In the first episode of Bates Motel, Norman Bates and his mother hide a body in their hotel room. A couple of police officers come by unannounced, just looking things over. As you might expect the tension in the scene comes from whether or not the policemen will uncover the body.
As I watched this episode I remember thinking to myself how odd it was that I was rooting against the policemen. I didn’t want them to find the body. I was hoping that Norman and his mother would get away with it. Since Norman was the protagonist, I was hoping that he would succeed, even though in real life there’s no way I would wish that the police wouldn’t discover a murder in a hotel.
Point of View
Such is the power of point of view. Tell the story from the policemen’s point of view, and we want law and order to prevail. Tell it from the criminal’s point of view, and we want to see someone do something wrong and get away with it.
Point of view is a literary technique we cover for much of our students’ lives, but by the time they are in secondary we want our students to move beyond a simple understanding of point of view. We don’t want them to just be able to identify first person from third person, and third person limited from omniscient. We want them to be able to tell how point of view affects a story – how it shapes our understanding of the action based on who tells it.
An Activity to Help Students Understand How Point of View Works
I introduce point of view early on in the school year with an activity that gets students thinking about it. I show them this New Yorker cover from Adrian Tomine:
I project in on the screen, but I also have it available for students on their iPads so they can zoom in and look at the details.
I like to use this cover because it’s an objective view of a scene and the students are forced to make some inferences about what’s going on: the woman feels guilty that she is receiving a package from Amazon because she lives right next door to a bookstore. Unfortunately, he’s opening (or closing) the store for the day right when she gets her delivery. Talk about awkward.
How I Do It
I split the class into groups of three and have each person pick a different character from the scene. Then, using either first person or third person limited point of view, they have to tell the story from that person’s point of view. (If you have a group of four, you can have one student do third person omniscient, or have two student do the same character, but from first person and third person limited.) It’s best that students don’t know too much about what the other members of the group are doing, but they do need to stay consistent with what’s in the image (interior monologues are a good way to keep them focused.) Obviously students need to know the definitions of the different points of view, so you might have to review them.
The Next Day
The following day the students share their stories, not reading them word for word, but giving the basic framework for what they did. I then ask them to answer the following questions.
- What assumptions did you have to make about the characters?
For example, you can’t see the bookseller’s face, so you have to assume what his reaction is. Same thing with the UPS guy, but my experience with them leads me to believe he’s thinking about quickly jumping in his truck and going off to the next delivery.
You also have to assume character’s reactions to the event, and this is a fun playground to be in. What does the woman assume that the bookseller is thinking, and vice versa?
- What does your character know that the other characters do not?
The big one here is obviously: what’s in the package? It might not be a book. Or it could be a used book that wasn’t available at the bookstore.
- Who is the best person to tell the story?
If you want an objective reading of the event, the UPS guy would probably be the best because he isn’t invested in what’s going on. However, most students said that the woman is the best person because she knows what’s in the package. We know from the composition that Tomine wants us to believe that too – she’s in the center of the image and she’s the only face we see.
Why is this important?
Developing an understanding of point of view can help students understand that there are multiple sides to every story. Sadly, many of us shelter ourselves from other points of view, only listening to those who agree with us politically or ideology. We can’t understand how anyone would think differently than us, and we surround ourselves with people on social media who reinforce that our world view is right. As teachers we want to develop students that will consider all sides of a story. Students whose opinions come from their own minds and not from what gets pushed to them on social media.
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David Rickert is a high school English teacher in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. He has been teaching for over 20 years and has taught virtually every grade and every subject. David is passionate about developing lessons that make difficult language arts subjects fun and engaging. He is also an author on Teachers Pay Teachers.