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.


Hidden Support

Master of All Words Our journey into the Wonderland of grade 6 Humanities began with a conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)

“What does it mean to be the master of all words?” wondered my grade 6 students. Some students believed that to be master of all words meant you were someone who used ‘big words’. Some thought it meant you were someone who devoured books, and yet others thought it meant you were a ‘good speller’. As they continued to wonder, they asked me if they were right. My response was, “I don’t know, what do you think?” followed by another question, “Is it more important to know the answer to the question or the journey you take to explore your wonderings.”

In a utopian world, students would have chosen the latter choice, but sadly, our young people are programed to believe that ‘smart’ is immediately knowing the right answer. Of course in my quest to dispel the myth that teachers are the keepers of all knowledge,  I leapt at the opportunity to jump on my soapbox and  inform the little darlings that it is indeed about the journey, and that they would learn how to investigate the answers to their questions. I prepared myself to hear exuberant cheering, but was instead met with groanings and mumblings – something akin to learning being too hard.

Teaching is a tricky business, you have to know when to provide support and when to step back; it is a fine balance between challenging students, yet not letting them feel so frustrated that they give up. In a sense, teachers need to provide a form of hidden support – students know they have to go it alone, but also understand you are there to prop them up when necessary. Interestingly enough, I stumbled across a visual metaphor of this hidden support when reading Harper’s August, 2013 edition.

On the page before me were a series of Victorian photographs of infants. As exposure times were longer at this point in time, mothers needed to support their children, but did not want to be viewed in the photograph. As a result, they were often hidden behind furniture or under blankets to create the illusion that the young one was photographed on its own. The children were comforted by their mother’s touch and able to be photographed.

I am like the hidden mothers – there to support, understanding it is about the students, not about me.

Over the past couple of weeks, students have been investigating character traits and determining which traits would make a better citizen. They have delved into dictionaries for denotations, searched for synonyms and connected to a word’s connotations.

Subtle shades of meaning have been explored as they ranked terms from most important to least important when considering citizenship. Enthusiastic discussions could be heard over whether solitary carried positive or negative connotations and whether someone who was solitary would make a good citizen. If my students were older, I would have encouraged them to view Susan Cain’s TED talk, “The Power of Introverts” to help them investigate further.

Just as they felt they had exhausted the words, I introduced them to how words are built – the study of morphology. For some students, terms such as morphemes, affixes, elements, free and bound bases were familiar. For others, they were treading in unfamiliar territory trying to attach meaning to new terms.

Morphemic elements (the smallest units of meaning in a word) such as prefixes, suffixes and free and bound bases were scattered across the tabletops. Students were asked to use the elements to create word sums, labeling elements and noting possible changes to the spelling of an element. They attacked the task with confidence, but soon started to wonder about some of their choices. Immediately, they sought me out to ask me if they were right or what to do.

Hidden support was needed to keep their energy and enthusiasm going. What the students didn’t realize was that it was their questions that provided them with the necessary next steps. All I did was repeat their questions back to them. They would ask, “Is this right – we think that <al> could be a suffix and a prefix but we aren’t sure?” I would respond with, “Can you prove your theory is correct? How so?” They would then rattle off a series of words that use <al> as a prefix and then as a suffix. Another group asked which type of suffix caused a change in spelling. I asked them what their theory was and they left me standing there as they went back to their table to explore possibilities.

I smiled as students walked away from me without waiting for me to acknowledge their responses. They knew they could achieve the task on their own. They just needed a little hidden support. They are becoming masters of all words.

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