Tip 8: How to Use a Text You Didn’t Pick

Look for the text’s strengths.

No text is perfect, but (hopefully) every text has something good about it. Don’t be like the history teachers we used to have in middle school who would insist on going through the book page by page. I don’t think I ever learned anything in school about American history past the Civil War until I became a college history major.

Find what is good about the text and use it.

I had a text I did not like this last year. It had three redeeming features (in my opinion). One was an incredible set of graphics and the others were two good sections, one on art and one on advertising. As a class we began with the art section, used the graphics and their questions after that, and then went on to the advertising section. That was it. I didn’t use anything but the best from that text, even when it was fairly limited.

Look for the text’s weaknesses.

No text is perfect. Every text is going to have some flaw. You need to examine the text and see what flaws you find.

Be honest about what those flaws are. Tell the students. Model critical reading for them. It will encourage them to read critically as well. It will also encourage them to look at flaws even in their textbooks, the medium of received knowledge which until your class has been sacrosanct.

Avoid the weaknesses of the text as much as possible or, if it is not possible, point out the weakness and ask for the students to recommend some other way of doing the thing or some other article on the topic or … It gets them involved.

Don’t solely focus on the weaknesses though. Your department (or whoever) picked this book for a reason. Focus on the redeeming feature(s).

Teach to your strengths, whether the text goes there or not.

Sometimes we have to work with what we are given, but we can still find what we do well in that area and teach with it in mind.

Remember that the text is a tool.

The text is not supposed to be a bear trap that springs closed on your classroom and holds it still till it bleeds out. It is supposed to be a starting point, a jumping off point, a useful tool for your teaching. Use it; don’t let it abuse you.

Tip 7: Things to Emphasize on Your Syllabus

Your willingness to help.

Some students are afraid to ask for help. Telling them that you want and expect them to can help them get over that hurdle.

What a successful student does.

Although you can’t model success in the classroom, you can identify it.

“A successful student attends all classes.”
“A successful student arrives on time.”
“A successful student does the homework.”
“A successful student asks questions in a timely manner.”

What facilities and resources are available for additional help

Make sure you identify your office and your office hours.

Give the room number of the writing lab. If the hours are simple, give those as well.

Give the phone number for and the room number of the tutoring center. Again, if hours are simple, give those as well.

Questions are good

Some students will not stop asking questions, whether they need to or not. But most students are afraid to be embarrassed by asking a question. You need to set a policy, and act on it, that encourages questions.

You could even ask questions yourself and have the students answer, using the method identified in How to Tell Immediately if Your Class is Getting It.

Tip 6: How to Get Students to Talk to Each Other

Why this is important

According to Tinto, student retention is significantly improved by academic and social integration.

Academic integration includes identifying with one’s role as a student (such as in Tip 5’s suggestion to have students sign a paper stating they agree to abide by class rules.)

Social integration includes personal contact with academics, making friends at school, and being comfortable around campus.

The issue of social integration is the focus of this post, specifically the section on making friends at school. Many students, especially at non-residential colleges, don’t really have any means of getting to know other students outside of class. I realize that the classroom’s main purpose is not to allow students to make friends; having said that, however, I believe that we can encourage our students to stay in school by giving them an opportunity to meet other students.

Introduce each other.

This is why, as in Tip 5, on the first day of class I have them get in small groups to meet each other and then have them introduce one another out loud in class. It breaks the ice for the students and it lets them know if and where similar students in the class are.

Have them respond to questions.

Again, as in Tip 5, ask the students questions and have them answer them on the first day.

Favorite restaurants as a question lets me know where the students hang out, lets them know if there are others with similar tastes, and is (generally) a fairly innocuous question. Even with students from severely limited socioeconomic status, there are usually still favorite restaurants.

Another question I ask is what is the farthest distance the student has traveled. This could be a bit odd if one student has never been anywhere, but I could easily discuss the fact that such a thing is more common in England and that, in fact, folks from New York City don’t usually move around or visit. If I felt they were very embarrassed, I would use this to segue into a discussion of how hard 9/11 was for people who never left town and didn’t know anyone outside the city. In addition, this question allows me to recognize and thank our veterans.

Have students move around the room in a mixer.

I have done this a couple of ways.

One is a fill out the questionnaire game. In this I come to class with a list of questions that I think someone in the class will match. Then the students have to go to people, introduce themselves, and ask the person a single question (if you have lots of time) or if they fit any of the criteria (if you don’t). This gets them talking to each other.

Sample lines from the questionnaire would be:
I have at least three siblings.
I was born here in Houston and have never lived outside of Houston.
I am married.
I am a business major.

Another way is to have the students stand up. Then give each corner of the room a number. You call out a question- How many kids are in your family?- and have people move to the corner that matches. (Obviously the fourth corner could be four or more.) Then people have to meet everyone in their corner. Then you go to the next question.

This idea is a bit messy. Some classes don’t like it. And it can get loud.

But it does get the students introduced to each other, which is the point.

Use collaborative work.

I do not like collaborative work much. It’s too easy for one person to do all the work.

But I still have group work in class so that students will have a reason to talk with each other. It is usually to answer questions from a reading we did in class, since that way I know they have all done it.

I’m all for keeping our students in college. And if it helps keep them in my class, it’s a blessing to the class as well.

Tip 5: How to Introduce the Class

Give them a good syllabus.

As you get more experienced, your syllabus can be more detailed and, I believe, it should be. But at the beginning at least let them know what you will be reading, writing, and covering each week.

See other posts on Syllabi including How to Create a Syllabus, 5 Useful Online Sites for Preparing, and 5 Ways to Strengthen a Syllabus.

Go over the syllabus.

They aren’t going to read it if you don’t present it. So go over it, at least mentioning the major sections.

Ask them to agree they have read the syllabus.

If you do this, you must go over each section. But it is a good thing to do to stave off, “But I didn’t know that.”

You can have them sign a paper saying they agree to abide by the class rules. Those should be spelled out in the syllabus as well.

Get them talking to each other and grouping together.

I go around the class and ask students their names and a question or two. These are usually things like favorite restaurant or band. Then I have students get in groups of two or three and ask each other questions, such as major, family, work, and where they are from. Then the students introduce each other.

This gives everyone in the class something to say that is easy (because it is about someone else) and it gives me two chances on the first day to match the names with the faces.

It also makes them aware of people in the class they have things in common with. After this intro I will often say things like, “So we have three nursing majors. Yall raise your hands.” That way it helps reinforce possible groups.

This is important because students who are involved with other students on campus are more likely to stay in college. (Obviously if they are partying with them non-stop that won’t work, but if they’re going to do that they won’t need my help.)

After that, I go through the roll and try to match each student. I’m usually about 85% successful. Then I offer an extra credit quiz on student names or points if someone thinks they can name everyone.

Tip 4: How to introduce yourself

Think of it as an interview.

How can you show that you are a good teacher?

The students don’t know who you are. They assume some credibility because you are teaching their class, but they don’t know how far they can trust you. Let them know.

Create a shortened form of a resume (not a vita) on the board, an overhead, or on the computer. Give them your education, your teaching experience, and (especially if that is limited) any other relevant experience. This will let them know that you are an expert.

Why are you a good teacher for this class?

Tell them specifically why you are a good teacher of this topic. (If you aren’t, leave this part out.) For my comp students, I tell them that I have a PhD in rhetoric. For my literature students, I tell them I am a voracious reader and have studied a lot of literature.

Let them know some things you have in common.

If you are an alumni of the school, let them know.

If you can relate to them on difficulties in learning English (or any topic), let them know. I always tell my students that I don’t expect that everyone in this class will get As, though I think most of them can. I tell them that sometimes a C is the very best work the student can do and that, if that is true for them, they should be proud of it. Then I tell them about two Cs I made that I am very proud of (Genetics and Geometry). I do not tell them about the two Cs I am not proud of. They don’t need to know that. But I tell them how hard I had to work in the classes and how difficult it was for me. I tell them that I didn’t give up and that, in Genetics at least, I was one of only 9 students who finished the course out of 70 who started.

If you are taking classes while you are teaching, let them know. It’s good for them to know that this is a job for you and that your education continues.

Show your humanity.

Students like to know you are “real,” but they don’t want you to spend the whole class period all the time telling about your baby or your grandbaby or your tabby. I introduce my family when I tell my students about my experience as a homeschooling mother and then I say that both my sons are now in college. I don’t talk about them all the time, but I let them know that I am a person as well as a teacher.

Tip 3: How to prepare for a new class

If you have been given a new class (either new to you or to your college), it can be overwhelming. There are some things you can do to make it more manageable however.

Hit the internet for other people’s syllabi on the same topic.

When I was first asked to teach Early British Literature I didn’t know what sophomore students at colleges usually studied. I didn’t take that class as a sophomore. So I went to the internet and put in different names of possible courses and “syllabus” into the search engine.

Doing this let me see what other people were teaching and sometimes gave me lesson plans or lecture notes or sample essays.

It also helped me not to feel so lost.

Pick stuff you are interested in.

If there is something you love about a field, make sure you teach it.

I enjoy teaching audience to my freshman composition classes. They learn a lot and I get to show off that PhD that took me twelve years to finish.

I wrote a lot of papers on Sylvia Plath’s poetry, but I no longer care for it. So, even if our anthology has some of her poems, I skip them.

When I first started teaching Early British Literature I included all the Arthur stuff, because I thought the students would be interested. Turns out they weren’t. I learned a lot about it, but then I moved on to other literature that I was more fascinated with.

What this does is
1. make the prep time easier and
2. make the class time more animated.

When you teach what you love, it shows.

Once you have a list of possible topics to cover and a list of those topics that you like, organize it into sections.

With freshman composition, I start with writing a narrative paper, because students are most used to personal expressive writing. This lets their first paper be something they know well, themselves. I use this paper to introduce my grading system and it counts the least. Then I introduce whatever I think they need next.

For Early Brit Lit, I organized the readings into eras. When I figured out I couldn’t get to Shakespeare because I had too many earlier topics, I knew it was an issue.

Once you have the sections, organize the pieces.

One section would be research paper, since most schools require those. Then I work backwards trying to divide that up.

I want a paper and a revision. I need to teach them note taking and how to evaluate websites. I also want to talk about organization. The book has a good chapter on generating ideas and planning. All those things go into a list of sections.

If I’m going to have a compare/contrast paper, I want to introduce both kinds. Then I want to talk about how to synthesize the two together. I have a few websites with good examples they can look at. I want them to write on a particular set of topics. Whatever.

I may not use all the sections I come up with, but at least I have the beginnings of an organization system.

Tip 2: How to Organize, for the Disorganized

I am not an organized person naturally. I know where things were, but the clutter to other people was atrocious. And sometimes, when I was not thinking about it, I have left a necessary pile at home. I no longer do that.

I have figured out a few vital points for how to avoid disorganization and maximize organization easily.

Don’t accept late papers.

This comes out of the horrific experience of not having said I would not accept late papers. I had one student turn in every writing assignment, including five essays and two research papers, the week of finals. The papers were horrible, but I had no recourse but to grade them. I wasted a lot of time and, hopefully, the student wasted even more. So learn from my mistake.

But it also keeps you from having a paper come in one day late, another two days late, another a week late, and another two weeks late. You may not remember exactly what you accepted or how you counted something by the time you have finished all the grading.

I think this is a great tip, but I can’t do it myself. 😉

Instead, what I do is I accept papers one class period late only.

I also define ahead of time how many points off that will be. If it is a MWF class and a paper is due on Monday and you turn it in Wednesday, it is ten points off. But if it is due on Friday and you turn it in Monday, you get twenty points off because you had extra time to work on it. The same holds for a Tuesday/Thursday class. If it is due on Tuesday and you turn it in Thursday, you lose ten points. If it is due Thursday and you turn it in Tuesday, you lose twenty points.

So, really this first point should be: Don’t accept papers more than one day late and make sure you know ahead of time how the grading will change due to lateness.

But if you can do the whole “No late papers,” it will be even easier and more organized.

If you do accept late papers, make sure you write “Late” in pen on the top of the paper when you receive it.

This helps you know, when you get home and are grading, that you didn’t misfile the paper, but it was late.

It also helps when the students say “Why did I lose ten points?” and you don’t remember it was late.

Have expandable file folders for each class you teach.

These are most useful if they are color coded.

As an adjunct at multiple schools I use one color for freshman comp at school 1 and another color for the same class at school 2. Then I have a different folder for composition and literature at each school.

If I were at one school and I taught four of the same course, I might change colors for MWF and TTH. That way I would know which classes I had to grab for any given day.

I also tag the file folders with name tags, identifying which class they are for. That way if I have two green folders, because I have two freshman comp courses at CC1, I know which class is which, without having to open them.

Keep all the stuff for each class together.

I keep all the student papers (and the class syllabus and roll) in these folders- including papers to be graded, papers to be returned, and papers of students who did not show up for class that day. I only take them out to grade or pass back. This cuts down on loss. Also, when a student says, “I gave them to you” I can hand them the folder and ask them to find the papers. (Usually they aren’t there, because I don’t lose them anymore using this system.)

Create student email/phone lists.

Buy a package, or two, of multicolored index cards.

Use a different color for each class. (Which should explain why you might need one or two packages. It depends on how many colors you need.)

Pass them out to students on the first day of class and ask for their name, an email they use, and a phone number you can reach them at.

I usually ask the students for two other pieces of information. (Why are you in college? What do you want to get out of this class? Or how does this class help you meet your goals for life?) It gives me an indication of their handwriting and their writing ability.

Then I put rubber bands around each set and keep them together.

If I need to contact a student, I don’t have to rely on them having given the registrar updated information.

Create a filing system for each type of class you teach.

I have taken folders (manilla or colored) and created and organized my lessons. I use a single folder for a single introduction or essay, depending on what I am doing.

For instance, for my writing class, I have a compare/contrast folder, a definition/illustration folder, a teacher introduction folder, etc. For my early British lit course, I have a Beowulf folder, a Julian of Norwich folder, a history timeline folder, etc. For my comp and lit class, I have a folder for short story introduction, for different short stories, for literary analysis, etc.

I include within the file folders any notes, ideas, suggestions, and print outs of websites I use, just in case the website goes away. That has happened before.

What this filing system allows me to do is grab the folder with the lesson I am presenting and examine it, beef it up, or weed out, and take it to class to present. I don’t have to (any longer) worry if I am going to be able to find my biography of Lewis Carroll notes or my history of fairy tales. I know I will because they are in the file folders.

If I run across a great idea, or a handout, for a topic I don’t teach, I still make a folder for it and put it with the relevant class. This means that later, if I end up teaching, for example, “Hills like White Elephants,” that I already have the beginning of a lesson. It also means that I haven’t run out of ideas of ways to change up my classes if they are getting stale.

If you are totally disorganized, start with one of these ideas and implement it.

Assuming school has already started, I would begin with announcing the new late paper policy, if that is possible.

Then I would get expandable file folders.

As I went through the semester, I would start creating my filing system. I wouldn’t worry about getting it all done to start with, but just putting each lesson in a folder when I got done with it.

Tip 1: Keep Notes on Your Syllabus

Keep one copy of your syllabus for your use. Write notes on it as you go along. Write down what worked or didn’t. Write how long X took, if it turned out to be longer or shorter than you expected. If you think of a way to present something that you hadn’t thought of before, write that down. If a website comes up that is useful, or a student asks a good question, write those down.

Do this throughout the semester.

At the end of the semester, copy the notes into a version of the syllabus for next year or next semester.

Summer of 2006 I began my course with the research paper, thinking it would be best to get it done and let the rest of the summer session be easier. Instead it was frustrating to the students because there was so much they didn’t know about what I expected out of their writing and how I graded. So I wrote that down and the next summer we started class with a narrative paper.

Homework: Write a narration of an important event in your life, the turning point of your life, or the most exciting/unusual experience you’ve ever had. This should be one and a half to two and a half pages long, no longer please. (For help in writing this, read McCuen-Metherell and Winkler 195-99. For an example, read McCuen-Metherell and Winkler 199-204.)
The purpose of this paper is to help me to get to know you better and to help you transition from high school, which is usually focused on narrative papers like this one, into college level writing.

Another example:
Students kept asking how I determined their grade. I have a formula for that, so I told them. Then they wanted to know how much each error counted. Those differ. Eventually I started keeping a record (in fiction writing called a bible) of what errors were worth what points and, conversely, which things I gave extra points on. When I had graded about three sets of papers, I was able to take this and compile a grading rubric. It is way too detailed for most people’s interest, but it does make absolutely clear what I look for in terms of grammar and content.

A final example:
After reviewing the “model teacher” syllabus from one of my colleges, I added journaling to my course. I did not think through this idea as well as I should have and my students ended up writing an additional twenty not-quite-full-length essays. I noted which journals got the most thoughtful answers and which I thought were extraneous and I dropped the journal requirements significantly. (I also dropped the lowest journal grade and added three points to everyone’s final average, because they really did a lot more work than anyone else.)

Additional advantage:
If you keep the written on syllabi in one place, you will have a record of your evolving teaching style and you can write this up for your teaching portfolio. This can be a strong section and shows that you have a long term investment in upgrading your teaching quality.

Tip 28: How to Improve Any Class

I need to remember to explain my reasoning behind assignments. That made a HUGE difference when I was teaching cross-cultural English and when I was teaching how to express abstract thoughts well.

Hopefully it will encourage students to engage with the class if they know why an assignment has been made. Which means, of course, that I will need to have a reason for my assignments.

Describing a character for a character analysis

A strong character analysis will:

  1. identify the type of character it is dealing with. 
  2. describe the character, using various measures as detailed below.
  3. discuss the conflict in the story, particularly in regards to the character’s place in it.

To describe the character:

Consider the character’s name and appearance.

  • Is the author taking advantage of stereotypes? The hot-tempered redhead, the boring brunette, the playboy fraternity guy.
  • Is the author going against stereotypes? The brilliant blonde, the socially adept professor, the rich but lazy immigrant.
  • Is the author repeating a description of the character? If so, then it is important. For example, Kathy in East of Eden is described as rodent-like and snake-like, “sharp little teeth” and a “flickering tongue.”
  • Is their name significant? Is it a word that means something, like Honor or Hero? Does it come from a particular place or time and make reference to that? Scarlett, Beowulf.
  • Appearance and visual attributes are usually far less important than other factors, unless their appearance is the point– such as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Clothing also rarely matters, except to make him/her easier to visualize.

Consider if he/she a static (unchanging) or dynamic (changing) character. If the character has changed during the course of the story:

  • Was the change gradual or rapid?
  • Was it subtle or obvious?
  • Are the changes significant to the story or are they a minor counterpoint?
  • Are the changes believable or fantastic?
  • What was his/her motivation to change?
  • What situations or characters encouraged the change?
  • How does the character learn from or deal with the change?

Consider how the author discloses the character:

  • starBy what the character says or thinks.
  • By what the character does.
  • By what other characters say about him/her.
  • By what the author says about him/her.
  • The short form for this is STAR (says, thinks, acts, reacts).


Look for these things within the creation of the character:

psychological/personality traits
  • Do these characteristics aid in the character being consistent (in character), believable, adequately motivated, and interesting?
  • Do the characteristics of the character emphasize and focus on the character’s role in the story’s plot?
  • Is the character ethical? Is he/she trying to do the right thing, but going about it in the wrong way?
  •  Is the motivation because of emotion (love, hate) or a decision (revenge, promotion)?
behavior /actions
  • Does the character act in a certain way consistently?
  • Or is the character erratic?
  • Could one pluck the character from the story, put them in another story, and know how they would react?
  • With other characters in the story
  • How others see/react to him/her
  • Typical tragic weakness is pride.  Oedipus is proud.
  • Weakness could be anything.  In “Little Red Riding Hood,” the girl talks to a stranger.  That’s a weakness.
  • There are many different strengths and virtues.
  • One strength/virtue is being good in trying times, like Cinderella.
  • Another strength/virtue is caring for family, like Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Another strength/virtue is being smart, like Oedipus.
  • Most protagonists have more than one strength/virtue.
moral constitution
  • Often a character will agonize over right and wrong.
  • If a character doesn’t agonize and chooses one or the other easily, that is also significant.
  • Does the story revolve around this character’s actions?
  • If so, is the character the hero (protagonist) or villain (antagonist)?
complex/simple personality
  • Personalities are more likely to be simple in children’s stories, fairy tales, and short stories.
  • Personalities are more likely to be complex in longer works.
  • Even in short works, such as “The Story of an Hour,” the character’s personality can be complex.  Then it depends on what the author was focusing on.
history and background
  • Sometimes a character analysis looks at the history of the individual character.  Was that person mistreated? abused? well-loved? liked?
  • Sometimes the history of the work matters more.  Is the story set in World War II?  In ancient Greece?  That makes a difference because culture changes stories.  If you don’t know the culture, though, you may not be able to comment on this.
similarities and differences between the characters
  • This could be the foil aspect again.  (See How to write a character analysis for a longer discussion.)
  • It could be looking at how characters complement each other.
  • It could be looking at why characters would be antagonistic.
character’s function in storycinderella
  • Is the character an integral character?  (Cinderella)
  • Is the character a minor character? (The wicked stepmother in “Cinderella”)
  • Is the character someone who could have been left out or is gratuitous? (The second wicked stepsister in “Cinderella.”)

If this post was helpful to you, please leave a note in the comments to let me know. You could point out what was most helpful, so that I will know what I might want to expand later.

Besides the links in the first paragraph, other sources on the website on this topic include:
How to Write a Character Analysis: Introduction
How to Write a Character Analysis: Body Paragraphs
How to Write a Character Analysis: Titles
How to Write a Character Analysis: Conclusion
Questions for Literary Analysis: Theme
Questions for Literary Analysis: Setting
Questions for Literary Analysis: Point of View