Literature & Writing: Exploring Character with Word Hoard Activities

word hoard post


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:

  • 1907364_876609592353825_1937506217078596531_nTeachers 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 HoardsCheck 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.Blakemore_MeganFrazerWeb

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

word hoard screenBy 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. Add a word hoard to a lapbook on a famous explorer.
  2. Use the who am I? game above to review important people at a unit’s end.
  3. 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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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email. I love to connect with other educators and writers.

Boards set up by subject, unit or skill. Mrs. T's Middle Grades

Boards set up by subject, unit or skill. Mrs. T’s Middle Grades

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Friday Links for Educators 06.27.14

summerAs much as we educators sigh a relaxing ahhhhh at the thought of our summer months, for most of us, the months “off” are a time for reflection, reading, and deepening our understanding of all that we do in the classroom.

This week’s Links for Educators captures some of the best articles I’ve come across recently. If these resound with you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments — or share your own links (including those to your own posts), as well.

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Technology in Writing Workshop: When Students Take the Lead

Two Writing Teachers has long been one of my favorite blogs, and this post by Tara Smith shares great insight into how Google docs and other technology have enriched successes in her writing workshops.

Notes on Teaching Writing Using Tech

More along those lines… Heard of grass-roots PLN ed-camps? This document shares a list of resources that were shared by various teachers at EdCamp Chicago for using technology in teaching writing.

How to Engage Your Strongest Readers

I came across this great post by Pernille Ripp when link to it was tweeted by Edutopia. Activating gifted or advanced readers is an important class focus, and Pernille gives great approaches for keeping these readers inspired and challenged.

Are Children’s Books Darker Than They Used to Be?

Whether you’re a librarian, English teacher, teacher stocking a classroom library, writer of children’s lit or a parent… you’re bound to, at times, have questioned the themes of certain kid-lit or young adult lit today. Teens fighting to the death for the right to eat? Kids in deathly battles against evil lords? Kids telling lies that end in murder? What on earth?! This article at The Guardian is an interesting discussion of what place darkness has in children’s and teen’s literature.

Preventing Bullying with Emotional Intelligence

This article at Education Week acknowledges that bullying awareness has left educators well-versed in defining bullying and perhaps with an arsenal of approaches for clamping down on symptoms, but contends that punitive approaches do not solve the problem. Rather, educators should focus on teaching emotional intelligence, enabling potential bullies to learn to regulate their own emotional state and for bystanders and victims to better cope.  A useful definition of emotional intelligence appears several paragraphs in.

9 Questions to Optimize Your Collaboration

I loved this list of questions shared by John Wink at his Lead Learner site. If you plan with a teaching team, you can relate to how this list of questions would help optimize the effectiveness of every collaborative meeting to the benefit of teachers and students.


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What About You?

What resources are inspiring you most in reaching your summer goals?  Feel free to share your thoughts on today’s links in the comments, or share great links you’ve found, including to posts on your own blog.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option, or via email. I love to connect with readers and fellow teachers or writers.

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Boards set up by subject, unit or skill. Mrs. T's Middle Grades

Boards set up by subject, unit or skill. Mrs. T’s Middle Grades


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Teachers Write – An Online Summer Writing Forum for Teachers


Do you teach writing — whether it is your subject area, a cross-curricular skill or one of several subjects you teach as an elementary teacher?  And, for fun or professionally, do you write, yourself?

Last year, I was still exclusively teaching middle grade Writing. As summer approached, I also had a fresh novel draft and a growing writing blog, and I wanted nothing more than to turn those long summer days-off with my sons into a finished novel and thriving blog. So I was happily surprised to stumble across a fabulous, dynamic and free resource for teachers: Teachers Write.

Teachers Write is the equivalent of an online writing camp for teachers. The forum is hosted by middle grade/young adult fiction writers Kate Messner, Gae Polisner and Jo Knowles.  Kate and Gae announced the project in spring 2012, and you could hear the excitement in their updates when more than 700 teachers nationwide signed up. Participation this year is over 1,000.

Teachers Write posts daily writing activities to help teachers stay motivated in pursuing individual writing goals during the summer months. There are teachers at all writing levels, working in all formats. While the daily prompts help set up a healthy routine (dare we say discipline?), participants are encouraged to set their own goals for involvement. Says Kate, in announcing the schedule: “Schedule is kind of an ugly word for summer, isn’t it? So let’s call this the plan-of-the-day instead. Feel free to participate in whatever floats your boat and skip the rest.”

It’s Summer – Why Write?

If you love to write, that’s not even a question for you. There are lots of teachers who write on a regular basis, and participants in Teachers Write cover the full range from those keeping a journal, creative writing or blogging as a hobby, to professional, published fiction and nonfiction writers. Wouldn’t you bet a large percentage of participants are those who have always loved to write, dreamed of writing, but rarely claim the time?

On the other hand, many participants say they have come to Teachers Write because they never write, are afraid to write or that teaching writing is the subject they feel least confident about. They have the right idea: many professional development programs agree that teachers are better able to model good writing practices when they practice writing frequently, themselves.

The National Writing Project lists as the second of its four core principles: “Knowledge about the teaching of writing comes from many sources: theory and research, the analysis of practice, and the experience of writing. Effective professional development programs provide  frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and to examine theory, research, and practice together systematically” (emphasis added).

Whether out of love or trepidation, participants join Teachers Write to be motivated and encouraged through the forum’s routine.

The Basics – How It Works

Teachers Write posts activities every day except Saturday. There are mini-lesson Mondays and a Monday warm-up, Tuesday quick-write, Wednesday Q & A, Thursday quick-write, Friday “happy hour” and Friday Feedback. There’s a Friday bonus and a Sunday check-in, to share how your week went. Whether lessons, prompts or Q & A, participants are motivated by insights from published authors — including the program hosts as well as visiting writers.

There is lots of encouragement… but no real whip cracking. If you are interested but worry you won’t be able to participate every day or even every week, you won’t be the only one. It’s summer for the hosts, too, and they talk frequently about fitting writing in while playing with kids, sitting poolside, vacationing or (gasp!) working.

Where do participants complete their work, and do they have to share? That’s up to you and — for teachers on vacation — that flexibility is one benefit.

Teachers Write 2013 button. Visit the site for more info.

Teachers Write 2013 button. Visit the site for more info.

When a participant asked where to share their work today, Kate explained: “You can share short excerpts in the comments for each blog post/assignment. Some people share more on their own blogs, or simply keep a notebook or file for Teachers Write. How/when/where you share is up to you.”

The resources shared by the hosts and fellow participants is another great benefit. For example, a participant at the Facebook forum today said she wants to set up a blog and wondered whether to use Blogger or WordPress. There was immediate useful feedback from fellow participants, sharing their experiences ranging from simple impressions to detailed advice.

Join In – Where to Find Teachers Write

Enough already… if you’re interested, you should really go check out the official site:

  1. To start, go to Kate Messner’s site for the Announcement of Teachers Write, with an explanation and sign-up form. There is no cost, but you’ll see a reasonable request that you consider buying books by the hosting writers. They’re established writers and it’s a fair approach.
  2. Most daily prompts will be on Kate’s site.
  3. Monday warm-ups will be on Jo Knowles’ site.
  4. Friday Feedback is at Gae Polisner’s site.
  5. Sunday check-ins are on Jen Vincent’s Teach Mentor Texts site.

Here are other ways to connect and interact:

  • Teachers Write Facebook page: this is a central place where updates are posted. Participants post questions and interact with each other here, as well. (It is not a forum for self-promotion.)
  • Teachers Write Roster: Want to build platform, get other teachers reading your blog or otherwise connect with participating teachers? Use the form on the Facebook page to add yourself to the participants’ roster. I’ve met some great teachers this way.
  • TW list on Twitter: if participants list themselves on the roster, above, writer Joanne Levy will add them to this member list on Twitter.

Be sure to show some love for the writers who give so much of their time to this project. Here are links for more information on their books:

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What about you?

Are you a teacher who writes? Is summer your free time to write, or is budgeting time for writing a concern for you? How might Teachers Write or other groups or prompts help you stay disciplined in your writing… or would they be a distraction?

If you’ve never dared write before, how might Teachers Write or other writing prompts help you brave it?

Good luck, whatever your summer goals might be!

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