Developing a Love of Language

Language is the cornerstone of culture. We should encourage our students to create a relationship with language, then literacy, then books. Students should be encouraged to write about what they know and what they don’t know but want to discover and learn.

One of our ongoing goals for our classrooms:  to foster curiosity — both external and internal. For example, if I want to learn more about E. B. Lewis, that is an external curiosity. If I want to find out more about the grandfather I never met and never knew, that’s an internal curiosity. Discovering and actively building knowledge about ourselves is an internal curiosity.

Building a love of words can start with a simple list of nouns. We can try to find new ways to describe these words:

Flowers: strong smells, orange or yellow, annuals, love the sunlight, never eaten by rabbits or deer, long-lasting, stay from spring to the first frost, dotting my gardens, outdoor plantings
….marigolds

Foot-wear: athletic, reflective shoelaces, platforms, Velcro straps soft, easy to walk in, best to run in, ultralight comfort, water-resistant, flexible, durable, rubber-soled, with printed logos
… sneakers

Teach your writers how to take the fewest words and make them say the most. Get an image in your head and paint the picture with words. Choose strong nouns and verbs and exact adjectives. Style is all about choosing the words that will carry our ideas and make them meaningful to our readers.  Remember, economy of expression is important. There is no need to write, “A really, really tall boy ran down the street quickly!” Instead, we might consider: “A supersized boy zoomed down the street.”

Play word games in your classroom. Here is a simple one to help students start to build original similes.

I see….       It looks like….

I see… a water cooler by the office.   It looks like….an oasis in the middle of a scorching desert.

I see… a black suitcase.     It looks like…an ancient magician’s trunk.

I see….a snow globe.   It looks like….a tiny, Welsh village during King Arthur’s reign.

Here is another way to have fun with words and teach similes, too.  Make a word jar filled with nouns written on slips of paper. Ask students to choose two slips and try to list all the ways they can find similarities between them. Here are my examples:

DOG & LAPTOP

  • both have an O in them
  • people purchase both
  • both can be helpful
  • both can give the owner pleasure
  • they keep you company
  • both can die
  • both can be purchased at a store
  • you could play games with their help
  • you cannot live without them
  • they are entertaining

My laptop is like my dog. Throughout the day it keeps me entertained, and when I go to bed, it goes to sleep, too.

MIDNIGHT & MUD

  • they are dark
  • they can be mysterious
  • they both begin with the letter M
  • they can pull you in (visually and literally!)
  • they can appear unexpectedly
  • they can heal
  • they are mystical
  • they are both important in a story that takes place in a swamp
  • in a new Cinderella version – they could both be important – if Cinderella loses a glass slipper in the mud instead of on the steps to the palace

Midnight is as sneaky as mud, pulling you in to its dark beauty and not letting go.

The great thing about creating unique similes is the push to think outside the box and write something that, perhaps, no one else has ever written before!

Hypehnated adjectives do the same thing and give a piece of writing a breath of fresh air. They also help the author with economy of expression. What day is show-your-love day?  Does the hyphenated adjective conjure up pictures of heart-shaped boxes of chocolate candies and red roses? Students can study examples from mentor texts and set off to find them in their independent reads. Eventually, ask kids to try to write one or two hyphenated adjectives in the pieces they are drafting. Here are a few mentor sentences:

All About Frogs by Jim Arnosky
Note the use of hyphen to create an unusual adjective in plant-climbing lifestyle. 

Baseballs, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald Graves
Look for the use of hyphen to create sound words or exact adjectives in run-down, long-haired, clickety-click, doe-eyed, no-thank-you’ and orange-bellied.

Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman  by Nikki Grimes
Note the interesting use of hyphens in the school teacher’s description of the school that Bessie attended: Bessie would attend the hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter, one-room Colored schoolhouse where I taught in Waxahachie. 

Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher
Wonderful adjectives are created with hyphens.  Some examples are deep-rooted, last-minute, and dew-spangled.

Up North at the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall
Use this book to discuss how hyphens are used to create adjectives such as air-bubble balloons and peanut-butter-and-worm sandwiches. 

Welcome to the River of Grass by Jane Yolen
Some use of hyphens are white-tailed deer, spear-sharp beak, tuft-eared bobcat and dark-sighted to describe an owl.

Granddaddy’s Gift by Margaret King Mitchell
Note the use of hyphens in black-eyed peas and the powerful feeling created by used-to-be friends.

The Divide by Michael Bedard
Hyphens are used in copper-colored grass, rose-patterned paper, sunflower-bordered road, weather-beaten boards, and fresh-plowed soil. Note the name of a flower, snow-on-the-mountain.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
“She stared at us. She stared at one face, then another and another. The kind of bold, I’m-looking-at-you stare you almost never get from people, especially strangers.”

Readers and writers are lovers of words. Playing with language is enjoyable and can spark a renewed interest in reading and in writing. Build in some time to experiment in notebooks and guided experiences, to search for new examples, and to transfer new learning to drafts and even pieces of writing that have already been published. Writers become more sophisticated by taking risks and trying new craft moves and strategies. Students enjoy a challenge!

How do you develop a love of words in your classroom?

What are you reading? Two book reviews

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne is a fictional novel that takes us back in history to World War II. Similar to his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there is real tragedy here. Pierrot, a young boy growing up in Paris in 1936, loses both his German father and his French mother. When his best friend Anshel’s  mother gives Pierrot to an orphanage for his own safety (these are not good times to be Jewish and be living in Paris), Pierrot’s own Aunt Beatrix finds him and brings him to Adolf Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Mountains where she is a housekeeper.

Beatrix, to keep Pierrot safe, asks him to forget his French roots, his childhood friend, and changes his name to “Peter.” Pierrot is quickly won over by the pageantry and power and Hitler’s personal attention. He is filled with a sense of superiority that his own father’s bloodline offers him. He becomes a cold, calloused teenager who eventually betrays his aunt and her lover who have forged a plot to poison Hitler. He coldly watches their execution from his bedroom window. Eventually, the Allies arrive. Herta, the only remaining member of Hitler’s staff tells Pierrot:

“The deaths you have on your conscience. But you’re still a young man, you’re only 16, you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters….Just don’t ever tell yourself that you didn’t know. That would be the worst crime of all!”

Years later, Pierrot finds Anshel who has become an author, and he tells him his story to write it down so that it can be shared with others. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain can be read by middle school students, but I think I would recommend it to high-schoolers. Continue reading

On Modeling Writing for Your Students

In her book, Creating Writers, Spandel notes that most of the modeling that was done for us (now, teachers of writers) “…involved assigning, collecting, and correcting writing.”  We saw our teachers manage and assess writing, but we did not get to experience teachers who wrote, shared, or revised in front of us. We were not privy to their writing processes.  I grew up in a time that emphasized product over process.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t really learn a lot about how to grow as a writer until I came to the Pennsylvania Writing Project housed in West Chester University.

One of the things that helped me the most was reading myriad professional books. Bruce Morgan (2005) models writing by gathering students in his “Oval Office” where he sits in a comfortable chair with all the materials he needs at his fingertips: chart stand, chart paper, markers of different colors, and picture books (mentor texts, I would guess). He gathers his writers together in this manner because he believes it “…strengthens the community” and helps him monitor students’ engagement and attentiveness. Students gather here daily to observe him  modeling writing while he thinks aloud.  He talks about his process – the things that are going right, the things he is struggling with, and where he’s stuck. He will ask students for help, and their responses help him assess their understanding. Morgan has high hopes for his students. Continue reading