Analyzing Historical Characters & Their Motivations
When reading about influential people and historical figures (e.g., presidents, inventors, rulers etc.), students need to learn more than simply who did what.
As the Common Core standards state, whether it's characters in literature or influential people from informational text, students need to analyze how individuals develop and interact over the course of a text (CCR.R.3.).
One strategy to utilize within the content-area classroom is to have students infer an individual’s character trait—his personality, underlying values, and beliefs. Character traits don’t come and go like feelings (e.g., happy, sad, mad); they are a constant. Examples of character traits include: curious, generous, confident, loyal, optimistic, humble, apathetic, demanding, skeptical, and cunning.
As students read about the important people within your content-area texts, spend time discussing more than just what they did. Analyze why they did it. This requires students to consider the motivations and fears of these individuals.
A fabulous after-reading assignment for these situations can be adapted from an idea generated by West Vigo Middle School (Terre Haute, IN) teacher Melanie Beaver. Using recycled coffee creamer containers, students create miniature persons.
Students first decorate the outside of the container (using pipe cleaners, fabric scraps, markers, etc.) to represent the face and body of the person from history. NOTE: If the text doesn’t give many clues about the physical appearance of the individual, some additional research maybe required. Students could search for images on the Internet or skim additional texts and biographies about the person.
Then, students need to infer one character trait they see evident in this person and write that on a single index card. On four additional index cards, students then have to find evidence of this character trait. Each piece of evidence should be explained and documented within a well-developed paragraph revealing specific words/quotes from the text and an explanation for how the evidence supports the character trait inferred.
Again, a single text may not provide all the evidence a student needs to support the character trait he inferred. Students may need to find online articles or biographical sketches to acquire more details. Quotes from the individual can offer insight into feelings and opinions. And, just as literary characters demonstrate their unwavering character traits throughout a text, real people also reveal their true colors through life-changing events.
Since character traits describe the inner personality, all five index cards are then placed inside the creamer container. This reinforces for students that understanding a historical event goes beyond knowing what happened and requires thinking about the motivations and traits of the people behind it.
For specific directions, download the student assignment sheet. To view student examples created for fictional characters from literature visit Get Creative with Crafty Creamer Characters.