Throughout your course, in so many of the topics you cover, you’re likely to go through a lot of questions for the students, or have them provide personal examples. This is of course a great way to get them engaged (and a great way to connect with them on a deeper level), but sometimes it can be quite limiting. For example, in many of my EFL classes, the Never-Have-I-Ever game was rather closed; most learners had never gone far beyond their hometown, sampled exotic foods, tried extreme sports, etc. The majority of experiences were either shared by everyone or unfamiliar to everyone.
With other exercises, some students may want to keep things private (while others openly share the same things). Sometimes mistakes and embarrassing moments can be worth discussing, but who wants to be honest about such things? Or maybe you just want to shake things up, because a story would be cooler to tell if you had special abilities or a pet dragon or something.
So why not give them something to talk about? Or rather, let them give themselves something and someone to talk about. Students can create a character, then use that character throughout the year for answers and examples to almost any lesson you do. Note that the specifics of this project are designed for adults and teenagers; you can use the same concept with kids, but there will be some instances where they don’t grasp the significance or where the application is not terribly beneficial.
Have the students use a notebook designated specifically for their character to keep track of everything.
Create Your Character
Start by making your character. They can live in the real word, or they can be more fantastical. They can be based on a celebrity or on another fictional character, but something needs to set them apart from the onset, and they’ll move down a different path as they develop. They can have a lot in common with the learner or who the learner wishes they were, but there should be some notable differences.
Keep in mind that while the characters can be really amazing, they shouldn’t be awesome at everything; they need to have shortcomings. For this reason, if the learners go a little overboard with brainstorming, you may want to give them a few days to reconsider before settling into things.
Here are some aspects each learner should consider. You may want to go through these on separate days. Take time out of your lesson to review descriptive vocabulary and how to introduce people. Then give the students a few days to develop their answers. Next, take some time in class to talk about narrative structures, and so on. If you can tie any of these things into topics you learned recently, then this is a great time for review.
Who are they?
age / gender / ethnicity / occupation / residence / etc.
strengths / special abilities / special tools or equipment (by the way, ‘special skills’ could be anything from ‘wizardry’ to ‘olympic-level gymnast’ to ‘always gets the pickle jar open without difficulty’)
favorites: activities / food / color / animals / etc.
companions: friends / teammates / pets
what makes them really excited? what makes them frustrated or annoyed?
what motivates them?
How did they get here?
By ‘here’ I mean who they are today. Here’s the part where students write the backstory. What was their childhood like? What was their family like? What constant challenges did they face? What was their greatest triumph? What’s their deepest regret? How did they acquire their skills? How did they meet their current friends/teammates?
Where are they going?
What is the character’s mission (to accomplish by the end of the year)? What is the first step on that mission? Do they know all the things they need to accomplish or collect in order to achieve their ultimate goal (if so, what are they)? Who and what is standing in the way? Why is the mission important (how will the character or their community change once it’s accomplished)?
Their ultimate goal can be anything from ‘go on a date with their crush’ to ‘find their dream job’ to ‘slay all the monsters from Planet Xymzthk’. The obstacles in their path shouldn’t be too easy to overcome; make it interesting and give your character some challenges.
Once the characters are created, start using them in free practice activities. If you’re working on questions, try interviewing the characters. If you’re doing past continuous vs past simple, have the characters regale their latest exploits. If you’re working on future forms, write down the characters’ plans and expectations. For relative clauses, take the details from the ‘How would you describe them’ section and put them together into complex sentences. With modals, tell us what the character should, can’t, or must not do. And so on. There are so many possibilities.
Learners can answer questions and participate in activities pretending to be their character, or they can be themselves and speak on behalf of their character.
Each month, the characters should attempt some task that might get them closer to their ultimate goal. The first task should have been decided in the ‘where are you going’ section, and subsequent tasks might depend on the results of previous tasks.
First, identify the task, who/what is standing in the way, and why it will help with the ultimate goal.
Second, optionally, tell the story of what happened. If you have students that love to write, or if your students can improvise well, or if you’re practicing narratives, use this however you see fit. Otherwise, feel free to skip the story and go straight to the result.
Next, tell us the outcome. The question raised should be “did they accomplish their task?” and the answer should either be ‘Yes, but…” or “No, and …” For example:
“Did she slay the purple monster?” “Yes, but her sword broke, and she still has to fight the orange monster sometime soon.”
“Did he ask out his crush?” “No, and now she’s going out with his best friend instead.”
With ‘yes, but’/’no, and’, the challenges of the character’s mission are always shifting, and it’s harder for characters to become stagnant.
The final thing to do in this section is to reveal how the character changed or what they learned through their challenge, then determine what the character’s task should be for next month, taking into account the results from this month’s task.
Reach a Resolution
Hopefully, your students had fun along the way, and maybe they even learned some unexpected things about their characters.
At the end of the year, it’s time to draw the journey to a close. Each student should figure out the final task and determine whether the character successfully completes their mission (for the most part, I recommend ‘yes’). Again, you can answer this issue rather simply, or you can turn it into a narrative.
At the end, each student should be able to tell you how the character changed over the year (which may or may not be a reflection of how the student changed). What was their favorite exercise in which they used their character? What decisions might they make differently if they had to do it again?
This project includes elements of a story and could turn into a story, but it doesn’t have to. The original point was just to have someone else the students could talk about. It’s up to you as the teacher how much or how little you let/ask the students develop a story through their characters’ journeys.
For students who feel less creative in this way and have trouble coming up with ideas, you can use other tools such as story cubes (whether you buy them or make your own). Similarly, you may want to roll dice or flip a coin for making decisions, such as ‘does the character succeed in this task?’