Saturday, February 8, 2014

Raising Word Awareness

I remember discovering as a high school English teacher that “black humor” did not mean humor peculiar to the African-American community, but making light of serious or morbid subject matter. I was preparing to teach William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to an 11th grade US Lit class.

Kids aren’t the only ones who need many experiences with words to develop a large vocabulary with deep understanding of the words. It’s easy to quail in the face of the amount of time needed to teach words, but the reality is, anything we do just to raise students’ awareness of words--their power, beauty, fun, depth--can help. 

Here’s one 5-minute, no-prep activity I did this week--with really interesting results! The words the literature book had chosen from the 4 poetry selections we’d just finished were ember, wrath, and betrayal. I wondered whether these were really vocabulary words for 10th graders. So with a bit of trepidation and a low bar, I opened class with the activity: In your table groups (4 students each), come up with one synonym, one antonym, and one original sentence for those 3 words. 

The spirited conversation that immediately broke out in each of my 3 classes allayed all my misgivings. First, there were people confirming definitions of synonym and antonym. I heard one student ask, “Are embers like ashes?” I saw many students spreading out their hands to indicate a bed of coals. I made connections for them to an earlier class outing where we’d roasted marshmallows, and referred them to next year when as juniors they’d be going on a class backpacking trip. 

One student was gesticulating strangely, holding out her fist and then moving it toward her abdomen. I asked what she was doing, and she said, “We were talking about the difference between ember and embryo.” Not a connection I had ever made before. But they’re talking about words!

In each period, some students asked whether they could use 2 words for a synonym--because coal could sound like a black mineral, while glowing coal was a good description of ember. That prompted a conversation about what a great word ember was, since it could only be replaced by 2 words.

One group had settled on coal for a synonym for ember, and was puzzling over an antonym until one member offered diamond. When the others looked perplexed, he said, “It’s what coal becomes after long periods of time under great pressure.” The other group members were impressed with learning science in English, and I got to have a quick conversation with them about how very creative steps from A to B, and from B to C, could end up not making sense when looking at the leap between A and C. I offered flame or ash, depending upon which direction one wanted to go.

We had many other interesting discussions when they could quickly come up with the correct answer to each of the following, but had to work at coming up with an answer to why?

  • Which sounds more natural: “the wrath of the king” or “the wrath of the baby”? (We talked about how wrath is powerful, so if one did speak of the wrath of a baby, it would point out the humorous juxtaposition of how very upset the baby was with how little power he had to do anything about it but scream.)
  • Who is more likely to betray you, a stranger or a friend? (“Because betrayal implies trust,” said one student.)

And for groups that finished a little ahead of the others, I could always challenge them to come up with a sentence that used all 3 words. They looked stumped, and then impressed with my off-the-cuff offerings:
  • The wrath of God reduced Sodom to embers after their betrayal of his expectations.
  • My wrath at my friend’s betrayal made me want to reduce him to embers.

True confessions: I came up with this activity on the spur of the moment. It was Thursday morning. Wednesday night I’d read chapter 2 of The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves in preparation for a discussion of it Thursday after school with 8 other staff members. Since I was leading, and had told everyone the week before, after the discussion of chapter 1, that we’d start with reporting on how we’d used something we’d discussed during the intervening week, I was feeling a bit of pressure. 

Two morals to this story: teachers need accountability and students need to work with words. So join (or start) a book discussion and have your students talk about words. Even if it’s only for 5 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how energizing both activities are.

And who doesn’t need a little energy in February?

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