Zooming Out

Istvan Banyai’s wordless book, Zoom, reveals its story in small doses. Just as the reader believes they have grasped the story, he zooms out a bit more to offer an alternative point of view. This clever technique leaves readers questioning and hypothesizing with every turn of the page, sweeping them into a world of wonder and delight.

When delving into all things words, it is this world of wonder and delight that I want to create for my students. Traditionally, many of us were taught ‘vocabulary’ by memorizing definitions of lists and lists of words. The more lists, the more rigorous the unit of study. Such an approach reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s wise words,

“A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”

Simply learning what a word means, kills it. End of story!

Zooming out, Banyai style, allows a word to live and breathe – to possibly become a part of who we are.

Your children have been zooming out over the past few weeks to uncover the bigger pictures of the words from our recent word study. Our story began with an essential question that allowed students to first zoom in:

What does the word mean?

Once the words were presented in context, students tapped into their own experiences and knowledge and delved into a variety of dictionaries in order to best understand the words’ meanings. Once a group consensus was formed, the denotations of the words were paraphrased and recorded. Coming to an agreement on the paraphrases presented some interesting conversations as students compared their notes on their researched understandings and lobbied for their interpretations of the definitions.

Following the discovery of the denotations, students explored the connotations (emotions) of their words. This exploration was linked to word choice and the knowledge that it is a word’s connotations that can help create the emotional atmosphere of a story.

We then zoomed out to get a bigger picture of the words by investigating,

How is the word built?

This part of our story involved the morphology of the words. Students learned that morphemes are a word’s smallest units of meaning; how they work together to reveal a bigger picture of the word.

It was discovered that it is a suffix that begins with a vowel letter that can cause a change in the spelling to the element before it. Ahhhh, that’s why a final silent <e> is dropped off, or the final letter of a base element is doubled, or an <i> is changed to a <y>; it isn’t magic, there are logical reasons for these changes.

Students discovered that base elements are the heart of a word’s meaning and that they can stand on their own as a free base element or remain bound to an affix (prefix or suffix) in order to make sense. Additionally, the roles of prefixes and suffixes were explored. To process all this new information, students engaged in conversations with one another about what was understood and what questions remained in a cooperative learning structure called, “Find Someone Who…”

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Zooming out even further, we discovered that a word is much more than it’s denotation and connotation. A word is more than its morphemes. A word has a history. For this part of the story, we investigated,

What is the word’s history?

Using John Ayto’s Word Origins dictionary and Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology site, students uncovered the etymology of each word. It was discovered when a word came to be used in English, what language the word originated from, and its root and meaning. Time was allowed to explore the root and meaning of each word and compare the meanings to the word’s current definition. There was a flurry of questions during this phase, ranging from, “How do I read this entry?” to “I wonder why this word means something different now?” Instead of concluding the story, students were zooming out with their questions to view the bigger picture.

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Armed with a deeper understanding of each word, we zoomed out a bit further, making connections to Margaret Wild’s picture book, Fox. Students created a literary sociogram that allowed them to explore the relationships between the characters of the story through their newly formed understandings of their vocabulary words.

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Students now had a much bigger picture of each word; they were ready to be assessed on their knowledge. One of the questions on the final assessment asked the students to choose one of their vocabulary terms and share all they learned about the word. Here is one student’s response (as written) to the question:

“The dictionary definition of the word reflective means to engage in deep thought. Though the connotation, the more critical part of it is to always be thinking if you did the right thing, how you can improve in the future and so on. The word’s root language is Latin: L. flectere which means “to bend”. This makes sense as it connects to the denotation, your thoughts are always changing and you can easily “bend” your actions. The word sum of the word is: re + flect + ive –> reflective. The prefix is re-, the bound base element is <flect>, and the suffix is -ive. The connection between this word and the book, Fox, is that Magpie (in the end), ends up having to decide whether to stay and die in the desert or go back to Dog. It is a very huge thing to think about, especially since she has a burnt wing , but then she remembers how Dog had helped her and how she had left him, so she chose to go back home and apologize to him.”

This student understands the layers of the this word’s story.

Students were also asked to reflect on the process of their word study. There was a quite a range of responses as far as what they felt was important, but they all mentioned the process was meaningful (of course I understand this may have been to please the teacher). Enjoy the following snapshots of a few of their responses:

“If you know more about a word then you know its true meaning. It unlocks a new world where you can sort of understand what people were thinking back then.”

“I learned that without morphemes there is no word, connotations are like emotions in the word and the root is like history. Finding the word sum helps you find the base which helps find the root. It is all connected. In all it will help you see the world in a new light.”

“Connotations helps me to figure out if the word is positive or negative. This helps me in writing to know in which state I use the word and it makes the best sense. Morphemes are affixes and bases. If I do not know the word’s denotation, by knowing the affixes and base, I can predict the definition of the word.”

I can’t profess that these students have been swept into a world of delight when investigating words, but I can see that they are wondering. These words will live on in the lives of the students. What more could a teacher want.

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3 thoughts on “Zooming Out

  1. The already flaccid term ‘vocabulary’ – best avoided in rigorous linguistic discussion – has now been rendered lifelessly limiting by the currently fashionable ‘vocabulary’ industry for schooling.

    What a contrast is this joyous account of students giving life to the fact that orthography is human thought made visible as text, and is rich in productive associations and connections both diachronic and synchronic.

    The student who summed it up in the following paragraph is a superstar.

    “I learned that without morphemes there is no word, connotations are like emotions in the word and the root is like history. Finding the word sum helps you find the base which helps find the root. It is all connected. In all it will help you see the world in a new light.”

    Imprisoning literacy in systems, schemes and methods imprisons and shackles our fundamental liberty and humanity as celebrated in our orthography. What these students are sharing with us all is liberated and liberating in the deepest humane sense.

    Thanks for sharing it with a wider community.

  2. This is a truly beautiful presentation of the rich learning that goes on in your classroom with respect to investigating spelling structure, history and meaning. I’m still considering the way the Zoom video reflects the way diving into the underlying denotations of the meaning structures of words and how those structures tie to the wider connotations we develop over time.
    Wonderful food for thought. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I really love the zoom video and idea of it. Every time one learns more about word structure, word history, or word relatives, one is in touch with a bigger picture. (And this doesn’t just apply to young students of our language! We can all attest to that!) I look forward to following this blog and finding both inspiration and understanding!

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