Nov. 21 – Teaching Vocabulary in Context

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word cloud by wordle

Over the years of teaching vocabulary to college students, one of the biggest challenges is trying to explain exactly why their sentences are wrong when they try to use new words.  The dictionary definition makes sense in the context of their sentences, but the sentences are just … not right.  This fall I finally decided to tackle the problem head on.  We had encountered the word cascade in something we were reading, and no one knew it so I gave them the definition.  In a quiz a few days later I asked them to create a sentence using cascade.  The dictionary had defined the verb cascade as “to tumble” and so many of the students wrote of tripping and cascading down the stairs.  Hmmm.  Not so much.  My quest to find a way to teach accurate usage was back on.

What I decided to try this semester was example sentences.  I had them go to the lab and find three sentences online that used each word.  That was a challenge at first because they were determined to make up their own sentences and pass them off as  online examples, but it was confirmingly easy to recognize those efforts.  One student complained about having to use other people’s sentences – “How are we ever going to learn how to use these words if you won’t let us make our own sentences?”

My argument was that these example sentences would give them accurate patterns to model to help them learn to use the words.  We practiced it together in class, and at first students were frustrated and confused: “I can’t see any patterns.”  So we practiced regularly, with each new set of words.  By week five or six, most of their own sentences were indistinguishable from the example sentences, and if someone went astray all I had to write was “follow the pattern more closely.”  The students told me they feel confident that they can use this technique to learn new words and, more importantly, learn to use them correctly in their own writing.  I do love finding a strategy that really works and produces tangible results.  Huzzah.

Nov. 20 – Teaching Vocabulary: Choosing the Words

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Wordle

Semester after semester, ever hopeful, I try out new vocabulary activities that promise acquisition without insult.  I want to make use of the research: research that tells us that simply providing a list of words to memorize is not going to add those words to students’ lexicons, brain research that tells us that we remember image and rhyme much more easily than we do text.  (And I must add that I feel I am living on the edge and throwing caution to the winds by not citing each instance of that research.)

The way I get around the first challenge – what words to teach – is to have the students create their own lists of words they’ve encountered more than once but still don’t know.  This semester, to make that process easier and give me material to use to teach the words, I made a list of all the words in two cartoon vocabulary books:  Picture These SAT Words by Philip and Susan Geer and Vocabbusters GRE: Make Vocabulary Fun by Dusti and Deanne Howell.  I chose those two books because I wanted to help students learn how to create images to go along with new words.  I’ll write about that effort in a follow-up post.

I gave all the students a copy of the list and had them choose the ten words they would most like to learn.  Then I tallied up their choices, took those choices and came up with eight new words to learn each week.  I then made a list of who requested which words and used that list to make sure that everyone had at least one word included in the weekly words.  And I added a few of my own (serendipity and discombobulated are high on my list of necessary words.)

Their new word list each week included the word, common definitions, synonyms, some kind of image, and at least three context examples.  Context examples are crucial for teaching students how we actually use the words – I will write on that too in a follow-up post.

I have learned that choosing words that students actually want to learn is the first step in a successful vocabulary acquisition project.  As a result, some students go out of their way to demonstrate their new words in every piece of writing they turn in.  I do love them when they do that, and finding reasons and ways to love my students is what it is all about.

Nov. 19 – What happens to ideas

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© Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I have always loved watching artists start a new picture on a blank canvas – one moment a scattering of random lines and the next moment a recognizable image.  It’s magic and never ceases to fascinate me.

The equivalent process for writers, from that first seedling of an idea through the accretion of exactly the right details, the right settings and characterizations, is invisible and thus, to me at least, beyond magic and on to miraculous.  In the past few days I have gotten two unrelated and yet very similar glimpses into that miraculous world.

I like to read the news on imdb (Internet Movie Database) and came across an article entitled “How J.J. Abrams Pitched ‘Revolution.'” I never learned how that pitch went, but the article started with this sentence: “It started with two men sword fighting in front of a Starbucks.”  The writer-producer Eric Kripke was the imaginer of that scene, and he had no idea who the men were or why they were using swords.  The article went on to state that his previous series, Supernatural, was inspired by a “similarly random mental snapshot – ‘a girl on the ceiling on fire.'”

How in the world, I wondered to myself, could anyone know how to move from that random mental snapshot (I love that phrase) to a full-blown TV series, running for years due to the depth of its created universe?  I stand in awe.

And then, thanks to Rick Mallery‘s generosity in visiting and following bloggers like me, I was able to read his story about writing his first novel, in which I found an unexpected glimpse into that process.  He described settling in to a comfy chair with a new notebook and pen.  Everything he had learned about writing fiction disappeared, distilled into a wonderfully concise direction: “Just start with a character who has a problem, and then make everything worse until it finally gets better.”  He goes on to describe the first few lines he wrote and how he moved incrementally into the story.

This was so helpful to read, I think because I held an unspoken conviction that if it doesn’t happen like the blinding vision of JK Rowling, where the vastness of the story and the world appears all of a piece, it isn’t real and it isn’t true.  Now that I write that down I see how silly it sounds, but there it is.

Whenever I think about writing fiction I get utterly overwhelmed, having no idea how to “do it.”  I think I have a story that wants to be told, but I get lost in the vastness of my ignorance and overwhelmed at the many many many words that would need to be found.  But, thanks to Eric Kripke and Rick Mallery, I caught a glimpse of the possible: of being able to move from the random mental snapshot to a completed tale.  Thank you gentlemen, and good night.

photo by Tattooed JJ, made available by Creative Commons license

Nov. 18 – Pushing Past Perfection

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Photo by Ming Tong, made available by Creative Commons license

This challenge of writing every day for a month has already proven an invaluable exercise for me.  I don’t think I’ve ever lasted this long with a resolution of any sort (except when I finally quit smoking for good, that is.)  I wish I knew what it is that is getting me to sit my butt down in the chair every day and hammer out another post.  But even if the motivational source is elusive, one result is not.

I can no longer be a text perfectionist.  If I am going to get something published here every day, I have to sit down, write it, read it over, proof it, publish it and move on.  That is SUCH a different experience for me, and it has made writing fun again.  Maybe that is where the motivation is coming from.

Writing has become less of a chore and a task and something that needs to be done.  Instead it is a few moments when I get to free my voice and my ideas and take the mind-boggling step of publishing those ideas for anyone in the universe to read.

I think it is knowing I am making this writing public that triggers the perfectionism.  If I were just writing for myself, the need for my writing to be perfect would not be not nearly as loud.

So, thank you to everyone for being out there and forcing me to let go of that crippling self-criticism enough to write these posts.  I hope that, if inner critics are loud in your life, you find your way to releasing their hold on your productivity.  All our voices need to be heard.

Nov. 17 – Standing Side by Side

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One of the most ubiquitous recommendations for teachers is to get to know your students.  It is a powerful tool, but not always possible and definitely not always easy.  College students are on guard and on their dignity in the classroom, and the persona they present is at most a fraction of their true selves.  (I know that is true for all of us at any given time, but I think the artificiality of the classroom, the authority and power of the instructor, and students’ individual experiences with education or the lack thereof combine to make the classroom a difficult place in which to be genuine.)

One of my colleagues has come up with a technique I admire (maybe because I do love a show) – he puts on public exhibitions based on the content being studied in his classes and spends his time at those exhibitions talking to students, standing by their sides.  He told me that his students are so much more open and relaxed when he is by their side rather than in front of the classroom.  The stories students have shared with him have made his teaching easier as he understands what were formerly confusing or misleading responses, and he doesn’t mis-interpret student statements as often.   The effort required to put on an exhibit is amply repaid by the increased understanding he has gained.

Somewhere else recently (I apologize to the author of this as I have no idea where I read it – wasn’t thinking about noting the source for this blog at the time, apparently!) I read a suggestion to move your office outside – walk with students when you are meeting with them.  It has a similar effect to the exhibition conversations – being side by side offsets the power imbalance, even if only by a little bit, and students are more relaxed and honest.  The logistics seem a little challenging when I look at our campus, but I like the idea.  A friend of mine who advises first generation college students often walks with his advisees during their appointments – he says at the very least it keeps his weight down!

Both of these techniques are a start toward dismantling the barricades that prevent honest communication between instructors and students, and neither compromises dignity – trying to be like the kids is a road to disaster for me, so I appreciate a path that doesn’t require (hmmm – everything I start to write here sounds like a grumpy old professor who doesn’t want to go to the raucous noisy student events – I think I’ll just stop here!)

We’re walking, we’re talking.  I like.

Nov. 16 – Of Mosques and Mosquitoes

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Photo by david takes photos. Made available by Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in class we read Ishmael Reed’s “America: The Multinational Society.”  While the primary challenge of his writing style for my students was the length of his sentences (the students were convinced that there had to be of a run-on sentence in there somewhere!), it was their interpretation of the  word mosque that surprised me and unexpectedly enhanced my understanding of their reading process.

I have four sections of the same class, reading the same essay.  In the first hour, when the student who was reading came to the word mosque he first read it as mosquito.  With a few gentle giggles from his classmates, he corrected himself and we moved on.  Then it happened again in the next section – when the student who was reading came to mosque, once again mosquito was seen and spoken.  And again third hour.  And yes, fourth class read exactly the same thing.  So clearly this was not an aberration, one student only glancing at the first few letters and making a best guess from there.  Four students, 100%, every single time.  We had us a pattern.

To me those two words – mosque and mosquito –  don’t look that much alike.  Although they start the same way, the length and endings are clearly distinct.  But every one of the students who read the sentence which contained mosque saw mosquito.  I think they know the word mosqueand they definitely know the word mosquito, so I am thinking it is more about the technical aspect of what exactly our eyes are looking at when we interpret words on the page.  My theory is that they look at the first few letters and then guess at the rest.

I think I need to explore word recognition techniques and tools.  This seems like it may be another key that will help us move toward fluency.

Nov. 15 – Reading Aloud

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Image from Briarpress. Made available by Creative Commons license.

As a college reading instructor, I find the most effective way to teach the skills and strategies of reading complex text is to have the students, in a circle, read aloud.   I know the trauma of reading aloud is epidemic (“the other students made fun of me,” “my teacher would always make me read and everyone laughed” ad nauseum) but the practice is so beneficial to both students and teacher that I believe it is worth confronting the trauma head-on.

When I first present the practice at the beginning of the semester, I can see the panic in far too many eyes.  I assure students by telling them they always have the right to pass when it is their turn.  I don’t mind if they never read aloud all semester, and I most sincerely mean that.  Enough students read from the very first day to keep the practice going, and I rarely have students who pass on reading aloud every class.  The most frightened student I ever had passed for the first two months of the semester, and when, with the class’s encouragement, he finally found the courage to read aloud, he was cheered by his classmates.  In addition, each person only reads one sentence at a time, so it isn’t a huge burden.

And now, let’s look at the benefits.  The students hear each other stumble over vocabulary, over end-of-the-line hyphenations and confusing sentence structures.  They hear their classmates mis-pronounce words, mis-read words, and skip lines when they read.  They learn they are not alone in their struggle to make sense out of printed text.  Their fluency and confidence improve, sometimes dramatically, as the semester progresses.  Students frequently identify reading aloud and the circle as their favorite part of the class, and some have said that reading aloud has given them the confidence to make presentations in their other classes as well.

The benefits to the teacher also abound.  I learn just how many words they don’t really know.  I can hear when the sentence tangles them up, so we can stop and pull it apart.  I can hear when they are reading with interest and engagement and when the text has lost them.  I can stop and make connections, point out signal words and constructions, bring attention to text structures that will help them make sense out of the text.  I can help them focus on what is important, on introductory and concluding sentences, on lists, on similarities among details that will help them identify the main point.  And, at the end of the hour I know that every single student in the class has read that piece of text.

I have even brought the practice home.  My partner and I are reading The Happiness Project and we have been reading a section a day, taking turns reading aloud.  It’s been such a great way to share a book, and my students were delighted (or at least intrigued) to learn that I am reading aloud at home as well!

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