“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.”
“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.