|10th graders getting the most out of peer conferencing in the final days of school while 11th reads The Great Gatsby|
“My word is so sad!” mourns one 11th grader settling herself in her seat.
“What is it?” I ask.
Indeed. According to my computer’s desktop dictionary it means “apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity: meretricious souvenirs for the tourist trade.” I immediately know the phrase from The Great Gatsby where she had found her word: “...the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (98).
I know I’ve hit on a winner when the students walk into the room talking about words—and there isn’t even a vocabulary quiz that day.
“Mrs. Essenburg!” Another student is waving her hand at me from her seat before the bell rings to begin. “I have a question about my vocabulary word! I looked it up in the dictionary, but that meaning doesn’t make sense with the sentence!”
The word: septic. She knows it has something to do with an infection, but the sentence is “…I’d enjoyed these same people only two weeks before. But what had amused me then turned septic on the air now” (106).
The word septic is vivid to me because I’m currently burning through a British mystery series where the protagonist is a battlefield nurse in World War 1. (It’s Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford mysteries.) I tell the student how the characters in my book are always talking about a wound going septic—or, blessedly, not. If it did, amputation was a certainty and death a strong probability.
So the student was exactly right—it doesn’t make sense in the sentence if you think literally—but if you think of it as one word turning the whole description into a metaphor, it not only describes something turning negative, but also carries connotations of disease, death, and decay. I got to have that whole conversation with a student, initiated by her, which she then passed on to the class when I asked her to share her word. As she walked up to the front of the class, she said, without even looking at her book or notes, “It’s on page 106 on the top left side.” She must have been studying that sentence!
Last week I took a small risk to try a different approach to vocabulary—students choosing one word for themselves from each night’s reading of The Great Gatsby for which they will do whatever they need to do to learn it well enough to teach to their 2-3 group mates the next day before discussing the reading (see this link for more). This takes not more than 5 minutes at the beginning of the period. Then I also added random selection of 2-3 students per day to present a word to the whole class. I wondered if the enthusiasm would wane, and I’m following through this week to report that it hasn’t.
At this point at the end of 11th grad AP English, I'm hoping to see students developing their own word awareness and vocabulary building skills. It was a little over 5 years ago when I first read The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves and began working to build all 4 parts of Graves' robust vocabulary program into my class:
• Rich and varied language experiences (reading, writing, listening, discussing)
• Individual word learning (of course)
• 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)
• Fostering word consciousness
You can see my first blogs reflecting on how to apply my learning in my classes here, here, here, and here. (In fact, writing this blog I discovered that there is a new edition of the book which I should probably get.) I’m amazed at how much I've learned about words, roots, etymology, multiple meanings, and likely misunderstandings in the last 5 years of paying attention to words and talking about them with students.
One more tool in my word learning toolbox. I don’t think I’d use it all the time. (Who wants to do anything all the time?) Also it reduces the number of words we can assimilate, assessment is more difficult, and we need the word learning experiences built during the year to make it most effective. I’m sure this is working well because of a year of fostering word consciousness and word-learning strategies. Also because of choice (one of the 4 engines of student motivation). And finally, because there’s a purpose: we’ve built an understanding that using powerful words as writers comes from being aware of them as readers. Within a year, no one will ever MAKE them learn vocabulary again. So they need to develop their own strategies for continuing to grow their facility with words: not just impossibly long words, but vivid words which they may have in their receptive vocabulary, but not their productive vocabulary.
How do you foster word consciousness--in yourself and in your class?