Saturday, December 1, 2012

When Subliminal is Sublime

Sublime and subliminal--what's the relationship? Over-the-top-amazing and under the limit of perception--but they sound very much like a noun and adjective form of the same word. I never would have even thought to wonder if I hadn’t adjusted my view on make-up work this year.

Make-up or extra credit work never made much sense to me: cut your losses and start out on top of things next time. Spending the first part of the next unit redoing work from last unit just perpetuates the cycle of behind-ness. But I’m also discovering that taking the time to uncover misunderstandings and correct them and leads not only to learning, but to really interesting windows into the hard work that students’ brains do even when they’re wrong, spurring further conversation and exploration. 

I recently discovered that one student interpreted sublime based on his knowledge of subliminal. Subliminal is a pretty sophisticated word to know, and that transfer skill is also sophisticated. It just ended him up in the wrong place. Why? I looked up the etymology. In subliminal the prefix sub- means just what we have been taught--under. But for some reason in sublime the prefix means up to. Like that confusing thing where in- means not (like invalid, independent, indecisive), except when it means very (like invaluable and inflammable). 

What led me to reconsider make-up work and as a result discover this sublime/subliminal conundrum? Something I read this summer from the middle school principal about fixing broken grades made me reconsider make-up work: How important is it for the student to learn this information or skill? I combined that question with the Understanding by Design concept of uncovering misunderstanding, and this year I inaugurated a make-up mechanism for words missed on vocabulary quizzes. Learning these words is important: I’m upping my emphasis this year on vocabulary in any way I can think of, and one way is saying if you didn’t get it right on the quiz, let’s figure out why and get it right. Students can get half-credit for each word missed on a 20-item matching quiz by filling in the following form:

What I got wrong: I thought _________________________ (word) fit ___________________________________________ (prompt).

Why I thought it fit: __________________________________

What was the right word: ______________________________

Why it this word fits better: ____________________________

I wondered if they’d play the system--not study and then make up half credit--but I’ve actually been quite pleased with the results. Students really do uncover misunderstanding. Sometimes they explain an alternate understanding that works so well I end up giving full credit for it. Sometimes they admit “I had no idea--it was just the last choice left.” But they still have to choose the correct word and explain why it’s correct. And if having no idea is a pattern, that leads to another conversation. And sometimes I discover sophisticated learning strategies and another bizarre quirk from the convoluted history of English. 

By the way, I’m still looking for any other word in which sub- means up to. One point extra credit on the next vocabulary quiz to the first person who discovers one.

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