How many times do you come across a great activity and your mind is instantly racing with all the ways it could be applied to create more dynamic or student-centered learning?
I had exactly this reaction to a Word Hoard activity shared by librarian and young adult author Megan Frazer Blakemore as part of the Teachers Write virtual writing camp for teachers this week.
First, check out the original sources for Word Hoards and Teachers Write:
- Teachers Write: Author Kate Messner is the co-creator and host of a fabulous “virtual writing camp” for teachers and librarians, called Teachers Write. Follow that link to Kate’s blog for more about the program and all the fabulous authors who volunteer to lead it. This is my second year participating.
- Word Hoards: Check out Megan Frazer Blakemore’s Thursday Quick Write prompt which shares how she first discovered Word Hoards, the uses she’s found for them and her writing prompt for exploring your own characters. You’ll also see the dozens of examples participants shared in the comments.
What is a Word Hoard?
As Megan explains, a word hoard is a list of words that can be generated by a group to start a writing activity. (Really, go back and read her post — in respect of her copyrights, I’m not repeating it here.)
How I Used a Word Hoard for my Novel
Following Megan’s prompt, I used her activity as a way to more deeply clarify my understanding of 6 key characters in the novel I am revising.
I immediately felt the value: to generate a word hoard for each character, I had to close my eyes and imagine myself fully inside that character’s skin. Shallow efforts would not have been meaningful: I emotionally wallowed down into each, letting details from the writing bring them into view. I imagined details of their backstory or the setting of one of their scenes or their history with another character or a particular possession or memory.
Once I was fully “there,” I wrote down one word that character would think of, and then another until I had at least 10 words per character. Some feedback on how the process worked for me:
- My format: I could have done this in a journal or on a legal pad, but I do all my novel work in Word. In Word, I used the simple insert-table button from the toolbar to create a table 6 wide and 2 tall (1 column for each character, 1 row for their names then I listed the words in a second “row”; I could have made 10 rows, but this was simpler). See activities below for how students might vary formats.
- One at a time or all at once? I tried rotating through the characters, listing one word at a time for each. This was fun, as I felt the contrast as I went along, but it was inefficient going in and out of character (which would tempt someone not to take the time to get deep into character), so I finished the lists one character at a time. That pattern — one word each, then finish each character’s list — might be a good way to go, as you get the benefit of contrast and efficiency.
- Make it work: I let the list be shorter (say, 5 words instead of 10-15) for minor characters.
- An editor’s pass. Although this is a brainstorming activity, make your hoards powerful by going back when you’re done. Mark out words that aren’t that strong, or add definition to those that really resound. If I said motorcycle for my main character, I might add crash or the make and model of the bike his father raced, or one powerful sensory detail like the smell of oil.
Word Hoards as a Writers Workshop Activity to Develop Character and More
By the time I had 2-3 words per character, I could immediately distinguish clear differences between my characters. Each character’s word hoard revealed a very different voice and tone. One character wants peace, another wants action, one wants revenge, another to save the world. And the young son? Just wants to play with his cars.
Clearly, the voice of each character would reflect that.
In guiding students to write fiction in a workshop, reflect and practice how that would extend throughout the writing:
- dialogue — what the characters say but also what they hide; how emphatically they speak or when they choose to be silent
- actions — including hand gestures, nervous ticks, irritation or boredom
- author’s tone toward the characters
- relationships between characters — what does it reveal if a character says he wants peace but falls for a woman who wants action? how might a son who just wants to play with his cars be impatient with a mother obsessed with solving a crisis? Extend this to the world around them: how will the character who wants revenge be punished or judged?
- setting — what elements of time or place impact the words in your character’s hoard, or how are the story’s time or place obstacles to the character?
- other details — writing settings and details is not just about painting a picture, but about revealing the filter through which each character sees the world. How does each character’s hoard suggest the kinds of objects or details that character would notice? Add those.
Literary Activities Using Word Hoards
Considering how fun it was to watch my character word hoards take shape and how deeply they pulled me into understanding character, I immediately envisioned ways to use hoards for fun literary activities.
- What character am I? In literary circles, pairs or even whole group, students each envision one character from a book that the class or circle has been reading. It should be from a book with several characters, or else students might select characters from a short list of books that they’ve all recently read (hey, great way to review for midterms or finals). On a card or in their journals or blog, students imagine they are that character, really working to get as deep inside that mind as they can — this is the fun of it. Students brainstorm a list of 10-12 random words that would come to that character’s mind. They do not write down the character’s name on the list (they might use one side of a card for the name and the other side for the list, like a flashcard). Game options:
- In pairs, students call out or reveal one of their words at a time, taking turns. Goal: see who can guess the other’s character first. When finish, trade partners with another group, working around the room for as many cycles as desired.
- Small groups could face off against each other, similar to the game for pairs, keeping score to see which team could identify the most characters.
- The same thing could be done whole-group, for reading groups needing closer modeling or review.
- Individual Practice. As an alternative literary review, students work independently, creating a T-chart or other graphic organizer with space for each major character in a literary work. Students then either brainstorm their own words from the minds of characters, or identify the actual words used by the author to signal the distinctive characteristics of each.
- Organization for literary analysis. Student creates a graphic organizer as a brainstorming step prior to writing a literary analysis that evaluates a single character or compares different characters from one or more works. The student can evaluate the power of the words in their brainstorming: weak words can be crossed out. Really powerful words might be highlighted or circled, and the student might look for quotes from the text to illustrate them. Arrows or other relationship signals can be drawn to develop connections that might be made during their analytical essay. These relationships can be numbered, to begin organizing them into paragraphs. Ultimately, the word hoard should generate character-specific and revealing word choice to be used in their analytical writing.
- Creative fun in interactive reader notebooks. Word hoard lists might be a menu alternative for interactive reader’s notebooks. I am a huge fan of the participatory nature of interactive notebooks. Rather than in a structured list or chart, hoarded words could be written in illustrative fonts, circled in concentric ripples, written in colors, illustrated with doodles, drawn with icons indicating relationships between other hoard words or other characters, illustrated in ways that connect the character to setting or other literary devices, or just reveal the fun and excitement the reader feels about the book or character. This kind of an interactive notebook page could be taken further with flaps, envelope pockets, or other 3-dimensional options.
Cross-Curricular Connection: Historical Figures
I also happen to be a history teacher and could see these same activities being adapted to play with famous historical characters.
- Add a word hoard to a lapbook on a famous explorer.
- Use the who am I? game above to review important people at a unit’s end.
- Use the same process of organizing for literary analysis to compare key figures when writing an essay comparing inventors or political figures.
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How About You?
If you have been participating in Teachers Write, do say hello in the comments here. How have the prompts been going for you, or what inspiration have you found?
Summer is a great time for brainstorming and expanding our professional learning networks. What resources or a-ha moments have been most revealing for you?
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