Friday, April 9, 2010

Making inferences: Inferring a character's emotions

We're making a big shift in my classroom, a shift from working with text structure to working with making inferences in fiction. I love talking with kids and listening to them talk about what they are thinking at different points in the text.

Why is it important for a reader to be able to infer a character's emotions? This is one of those topics that is on state tests and standards, but really deserves to be taught and taught well. Understanding how someone else feels is a key to understanding and loving literature. This is what reading is all about! For my fourth graders, being able to infer someone else's emotions will help them to be able to navigate the interpersonal relationships that will become more and more important in their young lives.

To get started, I needed to find out what my students already know. This is our state testing week, so another test was certainly not the way to go!

Instead, I called up groups of students to act out short scenarios. They loved this part.

Then, we talked about the situation and how the character might be feeling. I encouraged them to use the inference equation from The Comprehension Toolkit: Background Knowledge + Text Clues = Inference.

I wrote down their replies on the whiteboard. It looked something like this:

Dropping ice cream: mad, sad, annoyed

The kid next to you on the bus keeps poking you: mad, upset, angry, frustrated

Dad watches daughter crash the car into the shed: mad, upset

What did I learn from this? My students were able to use their background knowledge to make inferences. However, their inferences lacked subtlety. Now came the time for teaching. "Do you think that these events are all the same?" I asked students. "Do you think that you'd feel the same way if you dropped your ice cream as you would feel if someone wrecked your car?"

They knew that the feelings would not be the same, but they didn't have the range of vocabulary to express the differences. They were ready to learn some new words. I called up six students and gave them each a word on a notecard.

"Each of these is a word that is related to angry," I told students. "But some of them are stronger feelings than others. Try to line yourselves up from the least intense feeling to the strongest feeling."

It took some prompting from the rest of the class, but finally they did it: annoyed, irritated, exasperated, mad, upset, furious, livid. (Of course, there are lots that you can add, and there is some wiggle room in how you arrange them.) Then, students copied these words onto a piece of bright orange paper to put in their reading notebooks.

"Let's go back to the situations that we looked at earlier," I told students. "Are there any more descriptive words that we could use?" Now the conversation became lively as we discussed the difference between irritated and exasperated, the difference between furious and upset.

Timing is key in this lesson. If I had just started out with teaching the words, how might things have progressed differently? I know from experience that students look to the new emotion words much more passively. They don't see the need to know them, so they don't work to learn them. By showing students how their current language just wasn't enough to express what they wanted to express, I gave them a reason to learn new words.

After doing the same procedure with Scared Words, we were ready to move into text. I had pulled Eve Bunting's How Many Days to America? from the bookroom to use with this lesson. I modeled on the first few pages, and then students read in small groups, charting character emotions along the way.

"Can we do this every day?" one student asked, walking out the door. I have to admit--acting out the situations was fun! Another student, the one who played the part of the father in the car wrecking scenario, stopped by the door on the way to recess. "Mrs. Kissner, I have another feeling," he said. "I'd also be relieved, even though I was furious, because I'd be happy that my daughter wasn't hurt."

He was right, of course, and got me to thinking about how often people can feel mixed emotions, and how characters do this as well. Maybe for next week I'll create some new scenarios to explore this a little more...

Helping students to make inferences about a character's emotions is not only fun, but rewarding. Give it a try!

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