Today we began class by making some educated guesses.

Okay, actually, we read some of these stories I found on a site for third-graders and we practiced “inferring.” Gathering information by inference, for those of you who slept through third grade, means to use what is stated in the text to make educated guesses about stuff that’s happening beyond that which is directly stated. If you weren’t here today, download the handout at the bottom of the page, and give it a shot. (It’s the side of the handout titled “Inference stories.”)

It was sort of funny to go around the classes hearing the twisted interpretations and outlandish assumptions that many students came up with to explain these relatively obvious (to any third-grader, anyway) stories. My favorite recurring image was that of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt coming home after a long day of work, patting Gilbert Grape-era Leo DiCaprio on the head as he spun in a circle, leaped into their laps, and begged for food. Read the stories and see which one you think that image belongs to. It’s not as easy as you think.

Anyway, then we talked about the other side of the handout. All the information about literal (empirical), inferential, and evaluative questions is on that handout, so I’m not going to point it out here.

After that discussion, we read in Catcher and spent some time talking about the scene in today’s reading in which Phoebe insists on lending Holden all of her Christmas money. I thought it was pretty interesting to go down through the “levels” of questions to find out what’s really happening in that scene. First, we answered literal questions about what actually happened: Holden asks for money; Phoebe says she has some but it’s for Christmas; Holden won’t take it; Phoebe insists he take all of it and asks him to bring it back to her when he comes to see her play; Holden takes the money, then breaks down and weeps uncontrollably.

Then we went to the inferential level, with questions such as: Why does Phoebe insist that Holden take all of her money? Why does Holden weep uncontrollably after accepting it? By answering these questions, the class established that Phoebe is scared to death of losing Holden, and she thinks the money will obligate him to stick around. And also that Holden is depressed and full of guilt and self-loathing. All of these answers are supported by the text, but not directly indicated. We had to put some clues together and make some inferences.

Then we went down to the evaluative level, and asked, How would each of us feel if we were Phoebe? What is it about her specific situation that makes her particularly vulnerable? This is not an entirely “evaluative” line of questioning, but it sort of fits, in the sense that it requires each of us to put ourselves in Phoebe’s shoes and empathize with her situation as we form an opinion about her actions and Holden’s reactions. This line of questioning leads directly to more value judgements and personal identification with the story.

Anyway, the point is, not much happens at the literal level of this book. Almost the entire plot and all the dramatic action takes place at the inferential and evaluative levels. Holden doesn’t know enough about himself to really tell us the truth about how he feels, but his actions and his words betray the truth the careful observer. The questions we’re learning about make us powerful observers and give us entree to the real action of the story.

That is all.



Downloads: Question classification and inference activity


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