Encourage Questions and You’ll Encourage Curiosity

Recently, at a teacher website I frequent, a question was thrown out about encouraging curiosity in students.  The teacher asking the question recognized that the time constraints we are given and the way we are asked to teach can sometimes squash the students’ tendencies to be inquisitive or curious.

The statement that immediately came to my mind is one I have heard many times, but only recently come to fully  appreciate.

The question is more important than the answer.

Add to that the following statement that Michel Rameau uses frequently in his Spellinars.

The question is eternal; the answer is only temporary. 

When these statements become integral to the daily structure of my day, I am then encouraging curiosity in my students. 

The way I see it, putting more importance on asking questions than on giving answers benefits the students (all of us, really) in two respects.   First, the answer is no longer the end-all be-all.  It becomes okay to have partial understanding of something.  Secondly, all minds become focused on making sense and understanding of whatever is being talked about.  The questions come quite naturally, and everyone in the room knows these questions will not be discouraged or rated on some kind of disheartening scale.

Stating that the answer is less important than the question does not imply that the answer is not important.  Usually it is our way of checking what we understand about something.  But thinking of our answers as temporary helps us think of our understanding as part of the bigger picture in time.  If I begin my answers, “As I understand it at this point in time, ….”, I am admitting that the answer is temporary.  I am open to having an even deeper understanding of the question at some later point in time.  I am open to the idea that there is, no doubt, more to learn about the specific topic, and that as I learn more, my answer to that question will alter also.  It also helps us think of an answer, not as an end point, but as a checkpoint.   With an answer that is thought of as temporary, the question remains open, whereas answers that are thought of as final, end our further contemplation of the question.

The best kinds of questions asked in a classroom are those asked by students.  A teacher can learn a lot about where a student’s understanding is by the question the student is asking.  A question can also reveal how engaged the student is in the learning.  I especially love when students ask big questions that can’t necessarily be answered just then.  It tells me they are extending what they understand and trying to apply that understanding to the so-much-out-there that they don’t understand!  Sometimes we just sit for a second and appreciate the largeness of the question and the fact that none of us can even attempt to answer it, yet we can all appreciate it!  Recently a student was presenting a slide show about sink holes.  The students in the audience had a lot of questions, at least six of which neither the presenter nor I could answer.  What a wonderful end to a presentation.  Those questions were all curiosity driven, and I couldn’t have been happier!

I’ve never been one of those teachers who is uncomfortable leaving a question unanswered.  I have known some who are.  Those teachers drive themselves crazy trying to prepare for any question about an activity or topic that might arise.   But the sad part is that they also box themselves in a bit.  They end up needing to keep the activity or discussion within the boundaries of what they know and can answer.  To my way of thinking, that puts boundaries on the students’ curiosities as well.

I definitely want my students to know I have a level of education and am qualified to teach them the subjects that I am assigned, but I also want them to know that I don’t know it all.  I continually take academic classes and read topic specific books, sharing my passion and excitement for learning with my students.  I want them to know that when I send them off on an investigation of prefixes for instance, that I have not personally conducted such an investigation and am looking forward to seeing what they find!  I use the knowledge I have gathered to guide and steer their inquiry, but I don’t allow preconceived ideas to close me off to what we might all notice that we have not noticed before.  The very first year I began teaching orthography, I jumped in without having a complete understanding of many facets of our language.  The students were thrilled!  They loved that I didn’t have all the answers.  We were truly all learning something valuable from each other.

So are students the only ones who get to ask questions?  Of course not.  Here are my favorite questions to ask:  “What are you wondering now?  What questions does that stir in you?  What does this new information cause you to think about?  What evidence do you have to support that?  Can you prove that?”

Questions happen when our curiosity bubbles up and erupts into words.  It is at that point when we begin our quest for information and ideas with which we will construct an understanding.  Temporary answers allow us to check that understanding, while keeping the question alive.  In the meantime our minds are open, and our curiosity aroused.  We don’t know when evidence will come along, or how long our minds will juggle with an idea before we reach that deeper understanding that develops in response to a question once asked.

Thinking Out Loud About Grammar

I didn’t always love teaching grammar.  That’s not to say I hated it.  Personally, I remember being one of the few who could make sense of sentence diagramming back in my own middle school years.  But having a sense of something does not necessarily equate to being able to pass that on to others – especially those whose eyelids and shoulders drop at the mention of the word “grammar”.  These days I love teaching it  … using the 4 Level Sentence Analysis that I learned about from Michael Clay Thompson.

Using a 4 Level Analysis of a sentence allows for my students to think through their decisions, to defend their choices and to create their own sense of understanding.  There is definitely some groundwork that needs to be laid before the analysis can begin.  The first thing we do at the beginning of the year is to review the eight parts of speech and the five parts of a sentence.  Then as we begin analyzing sentences, we add discussion about phrases, sentence structure, and sentence types.

We begin by having a group of volunteers label the part of speech for each word in the sentence on the board.  The students in the class are then expected to look at the labels and to question them when they don’t seem to fit with what he or she understands.  These questions often lead to rich discussions on the role of each part of speech, the relationships of the parts of speech to one another and the idea represented in the sentence as a whole.

In the sentence we analyzed on Friday, the students had two opportunities to contemplate the idea that often words can be more than one part of speech, depending on how they are used in the sentence.  So while we may appear to be looking at the sentence one word at a time, we are always keeping the idea represented by the sentence in mind.

The first word questioned was ‘so’.  Many of the students recognize it as a coordinating conjunction.  That great question allowed us to revisit the role of a coordinating conjunction.  It also allowed us to think about how the word was being used in the sentence.  When the students thought about it in relation to the other words around it, it became obvious that in this particular sentence the word was an adverb.  The second word questioned was ‘student’.  Most of the time it is thought of as a noun.  I especially loved the way Elizabeth recognized that it can be a noun … sometimes.  Again, we need to look at it in the context of the sentence!

Looking back at the video, I realize that you can only see part of the two magnet charts I refer to at the top of my white board.  The first one lays out the parts of the sentence in a visual way.  Here is a better picture of it:

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The students decide if the clause has an action verb or a linking verb.  Then they know what to look for next.  If they have an action verb, they look for a direct object.  If there is one, then they look for an indirect object which will be found (if there is one) in front of the direct object.

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I like this visual of the main sentence structures because I can incorporate the correct punctuation for each sentence structure as we find examples of each.  Teaching grammar in this way is more intriguing to the students.  With each sentence their confidence grows because they are asked to explain their thinking which helps them build their own sense of how grammar works.

 

Two Words “Packed” Together Into One … Portmanteau

In mid-December I read a blog post at Word Nerdery called “My Portmanteau is Packed; I’m Ready to Go“.  I always enjoy reading Ann Whiting’s posts.  To me it is like finding out your favorite author has written another chapter!  I get comfortable and ready to savor what I’m about to read because I know it will sometimes tickle me, sometimes stump me, but always fascinate me!

Portmanteau words are something I’ve been intending to have my students explore, so I was especially interested in this post.  My heart was saddened however, when I read what the inspiration was for this look into portmanteau words.  Simply put, the  word was smog.  And it seems there was a lot of it in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.  Land being cleared for farming and palm oil plantations was leaving the air filled with noxious pollution.  Without minimizing the seriousness of the situation she was surrounded by, Ann invited her readers to take a closer look at the word <smog>.

After finishing the post (and I encourage you to visit her blog and do the same), I was excited to see what my students would do with this topic.  Over the next few days, as students came to me ready for a new orthographic investigation, I asked them to find out what they could about portmanteau words.  First they were to find out what they were.  Second they were to make a list of some of their favorites.  It didn’t take long before they were huddled around computers, sharing their discoveries and often laughing at the strange images being brought to mind.  Most were especially delighted by the imaginative blends that involved animals.

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What fun!  We went to the Gallery at Real Spelling and viewed the film on Blend Words (Portmanteau).  We found out that there were three different ways to create a portmanteau.  They can be juxtapositional, overlapping, or nested.  We started to recognize some of those types in the examples we found.

Since we knew that Lewis Carroll was the one who started calling blend words “portmanteau words”, we decided to look at his famous poem to see which portmanteau words we could spot.  What a treat! “Callooh! Callay!”   Everyone looked a copy of the poem over on their own.  Then I shared a youtube video I had found in which a very talented 10 year old recites this famous poem.

We talked a bit about how his recitation brought the poem (which seemed to be full of strange words that nobody knew) to life!  Suddenly there was a story here!  It still wasn’t perfectly clear, but the gist of it was!  Then we compared that to Johnny Depp’s partial sharing of the poem.

The consensus was that this version was a bit creepier, yet we felt the pull of wanting to hear more.

We found the following portmanteau words:
slithy, which is a combination of slimy and lithe     mimsy, which is a combination of miserable and flimsy
galumphing, which is a combination of gallop and triumphing
chortle, which is a combination of chuckle and snort

We played with the words of “The Jabberwocky” for days.  We analyzed the grammar in some of the sentences.  Here is a sample of that.  I realized as I watched it back that the apostrophe in (‘Twas) was put in the wrong place.  If it represents the missing letter, it needs to be before the letter <T>.  The other thing I found out was Lewis Carroll may have intended the word ‘brillig’ to mean a certain time of day.  If that is true, then it would be a noun and not an adjective.  But it would still be a subject complement.

The students surprised themselves by being able to identify some grammatical structure to this sentence, which at first had only felt full of strange foreign words.  Of course, we could make grammatical sense of this sentence because in English, it is the order of the words that helps signal relationships between the words in the sentence.  We know that we expect to find adjectives before nouns.  We know that we expect to find articles before nouns.  We know the predictable parts of speech to look for following a preposition.  And here is where I neatly planted a seed.  Latin wasn’t like that.  Word order was not that important.  The Romans knew whether a word was a subject or an object by its suffix, and not by whether it was in front of or behind the predicate.

We finish with this recitation of The Jabberwocky.  We thank Lewis Carroll, Word Nerdery and Real Spelling because these days we quote the Jabberwocky when it suits us, and we blurt out portmanteaus that we are inventing on the spot!  We are changed!

Looks Aren’t Everything!

I am always surprised when students new to fifth grade misspell words like makeing, comeing, and lazey.  I’m surprised because they’ve been writing these words for many years.  Obviously, they never understood whether to keep the <e> or  to replace it when adding the suffix!  I may be surprised, but I’m not particularly concerned. These are spelling errors I can help eliminate!

The following Suffix Flow Chart is borrowed with permission from Pete Bower’s book “Teaching How the Written Word Works”.

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I made copies and had each student glue it in their Orthography notebook for future reference.  To begin with, we read through the flow chart together.  Someone read the first diamond.  We imagined the answer was NO, and decided where we should go next.  Then we went back and imagined the answer was YES, and followed the arrow to the next diamond.  We kept reading and following arrows until we had read all the boxes in the flow chart.  Now we were ready to practice using it.

I wrote the following word sum on the board:

smile  +  ing  –>

Then I asked someone to read aloud the first question we must consider.  Before that question was answered, we reviewed which morpheme was the base or stem and which was the suffix.  They also wrote the vowel letters above the flow chart in their notebooks.

Now the question was read again and answered.  “The suffix <-ing> begins with the vowel letter <i>, so the answer to the first question is YES.”  We followed the arrow to the next diamond shape and read the question:  Does the base or stem have a final, non-syllabic <e>?  We looked at <smile> and agreed that the final <e> was indeed non-syllabic.

Then we followed the YES arrow to the final box where it said to remove the single, non-syllabic <e> before adding the suffix.  At this point we crossed out the <e> at the end of <smile> and were ready to write the final spelling of the word.

Here is how the final word sum looked:

smile/ + ing –>  smiling

Here is how the students practiced reading it:

“s-m-i-l-e   plus   i-n-g   is rewritten as   s-m-i-l   NO e   i-n-g”

When reading it aloud, the morphemes are spelled out.  Always.  The students recognize the absence of the letter <e> in the final spelling of the word by saying “NO e”, so that they are always cognizant of its place on the base or stem.

We went through a few more examples including the word sums “grate + ful” and “create + or”.  Then I gave them each a list of word sums, had them glue it in their notebooks and let them practice using the Suffix Flow Chart independently.

Everyone got right to it.  I would say that it took maybe three minutes before the questions began.

“I’m not sure about this one.”
“What is the first question to ask yourself on the flow chart?”
“Does the suffix begin with a vowel?”
“Well, does it?”
“Yes.”
“So where does the flow chart direct you to next?”
“Does the base or stem have a final non-syllabic <e>?”
“Does it?”
“Yes.  But if I remove the <e>, the word doesn’t look right!”

Student after student said the same thing.  And while I directed each one to a dictionary to check the spelling, I couldn’t help but notice a big problem.  These students had been taught to judge whether a word was spelled correctly or not by whether or not it looked correct.

So I stopped the class and asked if my observation was accurate.  In each of my three classes, 98% of the students said that they often wrote a word two or three different ways and then chose the spelling that looked correct.

So today I feel great.  I gave them a more reliable option.  Why not just rely on the simple rule beautifully laid out in the Suffix Flow Chart?  No more guessing games.  No more taking chances.  A few less words to edit when getting ready to publish one’s writing.  Who wouldn’t love it?

 

Call for Auditions! All Parts of Speech Welcome!

One last scripted video to end a rather remarkable school year!  This one is “The Casting Call”.  Enter a humble yet ambitious director who is longing to unveil a spectacular sentence at the upcoming “Seriously Sensational Sentence Festival”!  The sentence that is identified as the most stupendous will win the Golden Grammar Goblet at the Golden Grammar Gala on the final night of the Festival.

In order to deserve such a prestigious honor, the director is calling for auditions.  If he wants a truly amazing sentence, he needs to find out what each part of speech is and how a combination of those parts could indeed build a sentence beyond imagination!  What he finds out is that each part of speech totally rocks, and that he has some interesting and difficult choices to make in the days ahead.

It’s All About Fido … This Sentence That Is!

Today we analyzed a simple sentence.  That is not to say that the sentence was short.  It had two phrases and looked every bit as long as some of the complex sentences we have looked at.   I loved seeing how comfortable the students have become with making logical decisions and using resources.  When I ask, “How do you know that?” students can point to evidence in either a dictionary or their Grammar Examiner (interactive notebook).  Armed with that evidence, they look at how the words behave in the sentence and use reasoning to make their final decisions.

Just in case you are wondering who Fido and Sumo are, here’s a picture.

Fido is on the floor, and Sumo is on the couch.

 

Making Sense of Sentences

While some were discovering new things about familiar words this afternoon, one group introduced us to a brand new word.  Zoe found it in a book she is reading.  The word is sycophant.  It is defined as a self server; one who uses flattery to win favor with one who yields influence.  We might call such a person a “yes-man”.  It was decided that this person would not be considered sincere and should not be believed.  In Zoe’s book, the sycophant is not a person but a creature.

When it was time to practice our grammar, it felt right to incorporate our new word!  Here is another example of how we use knowledge, logic, and reason to analyze and better understand the structure of a sentence.

Sentence Analysis – Using Logic and Knowledge

I was very fortunate back in 2004!  A student nominated me and I later received the Excellent Educator Award!  As part of the Award, I was invited to attend a workshop by Michael Clay Thompson.  He changed the way I teach grammar.  Instead of staying with each part of speech until mastery, he recommended that I teach everything about sentences within the first month of school.  And by “everything” I mean the eight parts of speech, the five parts of a sentence, phrases, types of sentences, and sentence structure.  Then I can spend the rest of the school year having the students analyze sentences and apply their knowledge.

My students and I have loved this format.  Each new sentence is like a puzzle and we use logic and knowledge to solve it.  This week we were ready and began the four level analysis that will now become part of our weekly routine.  In the first video, the students identify parts of speech.

In the next video the students go on to identify parts of the sentence (subject, predicate, subject complement), phrases (at this point they know only prepositional phrases), type of sentence (declarative), and finally sentence structure  (compound I, cc I).

With this kind of analysis happening all year long, the students will really get a much better sense of how sentences are built.  It will also give us some common ideas to talk about when discussing their writing.  Love it!

Partner Sentence Analysis

Normally, I would put a sentence up on the whiteboard and call on students to identify the

A) Parts of speech
B) Parts of the sentence (subject/predicate/direct object/indirect object/subject complement)
C) Phrases (prepositional/appositive/infinitive/gerund/participial)
D) Type of sentence (declarative/interrogative/exclamatory/imperative) and sentence structure (Simple Independent Clause/Compound I,cc I/Complex ID/Complex D,I)

But since our work with word investigations, I’ve noticed how much the students love figuring things out in small collaborative groups.  So I wrote out sentences on long pieces of construction paper.  Each pair of students was given a sentence and asked to analyze it.  I created two of each sentence so that when groups were finished they could compare their analysis with the other group that analyzed the same sentence.  The last step will be for the four who analyzed each sentence to present their analysis on the whiteboard.

I was so pleased to hear the students use reason and logic in making their decisions.  Team members felt comfortable challenging suggestions being made, and each pair ultimately made their decisions based on evidence from either a dictionary, their brochure, or their Grammar Examiner notebook.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are past the days of wild guessing and instead, expecting the order of things to make sense!

I was particularly impressed that with such interesting and complicated looking sentences, they ended up making very few errors.  At this point in the semester, the students are discovering that one word can be more than one part of speech, depending on its use in the sentence.  It’s interesting to listen to them critically think about which identification is most likely.

 

Sentence Analysis – Moving Forward

During this video the students were analyzing and identifying a compound sentence.  I first learned about analyzing sentences in this manner when I listened to Michael Clay Thompson at a seminar.  I was fascinated.  The students are really able to make better sense of how this all works together when they see all the pieces in action.  Every sentence is new, but the structures become recognizable … as do the subjects and predicates … and all of the rest of it.  I compare it to listening to an orchestra and talking about the role of the various instruments and how they complement each other…. and all while the orchestra is playing.  We are listening and making sense of it at the same time.