Inferring character motives in Vonnegut's short story, "The Kid Nobody Could Handle"

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SWABAT to infer character motives in “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” by making distinctions between character contrasts and foils: Helmholtz vs. Quinn; Quinn vs. Jim; Helmholtz vs. Jim. SWABAT trace the theme of belief (encouragement and persistence) in the story.

Big Idea

Understanding characters is just plain AWESOME!

Setting the stage for character inference

5 minutes

Homework.  Students have read the text for homework and come to class with active reading notes ready to go.  We haven't done much to define what counts for strong active reading (RL.9-10.1) notes, so I asked students to simply mark places where the characters (RL.9-10.3) did something surprising.  We then extended these moments by adding three types of questions, and I will explore these in detail in the next section.  But first, it will be important to have students get on the same page with us in this lesson by activating their experiences of encouragement and support.

I will ask: 

What’s the most extreme thing you have done or somebody has done for you to show you that they care for you?  Think of parents, family, friends, pets.  

What is a character foil? 

What does it mean to infer character motives? 




Discussing "The Kid Nobody Could Handle" and generating the raw materials for student-generated inference

15 minutes

Whole-class discussion.  We are a classroom of readers and active contributors (SL.9-10.1)!  Our norms include using evidence in class and being respectful of each other (SL.9-10.1b).  

I will ask:

1.) What key quotations from the story that indicate character motives (RL.9-10.3)?

2.) How did the characters changed and when?

3.) How did the relationships in the story form?  How did they make change more easy to occur for Jim?  for Helmholtz?  

Finding evidence.  My goal at this point in the year is to get a number of students to offer examples (RL.9-10.1) and to put these examples up on the overhead (SL.9-10.1--document camera) so that all students can add these annotations to their text copies.  

Theoretical note, which is nonetheless important: I pay particular attention to subtle changes that characters undergo.  In this way, we sensitize young readers to the "Rules of Notice" that Peter Rabinowitz explored in his research.  The goal is also to get students to ask questions that are tethered to specific textual moments, so these noted text fragments will serve as the raw materials for their work. 

Groups Prepare for Hotseat and Begin!

20 minutes

Putting the focus on student thought.  This is a key moment in class.... please see my explanation as I explain.  The goal is to set the stage for student-generated questions, and I use the attached guide to give them a range of question types to use.  I will ask a student to sit in front of the class in the role of a character (RL.9-10.3) and to respond to interpretive questions asked by his or her classmates (SL.9-10.1).  In constructing this experience, I am asking students to comment to each other about interpretations of the text, and I am structuring an activity that guides them to do this meaningfully.  

Students need to first prepare by generating questions for the hotseat (SL.9-10.1c), which will occur in the next section.  They will sit in groups and fill out the questioning #1 kid nobody could handle document on an assigned character (Jim, Helmholtz, Quinn). 

Hotseat.  I will call up 3-4 students, one at a time, to sit for us as the character in question. His or her group members will begin the interview, and then the rest of the class will join in with follow-up questions (SL.9-10.1c).  I am aiming for a relaxed but informative feel, and recruiting the students' knowledge of informative talk shows as we go.  It's important that the questioning has two phases: easy, prepared questions from the student's supportive base group; and then more spontaneous, inferential questions as follow-up by the rest of the class. 

Stress and distress.  However, this early in the year, it might be too stressful to place a random student up on the hotseat to respond to the class.  That said, other students would love the opportunity!  What I do is think in advance of class about which students would do well to show the leadership that it takes to be on the hotset, and then I ask them in advance if they would be interested in serving the class as a leader in discussion by answering questions in character role.  Invariably, they will say yes, but the brief 'heads-up' will give them a chance to prepare mentally and thus create a more fun and engaging moment when the time comes. 

"Hotseating," is a great way of increasing student-to-student talk (uptake) in the lesson implementation.  It also sets the stage for student-generated questions.