Friday, March 14, 2014

Growing My Vocabulary Angel

“Do you know what it means to splice something?”

I was circulating among the 10th graders as they edited their papers, answering questions and checking what online punctuation or grammar exercise they had chosen to do to help them target a frequent error (I blogged about this plan last week). 

Comma splices, one student had written down. The little vocabulary angel in the back of my brain--who has grown much bigger and stronger throughout the 7 weeks of meeting with 8 colleagues to discuss The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves--gave me a nudge. So I asked the question.

The student made a chopping motion with her hand. Oh, dear. Not slice but splice. I collected the attention of the entire class for a brief vocabulary-cum-grammar lesson. The curious thing is, I re-enacted this identical scene in each of my 3 class periods. I suppose since all film went digital, you’d have to read a book about sailors or escaping prisoners to come across that word. But who’d have thought 10th graders didn’t know splice?

I was grateful for that nudge from my vocabulary angel, and grateful for the opportunity to have read and discussed The Vocabulary Book with colleagues. This sort of book discussion is the most powerful form of professional development I have experienced. The weekly discussion over a period of almost two months, planning at the end of each meeting how we might apply something in the coming week, and reporting at the beginning of each meeting how we applied something in the past week, provides the scaffolding of external accountability I need while I’m growing a new skill or habit. 

For the first couple of meetings, I had to quick, on the day of the discussion, be sure I did something in class that I could talk about. By the last several meetings, I had so many things I could have talked about that I had to choose which ones to use so I didn’t monopolize the entire time. 

I’d encourage anyone to start a similar discussion. Find a good professional development book. (I’ve done this with Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading strategies, I Read It, but I Don’t Get It and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding by Nancy Frey, et al, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue, by Quentin Schultze, and Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Classroom Instruction by McCann, et al.) Talk it up with some colleagues. Order the books. Set a time and place. Have food. Then read and talk and try things and have fun learning and growing together.

My biggest takeaway from this discussion, which ended this week?A robust vocabulary program is so much more than just a weekly list of words to learn. A robust vocabulary program has 4 parts:

  1. Rich and varied language experiences (reading, writing, listening, discussing)
  2. Individual word learning (of course)
  3. Word-learning strategies (using context clues, word parts, and reference tools; developing a strategy for dealing with unknown words; and adopting a personal approach to building vocabulary)
  4. Fostering word consciousness

Most noticeably right now, my own word consciousness has been fostered, making me able to foster my students’ more effectively. For instance, as I read the edited papers I collected on Wednesday, I came across these 2 lines from students who are quite fluent, but whose first language is not English:

  • seen in this song evidently. It had never occurred to me that while evident means clear, evidently does not mean clearly. Adding the -ly makes it almost ironic.
  • People’s tendency to commit such felonies spoils the initially perfect world God had madeWhile sin, crime, and felony are synonyms of a sort, the progression moves from broad to specific, and while crime could go either way (Shoplifting is a crime, and so is what they charge for things these days), felony cannot. 

What a huge word-learning task our students have! I need every available tool for helping them. Never forgetting that one of those tools is humor.

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