Thursday, March 21, 2013

If you Work with Words...

Words spread across a page, scrawled on a note or spilling out from a person's mouth have so much power. Carefully or carelessly chosen, words can move us. Teachers facing the implementation of the Common Core Standards know that we have to look at vocabulary in new and different ways. I am not going to go indepth on those standards but rather, offer a few observations and tools from my own experience.

Recently I walked into the Reading Intervention class I was teaching and handed every student a white board and marker. I started saying words and asking them to draw a simple picture of what came to their mind when they heard the word. This was one student's offering for the word parallel.

 I kept tossing out words and several students asked, "Can we do this all period?" The students who typically weren't at ease with words were shining like stars with this task. I gave them the word "bifurcate" and a couple of kids recognizing the prefix bi- wrote a number 2 on their board. The rest just said, "BifurWHAT?" We stopped and talked about how a person can't have a visual image of a word, if they don't know the meaning. I went on to tell them how I learned the word from an old boyfriend, one who eventually bifurcated my heart, so my image is a heart with a line down the center.

So, regarding vocabulary, I love having kids draw their own understanding of the words they come across and sharing them with each other for several reasons: students are actively engaged, teachers get a quick preassessment of student understanding, seeing each other's ideas deepens understanding. When I gave the kids the word "greedy" it was interesting to see what their ideas were. We shared images of a huge diamond ring, someone eating another person's food, and a smattering of dollar signs. It was a time of discovery for me to see what ideas and background knowledge my students brought into the classroom. 

Whenever we start teaching anything, I've learned we have to start with the vocabulary. In this same class, a student had just been through a math lesson involving expressions and equations. He was trying to do his math lesson and he didn't know the difference between the two. "How did I get to this place in my life" he asked me, "and not know that?"  It is funny what kids say at times when they feel safe.  I know that too many times I have just jumped in with content and not taken the time to build on a solid foundation with essential vocabulary.

My second point regarding vocabulary is that we have to teach it in context and when we are participating in "close reading" that  common core promotes, that is the perfect time. Many students aren't reading nearly as much as they should and therefore not adding to their vocabulary repertoires.  This isn't where we want to dumb things down but neither do we want to frustrate the kids by giving them text with too many words they don't know. The answer? Using rich and complex text, beautiful pieces of poetry and prose, and studying them with students. When we just study vocabulary in isolation, we are likely wasting kids time because there is no context or nuance to give it meaning. Excellent teachers ask students why the author chooses certain verbs and adjectives to convey ideas. Excellent math teachers ask students to find things that are parallel (or perpendicular, etc) in the world around them.

One of my favorite activities, if you have been on Pinterest you have seen it too, is an activity for teaching nuance. Words have shades and intensity as do colors. My friend Natalie, the interior designer, personifies paint colors: That color just hates being on that wall. That red is too harsh, that tan is too weak. Critical readers and writers do the same with words.  Said is too strong, she actually mutteredHappy is lying if he was just satisfied. Don't understate or overstate. The truth shall set you free.

Here are a couple of resources that I really like:

  • The dictionary (no kidding!)
  • A dictionary app that I use frequently from
  • Visual Thesaurus App
  • Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale (I love this book. She feeds the reader carefully chosen verbs even as she writes about them. There are ideas for activities that are perfect to do with classes.)
  • Constance Hale has a website: 
  • Vocab Girl can be found on Facebook or
  • I read The Christian Science Monitor for the news but also because it has such literary value. I have used excerpts from article to expose my students to well written non-fiction text about current issues.
As Luther says in one of my all time favorite old movies, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, "If you work with words, words are your work."  I rest my case.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

In Good Company

Weekday mornings, my tennis shoes and backpack stand ready to go. I throw some dressier shoes into the pack, sling the backpack on and head off to work on foot. It isn't such a big deal at all except that in Wichita, KS, few people walk to work. It is only about a mile and a half and after the initial crossing of semi-busy Central avenue, it is a pleasant stroll through a quiet residential neighborhood and then back again at the end of the day.

It all started with The Way, a movie about the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I watched the movie over Thanksgiving break and I became quite interested in the Camino and the meaning of the pilgrimage. That led, of course, to books and in about a months time I had read four books: two on the Camino de Santiago and two on other journeys. They were all wonderful and compelling in their own way. Each of the books featured a person on a journey and how he/she was changed by the experience So, I decided that there was no reason why I couldn't make my own journey each day.

And thus far, most workdays, I have. It's been beautiful really. Crisp cold mornings, some cloudy and some clear.  I have noticed the beauty of each bare branched tree and the singing of the birds.  I have time to think and to pray. Most days I just try to be aware, to notice what is around me and to appreciate my health, my legs, and my senses which allow me to take it all in. I do what I learned from my dad and I pray for the people and edifices I pass. I think about my upcoming day and a group of middle school kids I will teach ( and though I may walk through the valley of sarcasm, lift me up)  and my little readers ( long may they read!) and my coworkers (give them strength).  I think of my daughters and ask God to hold them in His light.

The benefits of walking are many: building muscle tone, cardiovascular  health, mental clarity, and then one good day my husband came home from his yearly check-up telling me a new advantage. "My doctor" he said, "told me that walking makes your butt smaller."  Good enough.

Mostly I do it because it slows me down, helps me live in the moment and gives me more time in solidarity with those who have to walk, who live outside and who brave the elements not because they have a choice but because they are lacking shelter.  By the time I reach my destination,  I am more grateful for my job, my students and my colleagues. I am more aware of my dependency on others and more aware of the need to slow the heck down and listen.

If you are interested, here are the fabulous books I read on walking:

The Way is Made by Walking by Arthur Paul de Boers
I loved this book. He begins, "Once I walked 500 miles to church..." and the rest is a beautiful chronicle of his journey to Santiago.

Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino by Joyce Rupp.
The author also made the whole pilgrimage and she describes her experiences along the way. She was 60 when she took the journey and this fact helped me decide that if she could walk 500 miles over 6 or 7 weeks, I could surely manage 3 miles a day.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
This is one of the best books I have ever read! I loved  Harold Fry and every minute of his pilgrimage. I loved what happened to him as he took this journey. A beautiful book. As I walk to and from school, often a couple of lines come to me from this book: "Life was very different when you walked through it" and 'It surprised Harold how fast and angry cars seemed when you aren't in one." So true.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A hilarious, irreverent account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. I liked it that he did it in starts and stops and it wasn't completely successful. Still, he hiked that trail.

So, this is my journey since January. In an attempt to see my life as a pilgrimage, to become more mindful and to recognize my workplace as holy ground, I am donning my shoes, throwing on a pack and heading down the road. I am in good company.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Stepping Back

Winter Sunset
 (P. Herr)

Fill your bowl to the brim

And it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

and it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

and your heart will never unclench

Care about people's approval and

you will be their prisoner

Do your work, then step back

The only path to security.

                                                                   Tao Te Ching

        I found this writing in a book I am reading about St. Benedict.  Because I am a hunter/gatherer of pieces of wisdom, I wrote it down.  When I am gone, I fear my children will find little of value save the collections of wise sayings stacked in piles around the house.

     This week, I wanted to do a post on writing but I am putting it off a week. When I saw this quote last week it reminded me of the need to breathe a little between classes and meetings and to recognize that more isn't always more. If fact when it comes to recognizing the way our students learn and the way we function best, often less is, in fact, more.

       This particular quote struck me because of the emphasis on stepping back.  When we work with learners of any age, we can get so caught up with test scores and other pieces of "objective data" that we cease to notice the other important growth happening in their lives.  We know what these things are and they aren't necessarily measurable: depth of understanding, thirst for knowledge, appreciation of diversity, a sense of wonder and the ability to see beyond oneself. 

       Our role in a child's life is important, so important, and we want to do it well. We are, however, only a small piece of fabric in the quilt of our students' lives. The collective efforts of faculty, staff, parents, volunteers, peers, clergy, and community are woven together to form these young people. What we miss, and we will miss something, we need to trust will come from another source.
      We do our work and at the end of our day, we step back, breathe, and offer our efforts to God- Someone higher than ourselves whose love for these children surpasses our own as the glory of the sun outshines the brightest candle.