Sociograms: An Alternative to the Essay

Alternatives to the Essay: Sociograms

Sociograms are visual representations of the interaction of characters in a novel. They are a wonderfully flexible assessment tool and can be used in all grade levels. Best of all, they require the same sort of critical analysis that you would use in writing an essay. If you’re looking for something a little different than a final paper (or an alternative form of assessment), a sociogram might be just what you’re looking for.

Alternatives to the Essay: Sociograms

How it works:

We just finished our unit on Romeo and Juliet and did a sociogram. Here’s the procedure that I gave them:

  1. Pick a character to be in the middle. It doesn’t need to be Romeo and Juliet, but it should be a major character.
  2. Add the other characters from the play by connecting them to the main character in the middle. Any characters that have some sort of significant interaction should be connected. This applies to the character in the middle as well as characters on the periphery that interact during the play. You can leave characters off, but be prepared to justify why you did.
  3. Add something to the lines to indicate the importance of the relationship. You can add different colors, or make them dotted or squiggly lines, or make the lines actual shapes (like hearts or daggers.) Provide a key that explains what each line means.
  4. To each line add a brief description of the interaction between the characters in the play. For example, you may already have a line that indicates that Romeo and Tybalt are enemies, but you might have a description such as “Romeo kills Tybalt” on the line.
  5. Group the characters in some meaningful way with a color, symbol, or font that represents a meaningful grouping in the play. Obviously for “Romeo and Juliet” grouping them as “Montagues,” “Capulets,” and “neither” is appropriate. But can you think of any others? (I like it when they group them based on who is alive and who is dead at the end.)
  6. Add a symbol that represents each character’s role in the novel. (This last part is important to emphasize, otherwise they’ll pick the Eiffel Tower for Paris.) Explain in 2 or 3 sentences on a separate sheet of paper why you chose the symbol that you did.

I have them create their sociograms on large pieces of paper that I purchased at Michael’s. We also have a bunch of markers in our department that hey could use for their final. I always require them to do a rough draft to show me first – some do it on notebook paper, but others used an app called Popplet to plan it out. It usually takes them one period to plan it out after I explain the procedure and a couple of periods after that to finish it. I always have them explain the symbols that they chose

Alternatives to the Essay: Sociograms
Students using the Popplet app to plan out their sociogram.


Other ideas:

I also I kept it pretty simple this year, but next year I’ll add a couple more tasks: the size of the character on the sociogram should reflect how important that character is to the character in the middle. Or I might have them do it based on their location – the closer they are, the more significant the relationship is. Sometimes I’ve had them pick a quote that describes the relationship between characters rather than just have them describe it (we ran out of time for that this year.)

Alternatives to the Essay: Sociograms
Another sociogram. Notice in every picture they have their phones close by. Crazy kids.

I did this with freshmen who need more structure than my seniors. Once they get more advanced I have them use the sociogram to demonstrate a theme, or have them create a unifying concept that makes sense from the work. I have people do a spider web for Othello and a long braid of hair for Janie in Their Eyes are Watching God and add elements to it that reflect character roles. What you don’t want it to have them impose one symbolic structure on top of another – generally sociograms based off of Star Wars or Disney where they try to match up characters from one work to the other don’t turn out very well.

I have always bought a big pad of paper and provided markers and colored pencils for them to work from. I require them to draw out everything – they don’t tend to do a good job sizing things they print off of the computer and it always looks neater if they do it by hand. I tell them they won’t be graded on their ability to draw, but they do need to show an ability to work around their artistic limitations.


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