Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reframing Character Inferences- Part II

Character Traits
Inferring and understanding character traits seem to be difficult for teachers and students to understand. I've come to see it as a very powerful yet often misunderstood aspect of literacy. A trait is often explained to students as something inside of the character, but this is not really true and often very confusing to children. A trait does not exist inside of someone, it is the opinion or judgement we as onlookers form of them. A trait is a label we put on someone based on what we see, hear, and experience.

Imagine you met someone who jumped out of an airplane. Some people might think this person is brave and adventurous while another person might form the opinion that the person is reckless and foolish. Any of these judgements of the person could be proven with evidence of what happened, but who you are, what you believe, and what you value will be the filter you view the person through and ultimately the “trait” you put on them.

When third graders are asked to infer the character’s traits they often are stumped. My theory is that they are not used to judging people yet. Eight year olds tend not to be judgmental and have a hard time labeling people, at least in the beginning of the year. We end up teaching students how to label people and assign them a trait. This realization has made me quite uncomfortable. I do not want to teach children to label people and certainly not that their judgements are fixed, real traits that live inside people.

I have partially reconciled this dilemma by teaching students that traits are opinions and judgements based on what we think of what the character did, said, felt, or thought. Then we have some fun debating how we might each view and form opinions about characters in different ways. For example, a student might form the opinion that Junie B. Jones is really funny based on what she did in a chapter. Another person (perhaps a teacher or adult) might form the opinion that Junie B. is sneaky and naughty. We could debate this by providing evidence from the text and also acknowledging that we have different beliefs and experiences that help us form our opinions.

When we teach traits as static, fixed, internal entities we are implicitly teaching children that people are static, fixed, and that the labels people put on them are real internal entities. If we reframe our teaching so students understand that traits are opinions and judgements that come from others, they can own them for what they are-- interpretations. As a human being this feels better to me and as a teacher it seems to free students up to form their own opinions and not try to find the “right answer” they think exists.

As for teaching about character change, I’ll leave that for another post... perhaps Part III.

by Gravity Goldberg

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