a Story Map work sheet to help students organize their thoughts before writing!


Jeanne Seilor-Phillips, who teaches sixth grade at Muirland Middle School in La Jolla, California, has used the Writers Workshop concept with her students for years. One of her favorite activities involves students in writing "character transformation" stories.

"Every time I do this assignment, I am amazed at the enthusiasm of almost every single student, the incredible insight some of them have, and the pride that they all have when they finish and I bind their books," Seiler-Phillips tells Education World.


SEEKING A DEEPER MEANING

Seiler-Phillips and a colleague, Joey Lepetri, developed the character transformation activity that their students can choose as a free-choice Writer's Workshop exercise. It begins with a reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A follow-up discussion about the Grinch, his character, and the changes that occur in him by the end of the story lead to the activity in which students map their own character transformation stories.

"Throughout the writing process, I do mini-lessons on writing dialogue, using quotation marks, and showing-not-telling," says Seiler-Phillips. "But the students' stories were always the same. They wrote about someone on drugs or alcohol or smoking cigarettes. They wrote about gangs. I was looking for something deeper -- not that these stories weren't good and didn't involve appropriate lessons to make a character change, but I was looking for more."


THE TRANSFORMATION IN PRACTICE

Character Transformation Reading

Jeanne Seilor-Phillips offers examples of characters who undergo amazing transformations.
* In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss,the devilish, conniving, Christmas Scrooge turns into a joyful Christmas participant.
* In Julius, Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes, a little girl is jealous of her new baby brother until someone says unkind words about him. * In Sheila Rae the Brave, by Kevin Henkes, a little girl acts tough until she gets lost and afraid.
* In Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister, a conceited, selfish, and very lonely fish seeks advice that will change his life in many ways.
* In Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, the story of Jackie Robinson illustrates the strength of individuals and how that caused a radical transformation in baseball and in society.
* In Smokey Night, by Eve Bunting, the many messages and transformations center on the 1993 race riots in Los Angeles.

How did Seiler-Phillips "transform" this solid writing activity into a superb writing activity -- one that really challenges her students to grasp the character transformation concept and take it to the limit?

First, she searched for good short stories in which a character had a personal flaw at the start, experienced a crisis, and changed for the better.

The next time she introduced the activity to a group of students, she started by reading aloud a couple of her former students' stories. "Then I begin the Grinch," Seiler-Phillips explains. "After I finish, we discuss and write on chart paper all the bad character traits of the Grinch. On another sheet, we describe the Grinch is at the end of the story."

Then Seiler-Phillips writes CRISIS on another chart. "That's where we figure out what big thing happened to this character to make him start thinking about change," she tells Education World. "After that, we write what he did to change."

The discussion continues with a new book on the next day, following the same pattern. Altogether, students read and chart about six books. Some of the stories take two days to complete. After about two weeks of reading and analyzing stories, the students are begging to write!

"We brainstorm different types of character flaws, such as racism, conceit, selfishness, prejudice, drinking, drugs, attitude, and just plain meanness," Seiler-Phillips states. "Then it's finally time to write."

Almost.


BEFORE THEY WRITE

"First, students have to think out their stories," says Seiler-Phillips. "They must write what the problem is going to be, the crisis, and what is going to happen in the end. They must list the characters and their beginning and ending character traits. After the students get an OK, they fill out a six-step story map, which is a very brief summary of what their story is going to be about -- basically the beginning, the middle, and the end."

When the story map is complete, the students create drafts of illustrations to complement their tales. They divide a sheet of paper into six boxes and create a picture that corresponds to each numbered step of the story map. The students are asked to turn in what they have finished each day. Their teacher has found that with the prewriting and mapping activities, most students have a good idea of how to proceed. After they discussed their work with others and revise, they correct their drafts.

Some students write their final drafts on a computer, but there aren't many computers at the inner-city school, and most students don't have computer access at home. A few students are so motivated by the project that they go to the library after school to type! When they complete the writing, the students illustrate their stories and make covers. Seiler-Phillips binds the finished products.


THE WRITERS' PERSPECTIVE

"A transformation story is a story [in which] a character has a weakness or an obvious flaw and then changes because something bad happens," says Cornesha F., one of Seiler-Phillips's students. She liked the story of the Grinch best because "when he saw that [Christmas] was about love, he changed and felt differently about it."

Ricardo A. tells Education World about his story: "The title of my story is 'The Big Change.' It is about a kid who didn't like black people. He was mean to those people and at the end, the black people saved his life. He learned that the insides matter, not the outside."

"My story was 'Susan the Bully,'" says Perla P. A crisis transforms Susan from a girl with a lot of hate for people who are different from her. "She realizes that she should get to know people before she judges them," Perla tells Education World.

Aries S. also dealt with prejudice in her writing. In her story, "Susan Learns," the main character is a girl who picks on little Japanese kids because big Japanese kids picked on her when she was younger. "But then one day some bigger and stronger kids picked on Susan, and it happened to be a Japanese boy who helped her," explains Aries.

"I would recommend this activity to other kids because it lets the person's imagination come alive," adds Monorum P.


RELATED LINKS

Writing Plans from the Teacher's Desk
This site offers great writing lessons of all kinds! See Paragraph a Week for writing activities that will carry you through the school year.

Graphic Organizers
Create your own graphic organizers for student assignments with the help of this guide.



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