Friday, April 4, 2014

Of Word Jars and Word Joy

Leaping out of their tiny chairs, unable to contain themselves, 1st graders burst out with words like “Preposterous!” “Famished!” “Covenant!” “Venn diagram!”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of competing in a game of vocabulary Jeopardy against these tiny, intelligent beings (those were two more of the words). What a delight to see their excitement at their own competence! 

They had been collecting interesting words all year in a word jar, creating and working with their own definitions. (Search “word jar” and you’ll find the early reader chapter book Donovan’s Word Jar and oodles of elementary lesson ideas and materials.)

For the culminating 1st grade vs. staff Jeopardy game, there were 2 tables of 1st graders (for a total of about 13) and 2 tables of staff (for a total of 6). Each table had a small whiteboard and marker for recording their answer, and both tables (of students or of teachers) had to come up with the correct answer for the side to win the round. 

For example, when the prompt “very small” came up, one teacher table wrote tiny and the other wrote minuscule, while both student tables got it right with tiny. (Hey, minuscule was not so unreasonable for 1st graders to know--after “unbreakable promise” turned out to be covenant rather than vow, I was going for the big words!) 

The students had an edge because they knew the pool. When the prompt was “think deeply,” one staff table wrote concentrate while the other wrote cogitate. Students won that round with ponder.

But the staff had the edge when it came to speed. Imagine how long it takes a 1st grader to write preposterous. (And yes, inventive spelling was allowed.) Actually, that’s a bad example. Students eventually won because to “totally crazy” both staff tables answered insane.

That makes it sound like we were really trounced. Not true at all: It was neck-and-neck for a while. (Another edge we had was being able to stay in our seats--more or less, at least as much as we fit--and not climb on the table with uncontainable enthusiasm.) But the 1st graders did end up victorious. 

As I watched their enthusiasm, my imagination superimposed their image on top of my 10th graders earlier in the day, discussing a Time Magazine essay they’d read, “Shakespeare: A Life on Stage,” and trying to figure out words they didn't know from impoverished and subversive to diasporic and usurers. I wondered what my 10th graders had looked like in this room at these tables 9 years ago; I wondered what these little inquirers would look like 9 years from now in my 10th grade class. 

Able to stay in their chairs longer and not burst into tears in the middle of class, I hope, but I hope also that they retain the excitement about words their 1st grade teacher has cultivated in them, and the joy in attaining language competence that their victory over the staff Jeopardy team helped them get a taste of.

P.S. On that Google search of “word jar” mentioned above, along with many relevant items, this image also turned up. I just want to go on record that this is not the “word jar” I’m talking about, I do not have a “word jar” like this, and I will not be bidding on this one on eBay, however much I laughed when I saw it.

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