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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Vocabulary and Knowledge

Once upon a time I had a period of time where I supervised teenagers who were supposed to be doing certain quiet tasks of their own, but who often didn't.  I liked them. They were charming, engaging, and quite lovable, even the rascals among them. But I didn't have any support or back up or even any real input on what exactly were the expectations for the time period.  The exception on input was when the teens or I fell afoul of the oft confusing and contradictory rules.  Then I heard about it, but I didn't really hear what or how I was supposed to have done differently.

Sometimes some of them didn't want to do the tasks the adults had said they were supposed to, and preferred to engage in behaviors the adults had said they shouldn't do.  This was not necessarily bad behavior in and of itself, and a couple of the rules were incredibly arbitrary and not conducive to cooperation- like... the only students allowed to study together were the honor roll students.  A student not on the honour roll could not ask to quietly work in a study group with a student or students who were on the honour roll.  They also were not supposed to nap or stare into space or various other things, some of which were more easily defensible restrictions than others.  Many of those rules I found even more frustrating than the teens did, although I don't think they knew just how much.  I did my best to understand and enforce them as they were explained to me, but it was pretty soul-sucking and depressing.

A couple of times some of the teens got mouthy over it, but there were no adults who had my back, so I was on my own in dealing with it.  I did feel like I'd been asked to help and then was pushed into the deep end while holding weights and ordered not to let go of them.  And then while treading water with weights in my hand, I was told to go catch fish while floundering in the deep waters. 

"How?" I asked more than once.  Mostly, nobody answered me at all.  I heard through the grapevine that these questions were annoying.   "You're the teacher," one authority figure finally told me.  "You'll think of something."  But I wasn't the teacher. I wasn't a teacher. I had not been asked to be a teacher and I hadn't said I would be a teacher.  I was a homeschooling mom.  I have a great admiration for classroom teachers, immense.  I have no ability in that direction and I know it.  Because I know very well how hard that job is and how much talent is required for it, I had never desired to teach other people's children in a classroom setting, and, in fact, that wasn't what I'd been asked to do.  I had merely agreed to provide some adult supervision when asked because I wanted to be helpful.  I had not accepted the request because I had nothing else to do, and I had definitely not volunteered to be a teacher.

To add to the difficult of what I was asked to do, I was the face of the new rules to the kids. They did not know I hated them. The people who created those rules and sent me private emails telling me to enforce them would come in occasionally and ignore the rules themselves and allow the students to do the same.  So that made me look even more like the bad guy than ever.  If I sound frustrated, and maybe a little bit bitter, let's just think of this post as therapeutic.  I am sure the other side was just as frustrated and would write a very different version, but I was the one floundering in a sea of angry teenagers every day.  But that's not the point of the story.

One morning one of my favorites of the students was a bit fed up with the restrictions.  Said student was chafing at the bit a little and just starting to be mouthy.  I knew my student was just bored and lashing out and while I couldn't blame the kid, I also couldn't let this continue.  There had been smaller signs of breaking out before, and by now I knew I was on my own, so I'd been thinking about my options.  We'd had a conversation about something else a few days previously, and I'd been surprised by a word he didn't know.  I happened to stumble on an article on the joys of browsing old encyclopedias, and I  remembered something similar I'd done with profit out of sheer boredom as an adolescent and so I had a plan to implement the next time he started complaining.  I was ready.

 I brought him an old dictionary I'd seen in the room.  I opened it seemingly at random, although actually, I opened it to the page with the word he hadn't known (petition).  I grinned at him.  "Since you've done all the things you can think of today that the school allows you to do, and since you don't want to do the things the school says you can do, for the remaining 10 or 15 minutes of class I'd like you to start copying this page."  He didn't have to include all the pronunciations, etymology, and so on, just the word and the definition.

He didn't want to, but he wasn't really an insolent kid at heart, just an immensely frustrated, very smart, and very creative kid being squeezed by a tightening band of senseless bureaucratic mandates. He sat down and started doing it, although not without some huffing, puffing, and eye rolling.

I saved his paper for a long time, although it eventually got lost,  much to my disappointment. It was a delight.
He started by making editorial comments that were less than complimentary- 'this is dumb.  This is supposed to be school, why I am doing this dumb thing?' and next to one more obscure word and definition, "Who cares?"
But then something happened.  About the third word in, his editorial comment was, "Well, I guess that is kind of interesting." and then two or three entries below, another word was annotated with "I didn't know that.  This is educational after all." and then he started sketching little comic pictures illustrating some of the definitions.  They were clever, witty, a little on the sassy side, but quite entertaining and they showed he had gotten interested in spite of himself and was making connections.  I was delighted, and he enjoyed himself more than he'd expected to. He learned something, and he stayed out of trouble.

A couple weeks later a different youngster in a different class started acting up and I assigned him the same task. He refused to cooperate and, as I said, nobody had my back at all, so when push came to shove, he was excused, and I was told I was being 'punitive' and he shouldn't have to do what I asked, and as you can imagine, that was the end of any illusion that I was somebody the students had to work   I was, not long after that, abruptly told they weren't going to need my help anymore and the whole thing ended on a somewhat sour note, although not without relief on my part. 

It bothered me, of course, to feel like I'd been kicked off the deep end and left to flounder. It bothered me that nobody had my back.  It bothered me that it wasn't important to anybody else to support my authority. It did not take long before I could laugh at this experience and see the dark and funny side and even sympathize at the dilemma of professional educators in their twenties who had to figure out what to do when a homeschooling mom in her fifties was foisted on them.

  But what bothered me the most  and the longest, and that I could never be amused about, was that an educator would see learning about new words and their definitions as 'punitive, as a waste of time.

Punitive was the last thing from my mind.   I wasn't punishing them with a whip, I was presenting them with a treasure chest for their perusal.  As a child I had occasionally been in circumstances where I was bored and frustrated and in the pre-screen days of my childhood, the only thing open to me was a dictionary and I had discovered it was a wonderful place to while away a few minutes. You could always discover something new and interesting.  I knew I was not the only young person who had discovered treasure in an old dictionary. I had read of others.  I hoped this irked young man could be distracted and redirected from his frustrations (which were not wholly unjustified) enough to make this discovery for himself, as had happened in the earlier class, and meanwhile, the other students who wanted to study could do so.

I intended the exercise as a two fold project - one, to redirect the bad attitude and the pent up energy into something more productive, an activity they could do without distracting other students, and mostly, because I knew it had immense value to these students- many of whom English was their second language.  They were seen as fluent, and they were, but they also had odd gaps.  Few of them liked reading at all, even many of the honor roll students. 

There's been a lot of research on the reading gap between underprivileged and middle to upper class kids.  There is a 30,000 word gap when they come to preschool. We now know that the 30,000 word gap between underprivileged children and their peers from reading families is a knowledge gap.That vocabulary gap isn't a gap in test scores and word lists. It's a gap in things the children know and have the language to talk about and to think about and picture in their mind's eyes.  These kids weren't underprivileged, but because English was often not their first language, they had many of the same deficits in English that underprivileged kids do.

 E.D. Hirsch (Core Knowledge, Cultural Literacy, and 'What Your __ Grader Needs to Know' author) once wrote:
 The most harmful idea is that children do not need a knowledge-rich curriculum to become proficient readers. The word reading, of course, has two senses. The first means the process of turning printed marks into sounds and these sounds into words. But the second sense means the very different process of understanding those words. Learning how to read in the first sense, as vital as it is, does not guarantee learning how to read in the second sense, comprehending the meaning of what is read. To become a good comprehender, a child needs a great deal of knowledge.

I would never recommend copying a few entries from a dictionary as the best way to fill a knowledge gap. But as a disciplinary tool, it's quite useful- educative, distracting, without being punitive at all.  I use disciplinary here in the fuller meaning- discipling.  Here is a useful way to distract a youngster from the mischief and mayhem he wants to engage in while giving him something to think about instead, and if he will only engage in the task, he will be thinking in no time at all, provided he's not set to do it for hours.  Ten or fifteen minutes is just about the outside of long enough for one session, and not daily at that.

 Anthony Esolen (Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Defending Marriage, and many others) explains the value of reading literature: (Hint: It's not to pass vocabulary tests) “Anyway, the gist of the solon’s objection to my criticisms was that we want students to be able to cite evidence when they make a claim about anything. My objection to his objection, as I was running out of time, was that, as worthy a goal as that might be, that’s not what a literature course is really about. He was thinking about tests, and I was thinking about David Copperfield. He was thinking of technique, and I was thinking about the imagination and truth. Now that I have the benefit of some time for reflection, and for looking at the page in question, I see that I missed an opportunity to make a crucial point. It has less to do with literature, to which I’ll return in a moment, than with the whole aim of an intellectual life—even of a human life. That aim is to behold the truth, and to love it for its beauty.”  (here)

It could be argued that a dictionary is not literature (although I might disagree if we are speaking of the OED). However, it is a place to behold small and beautiful truths.  Words themselves are beautiful, lovely, meaningful little jewelboxes encapsulating ideas. They are the way to knowledge, as without words, we cannot know.
Knowledge cross-pollinates. The more you know, the more you can know, and words are the signs along the way.  What you pick up from a few minutes reading an old dictionary is likely to show up again in another context, which is how we learn vocabulary naturally- seeing words used in different contexts over time.

 Professors have been lamenting for some time that American students come to college without knowing much. It might be because we emphasize knowing 'how to learn' over actual knowledge and  literacy over actually reading literature:
"Such a thought was recently echoed in The New York Times by University of Virginia professor and reading expert Daniel Willingham. Pointing out the obvious fact that reading scores have remained dismally stagnant for the last 30 years (roughly a third of high school seniors are proficient in the subject), Willingham notes that our issue is not with teaching students to know their letters and sound them out. Instead, reading proficiency becomes a problem when students fail to comprehend the meaning of the text: “Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.” Unfortunately, that knowledge is not being passed on to students. For that reason, Willingham suggests “decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades,” using it instead to build knowledge of other subjects: “Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension.”

Unfortunately, this state of things is ingrained in the American education system, a fact explained by educator E.D. Hirsch his book Cultural Literacy:

 “The theories that have dominated American education for the past fifty years stem ultimately from Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that we should encourage the natural development of young children and not impose adult ideas upon them before they can truly understand them. … He thought that a child’s intellectual and social skills would develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education. His content-neutral conception of educational development has long been triumphant in American schools of education and has long dominated the ‘developmental,’ content-neutral curricula of our elementary schools.”

 Clearly, Rousseau’s philosophy of education isn’t working for America’s public schools, for American students increasingly appear to “know nothing.” 

This is because we value so many other things above knowledge.

 This next article excerpt is long, but it's one of my favourites because of the  demonstrated link to school and post-school success:

" our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. (you need multiple exposures in a meaningful context, not lists of words and their short definitions to match up) The sense of a word that a listener or reader gains from multiple exposures to it isn’t a fixed and definite meaning but rather a system of meaning possibilities that get narrowed down through context on each occasion. As Miller showed, knowledge of a word is a memory residue of several meaningful encounters with the word in diverse contexts. We retain bits of those past contexts in memory as part of the word’s meaning-potential. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading. ... So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. Spending large amounts of school time on individual word study is an inefficient and insufficient route to a bigger vocabulary. There are just too many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000. A large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds. .... To make the necessary school changes in the United States, an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas. Of these, the idea that most requires overturning is how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future. How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball. In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job

The following demonstrates the result of the lack of content in our curriculum. I don't remember where I read this, but it's something a current professor says about his incoming students every year. When it comes to history, this is basically all they know:
 * There's all the stuff today
 * Before that there was Hitler
 * Before that was some sort of Game of Thrones thing
 * Nothing before that

 "As a rule," says Charlotte Mason, "things and persons have each one distinctive quality; to see what that is in a flash, and to express it in the fittest word, is a proof of genius, or of the highest culture."

Words fitly spoken are like apples of gold in settings of silver.

Read books that use words like that.  Don't be afraid to try to use words like that yourself. And in the pursuit of knowledge, sometimes, let children be bored, and sometimes, suggest they read a few entries in an old dictionary.  This will not be wasted time.  Knowledge cross pollinates.


 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal, Buy Now!   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science.
(see sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines)

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.

  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

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