This week I subbed freshman classes for Sheryl Dare in the Academy at Punahou School. It was the first day of the semester, a day when you meet your new teacher and classmates and get a glimpse of what the next weeks will hold. Instead, they got me, and a review of good discussion questions, why they are important, as well as some central skills: observations and inferences, assumptions and judgments.

Before I passed out their homework—they were to read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?”—I reminded them that one of the goals of English One, in addition to helping them become aware of their thinking and ways of interpreting and engaging with literature, is the exploration of identity. What constitutes our sense of self? What’s the recipe for identity?

I was able to meet with one class a second time, and so got a sense of their thoughts and answers to those questions, as well as their insights into the story. The starting place was each student’s questions, assumptions and five observations that led directly to five inferences. Since this was only their second time together as a group, and with me, it took a while to warm up, but what evolved was an interesting discussion about whether identity comes from one’s parents, one’s experiences, one’s vocation, or something else entirely. Are you still you even when you’re acting? Does Helene give up her identity to be with Harry? Does Harry even have an identity? There was also a funny sidebar about whether when Helene wants to end her marriage to Harry she will give him a play where two lovers break up.

In the other classes, the students practiced their skills looking at a photocopy of the painting “The Unexpected Visitor” (pictured above). By observing gestures, body posture, facial expressions and so forth, the students began to ask questions, make assumptions and inferences, and then guessed the title of the piece. One class was helped along by the appearance of a student who opened the door and then left, realizing (I assume) it was not his class.

As I think about it now, what’s funny is that I, a substitute on the first day of class, was also their unexpected visitor.

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