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Try this! Vocabulary Building

Vocabulary Building

Most of my students love words. I encourage them to keep a list of words they love, not just for the meaning, but for the sound of the word itself or for the feeling they have when they speak or hear the word.

I am a firm believer in ten new words a week. This is an old-fashioned idea and I believe the reason it has persisted long enough to become old fashioned is because it is tried and true. In other words, it works.

When homeschooling my own daughter, I assigned ten new vocabulary words each week. I had her look them up in a dictionary (the actual book, not the online tool).  She would then write out each definition. She would memorize the spelling and definition of each word. The next night she would write three sentences using each word and by the end of the week, she would write a short story or poem using each vocabulary word. Each week, I would create a test on spelling, meaning, and usage. I found this to be an excellent way to help her build her vocabulary. Why not try this with your child?

In addition, I highly recommend  Wordly Wise books and online tools.

My Reading Buddy (continued Part 4)

A few weeks ago my mentee hid from me among her friends in the cafeteria, when I arrived to meet with her for our session. I walked to the table where she was being shielded by two other girls. One girl had a friendly smile and asked if she could come to the session. Despite the fact that she was sitting, I could tell that the third girl was quite tall. Her knees hit the top of the lunch table and even sitting, she towered over the other girls. She was tough looking and glared at me angrily.

“Good afternoon, girls,” I said. “I am sorry, but I have to borrow your friend for a while today.”

“Why? So you can torture her with that boring reading stuff?” The tall girl asked, still glaring. “She hates going, you know.”

“I did not know that, but she is committed through June, as am I,” I said motioning towards my student. “We need to go.”

My mentee had turned an astonishing shade of pink. She would not meet my eyes. “Can they come, too?’ She asked.  In this moment, I was trying to figure out if my student really didn’t like our sessions, if she resented missing one lunch a week with her friends, if she felt embarrassed to be called out for special services, or if she truly wanted her friends to be able to also participate in the program.

The tall girl immediately said, “I never want to go, don’t worry.”  She looked me up and down from head to toe, pausing at my shoes and then at my neck in that unnerving way that some middle school girls seem to have mastered. It’s a way of letting you know there are insults to be made, but can’t be, lest the girl making the insults would be given detention or some other consequence they’d like to avoid.

I knew that I had some choices. I could walk away, find a teacher or some administrator to help me deal with the problem. I could get tough. I could ignore the tall girl completely and insist my student get up from the table and join me immediately.

I knew full well that the choice I was about to make could have very differing results, but I decided to take a chance. I fixed my gaze on the tall girl. I sensed she needed attention. I looked her directly in the eyes with what I hoped appeared to be a congenial smile and said,  “You look really tall.  Just like I am.  Just like my daughter. She’s about up to here.” I motioned towards the top of my head. “You’re tough, too, just like she is. You must play sports. Basketball, soccer, swimming… tennis! You’d be a powerhouse at tennis.”

This seemed to please her and she gave a tiny little smile.  I told the girls that this mentoring project  was a new program that we were trying to grow and that next year there would be more mentors so that more students could participate. My student got up from the table and we walked towards the classroom that we usually meet in.

“So tell me, and I want you to be honest, because I want these sessions to work for you and I had been under the impression that we were having a good time.  Do you not like the work we are doing together?” I asked.

She told me that it was embarrassing and that some of her friends laughed at her for going.  I told her that I understood and that even though it was at the time of the cavemen, I remembered being eleven years old. (Yes, I make bad jokes sometimes, so my students will laugh.. with me or at me. I don’t care which.) I reminded her that she had been specifically chosen to be in this program by her teachers and that not all the students who applied could participate.  She was quiet and when we got into the classroom, I asked her where she would be going to school next year.

“Here, I guess. I took the test for the special schools, but I didn’t get into any of them,” she said this with sadness in her voice.

I told her I was sorry to hear that and she immediately said that it was the hardest test she had ever taken. She said there was math on the test that she had never seen in her life. I know exactly what she meant because my own daughter, who is a year older than my student, is now a seventh grader at Boston Latin School and we started the preparation for the ISEE test in 5th grade. I asked her if she had received any tutoring for the test and she said she had not. It saddened me greatly when I heard her then say the following words:

“I guess I’m just not that smart. You’d have to be really smart to pass that test.”

This exam school test taking process had brought an eleven-year-old kid to the conclusion that she is not intelligent. From my work with her thus far I could tell that this was, in fact, untrue. I had a seen a paper she had written for her English class comparing two different books. There were red marks and comments on it. When I mentioned to her it would be important for her to follow the teacher’s advice and edit her paper, she corrected me and said, “Oh no, no, no. Those are my own comments. I always write a draft and then make edits.”

From this paper, I could see she was reading and writing at a high level. In fact, I was told that she had been recommended for the mentoring project because she was advanced and needed to be challenged. Our work together started in the spring after she had already taken the ISEE prior to our first meeting. Therefore, I had not had the opportunity to help her advise her on howr prepare for the test. I wondered to myself if her parents had received any information from the school on how to prepare for the test.

“You are very smart. That test is far above your grade level, especially in math. Most of the students who get into those schools, get private tutoring specifically for taking that test,” I said looking in her eyes.

I wanted to be careful. I couldn’t let her continue to think that her results on that one test meant that she was not intelligent. At the same time, I didn’t want her to feel that the cards were stacked against her, that she was competing in a system that she did not have the resources to be successful in or that her path was set in stone by her life circumstances. I explained to her gently that I felt the ISEE wasn’t entirely fair because the material on the test is not taught in Boston Public School classrooms prior to the test. I told her that without tutoring my own child probably would not have done well on the ISEE. I gave her information to give her parents and I assured her that she could take the test again in eighth grade. I told her I would bring her a test prep book for the ISEE exam. I gave her the name of a tutor I know who specializes in ISEE test prep.

My student wrote down all of the information I was giving her. She told me that she would tell her parents about the tutoring. I later found out that her parents do not speak any English. I worry that she won’t give them the information or that they won’t understand.




My Reading Buddy: Part 2

When I met with my reading buddy the following week, she seemed eager to be read to and learn more about what would happen next in the story. In the story the main character receives an anonymous gift. It is a tie with porcupines on it. I saw a questioning look on my mentee’s face and I asked her if she had ever seen a porcupine. She shook her head. I described a porcupine to her and I could see that she was confused.

I can remember feeling confused in school as a child. I had not been read to much and when I heard unfamiliar words or terms that other children seemed to miraculously understand, I felt stupid and a little angry. It was a startling revelation to me that there were breeds of cats and dogs and that there were different kinds of fabric. I so often did not know what other people were talking about. Much later in life, while preparing for graduate school, I read Howard Gardner’s, The Unschooled Mind. In his book, Gardner writes about the gap between the intuitive learning that we all do as children and the often contradictory learning that we encounter at school. His contention is that young children have “scripts” about how the world works and why. These scripts are largely affected by the socializing forces of the environment in which a child is raised. There can often be a great conflict for children when the intuitive script they have for the world is vastly different than the reality presented at school. This reminds me of my oldest son, who is autistic. When he was learning language around the age of four, he had so much frustration with me when I tried to teach him colors and the names of things. One day I pointed to the wall and said, “That’s white.”

In response, he banged his head and screamed, “Green!”

I tried to tell him again that it was white and his reply was the same. This lasted about five minutes. I showed him a variety of white objects and then pointed to the wall and repeated. “White.”

The poor child was sobbing. He put his finger on a spot on the wall and asked in a questioning voice, “Green?”

Sure enough that spot was green. This wasn’t limited to colors. As his ability to communicate improved, I learned that the table was the floor, as they appeared to be connected by the leg of the table. The huge iron fence around a church he took classes at was clearly train tracks to him. In order for us to communicate, we had to crack each other’s code.

So when I saw my mentee’s confusion about the porcupine, I broke one of my own rules and took out my iPhone during our session. I searched for images of porcupines. My mentee laughed out loud, when she saw them.

I asked her, “Is this what you thought a porcupine would look like?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I never saw anything with those….what are they called?”

“Quills,” I said. “You wouldn’t want to sit next to him on the bus.”

We then went back to the reading. Yes, I took a few minutes away from our “work” time. I wanted my mentee to become activated by unfamiliar or unclear terms. I wanted her to be engaged with curiosity when she wasn’t sure of something. For some children, learning has been or can be scary. I love to reassure students that in order to really learn something, you have to not know it first. Not knowing is not only okay, it is essential. Language is a tricky thing. Maybe her parents use different words for this animal. Maybe she wasn’t familiar with the word because she is a city kid. If I hadn’t asked her, I wouldn’t have known. This is another confirmation of something I have learned in teaching. You and your student can be using the same words and talking about very different things.

To be continued…