How can middle school students begin to recognize complexity and empathize with characters in literature? In a conventional approach, a teacher might pose thought-provoking questions to students and draw their attention to key passages in the story. However, this approach does not guide all students to deepen their understanding of the characters. Young adolescents are often still developing empathy during the middle school years, but the ability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of a character is essential to understanding literature.
University Prep English teacher Carl Faucher uses social media to help students think about the characters in Of Mice and Men. To begin, students select one character to follow through the book and then create a new account in that character’s name on their preferred social media platform. As students read the book, they pay special attention to the character’s thoughts and inner dialogue. Students then write one post online for each chapter of the book.
Students choose a variety of platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. They tend to like the familiar format and enthusiastically go about their work. Some post the minimum number required, whereas others write far more. Instagram users in particular find an opportunity to communicate visually, either by selecting stills from the movie version to accompany each thought or selecting more abstract, evocative imagery. Some choose to make the assignment social, following their classmates and liking or commenting on their posts.
Faucher asks students to avoid summarizing the text but rather write what the characters were actually thinking at different points in the book. Those who adopt the persona of the character show the most evidence of learning. Faucher notes, “students developed empathy for the character better than if they had answered conventional questions about the text. They got through the black and white of good and bad and explored complexities of the characters and their relationships.”
Conventional reading questions are grounded in the language of the discipline — academic discourse. Students better learn to think analytically and identify literary conventions such as themes and foreshadowing if they are provided with accessible steps to build upon. The social media introduction allows students to apply an established strength, “to speak the language that they are speaking outside of school.” Having gained some understanding, students are better able to build up to the more complex assignments later in the unit: a mock trial in which George is taken to court, and an expository essay that focuses on character analysis.
“With the advent of social media, our paths of communication are changing the ways we speak, communicate, and express ourselves.” While some may bemoan the decline of long form writing, Faucher takes advantage of the popular microblogging medium to help students achieve the learning goals of seventh grade English.
University Prep is a grades 6-12, independent, coed day school in Seattle, Washington, USA.