getting in character

I start the unit with a poem.  We all know it, and each time we read it, or hear it, it serves as a haunting reminder of forgotten intentions, of dreams pushed aside by so-called “priorities.”  I once heard that if it is important enough, you’ll make time for it.  Who determines this sense of importance?  I asked my students, then, what happens to a dream deferred?  Where does it go?  Does it still exist, somewhere, after its assignment to second-best?

These conversations pull at my heart–to hear young people already making the difficult choices only adults should have to face.  It’s no wonder, then, that they so thoroughly enjoyed the small group discussions inspired from the first activity of our Raisin in the Sun unit.  After assigning them to family units of four, each family reported to a small group table to privately discuss the portentous contents of an unmarked envelope:  a letter from an insurance company and a fictitious check for $80,000.  The task:  decide, based on the contents of the letter, what your family needs to do.

Here is the letter they received:

No Dream Deferred Insurance, LLC
406 Clybourne Street
Chicago, IL 60628

Younger Family
1958 Hansberry Drive, Apt A
Chicago, IL 60633

Dear Younger Family:

My sincerest condolences on the loss of your loved one.  It’s unfortunate that as insurance agencies, we are charged with placing a value on the lives of people who undoubtedly are worth much more than what we can offer.  However, with that said, please accept the enclosed check of $80,000 as fulfillment of the life insurance policy.

After speaking with you immediately after the passing of your loved one, I found myself very impressed by the ambitious dreams of your family.  I wish your oldest the best in his aspirations tobecome a business owner – it is a risky venture that may yield profitable results, if the cards land in his favor.  To his wife, I also wish her the best of health as she carries your second grandchild over the next seven months.  Your young Bennie reminds me of my daughter; she, too, is a passionate philanthropist studying in the medical field while still finding time to explore various hobbies and interests.  I wish I could have spent more time with your grandson – he is obviously a very energetic 10-year-old and the apple of your eye.

It’s fortunate that, under the same roof, you can support and care for one another in this time of need.  I also hope that the community of your neighbors and landlord offer their assistance inhelping you work through this difficult time.  Despite the struggles your family faces, I hope you continue to pursue the dreams your spouse spoke so passionately about before the onset of his latest illness.

If you do decide to leave your current housing, I hope you will keep in touch, and also let our agency know if we can be of any additional assistance.

Respectfully,

H. Lorraine, agent

 

Their final decisions were as different as they were:  some opted to stay in the current housing.  Though not ideal, moving somewhere with higher rent could cause more turmoil.  Some opted to move.  Others invested money in savings accounts or bonds; none pursued Walter’s dream of owning a business.  While taking the money and equally dividing it among household members seemed the most fair, it was not without its problems:  did Walter and Ruth count as one or two people?  Did young Travis count?  What about Bennie’s costly medical schooling?  And, what about the unborn child?  What would be his fate?  One group, interestingly enough, said they would put him up for adoption.  The other family units looked on and did not pry into their reasoning behind this difficult decision.

We started reading on the third day of the unit.  My student teacher and I assigned readers; each reader chose his or her own understudy.  We also placed the readers at the front of the room, sitting on the desks, facing the rest of the class.  This enabled them to see one another and play off each other’s characters.  By the end of the unit, each student had become that character; we associated his tone, his demeanor, with the voice of the reader, and so the best culminating project, we decided, would be a talk show featuring each character played by his or her reader.

In a class of 24, we had the students work in groups of three, with the eight major characters choosing their own talk show host and camera operator.  The “Dream Deferred” poem had to be used, somehow, within the 5-10 minute video production.  We asked for a minimum of five questions with depth, ones that demonstrated a real understanding of the struggles of the character, providing sample questions that Edna Pontellier would have answered from The Awakening, another book from last semester:  Do you love your children?  What do you want out of life?  Did you have an affair with Robert Lebrun?  We wanted them to avoid basic biographical information, birth date, number of people in household, etc.

Although the quality of the videos did not meet the students’ expectations, we definitely were impressed by the  dedication toward creating a believable set (some borrowed the furniture in my room and set up a talk show set in the hall for their recording; others recorded in the television studio downstairs) and realism of the characters.  Most worked without a script and spoke from the heart–and since these were the readers who played the characters during the entire unit, these stories became an extension of those characters.

Developing a reading voice is not something easily taught–it must be experienced.  Reading the part of The Nurse from Romeo and Juliet in the six years I taught that play–I became that character, I empathized with her, I felt her sense of entrapment, even learned to agree with her that after Tybalt’s death, Juliet’s marriage was as good as over, and it was time to move on, difficult though it may seem.  Several elements helped allow this unit to be successful, starting with how we set up the readers.  This is easily replicated in other classes, with other texts.

  • Set up the room in a way that the non-readers can see the readers, and that the readers can see each other.  This allows for them to play off one another, even look in one another’ direction.
  • During discussion of the text, provide opportunities for both the readers to speak about their own characters, and to forbid them to do so as well.  There were times when I asked Bennie’s character or Walter’s character to explain his or her mindset; other times, I asked the non-readers to speak on behalf of the character about his or her mental state.  This allows for accountability for all.
  • Point out what the readers do that help reinforce reading in character.  Volume, tone of voice, dramatic pauses–acknowledge these conscious choices and praise these efforts since they help reinforce the characters and make them real.
  • Choose strong readers, especially when helping demonstrate for others the reading voice.
  • Sometimes take a part, yourself.  I always enjoyed playing the part of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, because then I got to duel with foam swords with the students.
  • Have fun.  Enjoy discussion.  Stop at the pivotal moments, when the tension is at its peak, engaging students in discussion and a desire to continue reading.
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