No longer messing about in boats or by rivers, we are back in the classroom and messing about in dictionaries!
Inspired by both the zaniness of the illustration and the word that the image depicts, students began an investigation into the Irish designers, Project Twins’ illustrated book of Unusual Words. Students picked words that they liked the sound of, the way it rolled off their tongues and set to work to uncover the denotation, morphology and etymology of their chosen word.
Each recording of their investigation is an assessment of where the students are as a group and as individuals in terms of their word study. I had not previously investigated the words myself and so it is interesting to see where the students fossick for information. I asked them to cite their sources and note their thinking as they went – all I required was that they justify their findings. I urged them to go beyond one source and as you will hear, more than one source was needed to track down the words – some sources more useful or reliable than others. It also raised interesting questions as to what is a word: does it stop being a word if it is not recorded in the dictionary, if it is obsolete? How do we know it exists? For the first time students delved into the OED online which we are lucky enough to have access to at our school. I was hesitant initially about suggesting this, thinking they needed guidance – I am only an enthusiastic explorer, far from conversant with all that this source has to offer. However, I realized quickly that students can indeed handle this and rummage through the evidence to make interesting discoveries.
Below one class shows what words they are about to investigate. ( Apologies for the ringing bell and poor sound quality!!)
I have been taken with two quotes pertinent to the process my students have recently undergone. Maria Popova on her wonderful blog Brainpickings recently reviewed Stuart Firestein’s book Ignorance: How it Drives Science. In her review she cites two passages that resonate.
‘Are we too enthralled with the answers these days? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long? We seem to have come to a phase in civilization marked by a voracious appetite for knowledge, in which the growth of information is exponential and, perhaps more important, its availability easier and faster than ever.’
‘There are a lot of facts to be known in order to be a professional anything — lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant, teacher. But with science there is one important difference. The facts serve mainly to access the ignorance… Scientists don’t concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but minuscule, but rather on what they don’t know…. Science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it. Mucking about in the unknown is an adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege.’
My suggestion that students should investigate these unusual words had several purposes – but perhaps most importantly it is for students to experience exactly what Firestein refers to as the adventure of ‘mucking about in the unknown’. I also wanted to share with my students the sheer joy of such words- their whimsy and preposterousness. These words too are made more potent by the images with each illustration capturing the essence of the words. This idea of illustrating words is about to become an integrated art /humanities project where after research in humanities class –students in their art class will work on the design and painting of a word that particularly captures each student’s imagination, a word they love., or are puzzled or intrigued by. So obviously showing Unusual Words, should provide a background for the art teachers to draw on.
Of course I also just wanted to assess where the students are as a group and individually in their understanding of the concepts involved in word study. Formal written assessments can often miss what a student knows and doesn’t know, or be limited in the information such assessments produce. I have been finding more open ended questions can reveal a lot. I want to know: How do the students handle research? What do they do first to understand a word? What sources do they use? Do they go beyond the first ‘result’ that comes up? Do they cross-check references? Do they become confused by the spots of syllable division found in some dictionaries and regard these divisions as morphemes? Do they consider other words with a proposed suffix or prefix to justify their choice? How do they go about finding related words? Can they identify other bases from the same root? Do they actually understand the word, can the explain the denotation in their own words?
I have to begin with Upamanyu and Jun Hyeok’s investigation into the word ‘scripturient-‘ particularly relevant for our fellow word nerds in Dan Allen’s fifth grade class in Switzerland and any others who are learning the fluidity of Chancery script through ‘Real Script’ -truly a dance of the pen.
I was impressed by the start these students have made and by the ease that they can converse about the process. They show they have used a variety of sources, a recognition that both bases are free and the recognition that this root has led to a twin base element. I would like them to follow up with more research of related words (words sharing these bases) and produce a matrix to use with others in class.
Again so much of interest to follow up on from this research. I need to emphasize the difference between words that are related morphologically and those that are related etymologically. This root appears to have led to may bases and quickly glancing at their research from Online Etymology Dictionary , I can see where they may delve next.
Still a lot is unknown and there are questions to research, but I am excited by the way that the students recognize this. I am thrilled that they don’t ‘cave in’ at the first hurdle- actually locating the word, and have used their knowledge about base elements to make a start and find new information. They show persistance, collaboration and an ability to use several resources. They self correct and most importantly demonstrate healthy doubt and questioning which leads me to Bertrand Russel again found on Popova’s Brainpickings.
Russel wrote A Liberal Decalogue which was published in December, 1951 in the New York Times Magazine. As Popovaa notes his advices touches on the themes of ‘the purpose of education, the value of uncertainty, the importance of critical thinking, the gift of intelligent criticism’ . Number three is particularly apt in explaining the value of word-study:
‘3. Never try to discourage thinking for you will surely succeed.’
This underlies my purpose with word study: to foster the encouragement and pleasure of thinking. I think these clips and the rest to follow in the next few posts give glimpses of students thinking.
For more information on Project Twins Unusual Words read: