5 Perspective-Taking Activities to Encourage Critical Thinking

Today, special guest Jenna Copper of Doc Cop Teaching talks about critical thinking and perspective-taking in the Secondary ELA Classroom.

Has anyone ever told you to “get some perspective”? Though it might seem like a biting comment, there actually might be wisdom behind it. When you “ get some perspective,” you learn to see things from a new point of view. While it certainly is challenging, learning perspective-taking skills can reap important social and cognitive rewards. First, this activity requires higher-order thinking skills, like the ability to create and imagine an alternative reality. Not only does this activity engage those higher-order thinking skills, but it also can result in important social skills, like the ability to empathize leading to a kinder, more tolerant population. I’ve been researching perspective-taking activities my entire career, and I’ve found that teaching it doesn’t have to be as challenging as it seems. Today, I’m sharing five tried and true perspective-taking activities that you can use in your ELA classroom to engage your students’ critical thinking skills and encourage empathetic understanding and feeling.

  1. Analyze With Literary Lenses

Literary lenses are an adaptation of literary theory that introduces students to multiple lenses for which to read, interpret, and analyze literature. A formal analysis is a traditional mode for analyzing literature by close reading a text focusing on the text itself to arrive at an understanding of the meaning, such as vocabulary and literary devices. While there is certainly a place for this type of formal analysis in an ELA classroom, literary lenses introduce new (and interesting) ways to interpret a text that might be more accessible and engaging to students versus the traditional mode. For example, in addition to a vocabulary study and formal literary analysis discussion questions, when we read Beowulf, we complete a psychological analysis of Grendel, and we deconstruct the good versus evil conflict by reading excerpts from John Gardner’s Grendel. My students love acting out the psychologist-Grendel conversation, which leads to some deep conversations about the nature of good versus evil. Some lenses you might consider are historical, social, gender, biographical, psychological, cultural, and reader lenses. Here are some of my favorite multiple-perspective activities:
  • Facilitate a Socratic Seminar on gender roles to explore the way the gender roles impact the story.
  • Role play as a psychologist and a character from the story to analyze the emotional conflict and turmoil for a character.
  • Assign a journal assignment for students to record their own thoughts and feelings as they read the text.
  • Ask students to research the historical period of the work and present about the ramifications of it.
  • Assign an invented interview between the author and another character.
If you want to learn more about using literary lenses in study literature, you can check out my guide to literary theory.

  1. Give Students Choice

I am a firm believer in choice reading, and so are my students! Since I added a choice reading unit to my curriculum, I have been blown away by my students enthusiasm and creativity. Giving students choice has so many benefits, and when paired with activities that encourage sharing, students learn about so many new perspectives. I created a project-based assessment to go along with my choice reading unit that encourages students to evaluate their choice book based on new perspectives. Each year, I think they won’t be able to top the last, and yet, they still do!

  1. Take a Virtual Trip

One of the best methods to learn about new perspectives is to travel to new places and meet new people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take our students all over the world to learn new perspectives? Obviously, there are so many barriers in our way that this dream isn’t a reality, but with technology, there are some pretty cool alternatives:
  • Use Skype for a virtual mystery meet up with a classroom from a different state or country. You can use social media to meet educators who are more than excited to do this. Your students can ask each other questions via a video chat to learn about their culture and guess where they are located.
  • Explore the world with Google Earth. Take students on a virtual field trip to gain new perspectives on the world.
  • Speaking of Google Earth, take a Google Lit Trip. Using Google Earth, your students will go on a journey through a book following the path of their favorite characters.

  1. Read Picture Books

Even though I teach upper-level English, I am an enthusiastic advocate for using picture books in high school to build perspective-taking skills. Plus, my students love when I pull out a picture book for a read aloud. Big kids like picture books too, and it’s an academically supported strategy. Picture books are short, accessible, visually stimulating, and engaging, so they give you a great opportunity to introduce new perspectives. This year, my AP Language and Composition class analyzed rhetorical strategies in Malala Youzanafi’s “I Am Malala” picture book; in AP Literature and Composition, I use “The Day the Crayons Quit” to teach tone. Check out my FREE guide to introducing picture books into your classroom to build perspective-taking skills.

  1. Write Creatively

Creative writing is an often neglected component in secondary ELA classes. At least, it was in mine until I started teaching a creative writing elective. After teaching this class, I realized just how valuable creative writing exercises can be for traditional reading and writing classes. You can check out my narrative writing unit as an example. Providing opportunities for creative writing as bellringers or as a supplemental assignment gives students a chance to put perspective-taking into practice. In fact, they have to invent a new perspective from a character’s point of view. This is a great opportunity to challenge them to see things from a new perspective. Here are some ideas:
  • Choose a controversial, school-appropriate topic. Then, write an invented dialogue between two characters arguing over this topic.
  • Imagine you are the main character in the story. Invent a daydream that this character might have. Write in first person from the character’s perspective.  Identify when this daydream would happen in the story.
  • Create a character outline for someone who has a very different personality than you. Explain his/her personality with detail. Invent two circumstances that highlight this person’s personality.
There are so many benefits to adding perspective-taking practices into your classroom, but as far as the teacher goes, one of the best parts about perspective-taking learning is that you are very likely to get some new perspectives on your students, classroom, and practice! Thank you to the Secondary English Coffee Shop for inviting me to share my ideas on their blog!

Jenna Copper (aka Doc Cop) is a full-time high school English teacher and a part-time college professor specializing in perspective-taking learning to build critical reading and writing skills. She earned her Ph.D. in Education in 2013. In addition, she is a curriculum writer and researcher, and she designs resources to inspire creative thinking. You can find her daily teaching tidbits on Instagram @doccopteaching and read more on perspective-taking research on her blog.
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