We had our Fall/Halloween party last week on a half day of school. The class was divided into thirds and each third was responsible for either decorations, games, or food. The result was an hour of fun! A cool last minute touch were balloons with glow sticks in them! Between the glowing balloons and the orange lights framing the white board and door, we were able to keep the lights off and play “Pin the Stem on the Pumpkin”, “Find Differences in These Two Pictures”, and dance! But before we turned out the lights, we filled our plates with sausage and crackers, apple slices, fruit-cheese-brownie kabobs, candy corn, and popcorn! See? Fabulous parties happen when there is collaboration!
And no Halloween season would be complete without JibJabs! We love watching them, and the students love starring in them.
Friday was one of those days when we were all needing to get our hands on some science! I purchased some supplies from Steve Spangler Science and the students had an introduction to polymers. Of course the first thing I did was to write the word <polymer> on the board. No one had ever heard that word before, but right away they wondered if it was related to <polygon>, <polyester>, and <polyhedron> because those were words that they HAD heard before. I wrote those to the side. It was obvious that the small collection of words all had <poly> in common, but no one was sure what it meant.
Next I wrote the words <multisyllable> and <polysyllable> on the board. I said that these two words meant the same thing. Since we had recently talked about multicellular and unicellular in science, the students knew that <multi-> had a denotation of “many or much”. They were able to tell me that a word that was multisyllabic was a word with more than one syllable, and that a polysyllabic word would also be a word with more than one syllable. Even though multisyllable is used quite commonly, I prefer to use polysyllable. And here’s why.
I pointed out the medial <y> in <syllable> and wondered if anyone remembered the probable origin of words with a medial <y>. No one did. Then I said, “Remember when we looked at <gymnasium>?” Almost immediately, there was laughter and several said, “Greek!” (The laughter had to do with the Etymonline entry of <gymnasium>. I won’t spoil it for you. Go find out for yourself!) Next I pointed out that <poly-> was also of Greek origin. When we can put two morphemes together that are each from Greek, the whole word has Greek ancestry. If we use <multi-> with <syllable>, we are using a Latin stem with a Greek stem. That is called a hybrid. It still works as a word, and people understand what that is, but it’s like this — once you know the origins of morphemes, you are more likely to want to see them paired with morphemes of the same origin. That is why I prefer <polysyllable> over <multisyllable>. The students understood and accepted that logic.
Then I wrote the words <multicellular> and <unicellular> on the board. I underlined <multi-> and <uni-> in each word. I posed this question: If the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, what language do you suppose <cell> is from? They guessed Latin.
I asked, “What would happen if we paired <poly-> with <cellular>?
Luke said, “We’d have a hybrid word.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?”
I wrote <monocle> on the board and underlined <mon->. At least a few students in each class knew that a monocle was a single lens used to see. I pointed out that <mon-> was the opposite of <poly-> and was also from Greek.
I asked, “What would happen if we paired the stem <mono-> with the stem <cellular>?
Brynn said, “We’d have a hybrid.”
“Would we all understand what it meant?
“Now that we know that the stems <multi-> and <uni-> are from Latin, and the stems <poly-> and <mono-> are from Greek, perhaps we will be more interested in pairing them up with a stem of the same origin.
Then, without prompting, Carter raised his hand and said, “I’m thinking about <universe>. Is the <verse> part from Latin then?”
“What we now know about the stem <uni-> certainly makes it seem likely. Is there a way to find out for sure?”
“Carter replied, “Etymonline! Can I go look now?”
It was time to go back to where we started. The students could now tell me that a polygon could have many angles (from Greek gonos). Surprisingly, one student even knew that a polyhedron was a solid shape with many faces (from Greek hedra)! I explained that polyester is a synthetic textile made from many polymers. So what was a <polymer>?
They knew that <poly-> had a denotation of “many” and I added that <mer> From Greek meros had a denotation of “parts”. We were going to look at a thing with many parts. In this case the parts are called molecules and they link together under certain conditions as a long chain. The powder we had mixed in the warm water would create such a condition. When I squirted the blue liquid into the bowl at each table, the molecules in the liquid would instantly form long chains known as polymers.
After the students had a chance to play with their worms and discover that the outside felt more like a balloon skin and the inside was liquid and watery, there was yet another interesting word to talk about.
The worms were a dark blue until I came around and put hot water in the bowls. When the students dipped the worms into the hot water, they faded to an almost white color. I directed their attention to the board once more and told them that the worm goo was made with a thermochromic dye. It felt so good for the students to come across an unfamiliar word, and yet to be able to say without hesitation that its meaning had something to do with heat! One of the boys enthusiastically remarked, “The hot water triggered a color change!”
On Monday I intend to revisit the word <thermochromic>. I’d like to talk more about the stem <chromic> and then do a simple activity with chromatography. We’ll use markers to draw on coffee filters, and then dip one end in water and watch the marker separate into a range of colors. The most surprising for me is always the range of colors in black marker (not Sharpie). We’ve been encountering the base <graph> quite a bit, and this will be just one more opportunity to see it in another word. I will start by asking for word sum hypotheses for <thermochromic>, <chromatography>, and no doubt <monochromatic>. I know they will enjoy this!
I had them start in the top left space. I told them they had 60 seconds to:
Write the base as a compound word with <sphere> as its second base.
Quickly draw something that came to mind when thinking of the base’s denotation.
Write at least one other word that shared the base.
They panicked about the 60 seconds at first, but when the 60 seconds were over, they realized it was plenty of time to do what was asked. I chose 60 seconds so that they would draw the first thing that popped into their head. I did not want them to think too hard about the perfect thing to draw. I had them draw because many students will be able to remember the image of the denotation more quickly than the denotation by itself.
After we finished the tenth base, it was time to review and share. Volunteers read aloud each compound word, pausing slightly between morphemes. It was so obvious that they understood that all of these words shared a structure. Students who would have balked at spelling these words several weeks ago, now confidently spelled them. Their understanding of morphemes and the meanings they contribute to a finished word has been growing!
When I asked for the words they thought of that shared the first base, things got interesting! The white board quickly filled up. I had to start making a list of words that I wasn’t familiar with. “After all,” I said to my students, “just because I haven’t heard the word doesn’t mean it isn’t in use somewhere!” The thing is, all of the words they suggested looked and sounded convincing. In other words, structurally they all worked!
I am thrilled that these students could put together such an interesting collection so quickly! I am also thrilled that they are playing with what they understand about the structure of words! But I also know that structure is only half of it. A word’s meaning is always echoing, even if faintly, the denotation of the base. If the word is structurally sound and if the denotation of the base/bases is represented in the definition, then we have to see how the word is used by people. Ultimately, that will decide how productive the word is.
For example, one of the words suggested by a student was <lithotrope>. Structurally it is sound. Its word sum or algorithm is <lith> + <o> + <trope>. But what does it mean? The student who offered it quite confidently said it was a turning rock. “You know, the earth!”
I replied, “I love it! I have no idea whether that is a word we’ll find anywhere else or not, but I will look for it!” I put it on my list to verify. I was pretty sure my student invented it, but I was open to whatever I would find. Some other words I had on my list were mesographic, mesothermal, geolithic, and geotherapy.
At this point it would be good to mention the TED video I showed my students last week. Erin McKean is a lexicographer. She writes dictionaries. In this video she encourages her viewers to make up new words and she suggests several ways to do just that. As you might guess, my students were ready to invent new words, and between yesterday and today they did just that without really planning to! They were delighted!
Today I was prepared to talk about the words on my list plus quite a few of the other words that had been on the board yesterday.
When I first heard it, I wondered if it wasn’t some sort of mud bath for humans. Well, I did find it used in that way, but I also found that it could refer to humans correcting a situation within an environment. Geotherapy is the process of remineralizing the soil in an ecosystem that has suffered a loss. It is definitely an established word.
While this one sounds impressive as a science word, I could find no evidence of it being currently used, and when different groups of students were asked what it might mean, there was only a shrugging of shoulders and the words, “Earth rock?” We decided it was not currently in use, and we weren’t sure that it had a place in our science conversations.
Mesothermal refers to the climate in temperate zones where it is moderately hot and not cold enough for snow to stick to the ground. We all smiled as we recognized how the denotation of each base gave us a clue to what this word meant!
Another impressive sounding word with an understandable structure, but without a recognized use according to our dictionaries and Google! The students couldn’t decide precisely how this word would be used, so we appreciated it, and moved on.
Although we could not find this word in use anywhere, it was one of our favorites. When I asked students in my other classes if they thought we could refer to the earth as a lithotrope, they paused to think about it, smiled and said, “Sure! Cool!”
When we googled images of the hydrangea, students recognized this flower. It can be white, blue, pink, or even purple. But what is its connection to water? Why the <hydr> spelling? At Etymonline we see that the word <hydrangea> means “water vessel” or “water capsule”. It is so named because the seed pod is cup-shaped! Such an interesting detail!
We had been talking about this word on and off for a week, but I still wasn’t sure the students understood how it involved water. We watched the following video which really helped. We imagined the syringes with the colored water as they would look on a large machine, covered in metal and moving specific parts.
Such is a classroom where learning orthography is a way of learning about the world. What I thought would be a quick 15 minute review of the Greek bases we have been looking at, turned into something more, something fascinating, something satisfying!
There’s a quote attributed to the Chinese Confucian philosopher, Xun Kuang that goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” It’s a quote that I think of often as an educator. What does it look like “to involve students” so that they understand? It seems obvious to me that if I want them to understand the steps of experimenting or engineering that they need to actually experiment or engineer something on their own. That is why I offer a Science Fair in the spring and several engineering projects throughout the year. But it doesn’t seem so obvious to me when it comes to subjects that are not typically taught as a science. When we observe the emphemeral pond out back or sample the macroinvertebrates in the creek, the students are physically involved. They are out of their seats and using all of their senses. How do you recreate that total involvement for subjects like writing, grammar, and orthography? Below are a few things we’ve done so far this year.
As an introductory activity to the general topic of writing, I involved my students in an experience that would help them see just how similar writing is to sculpting. Both demand creative ideas and persistence. That is where we began. I gave each student a small can of Play-Doh. I asked them to just pull, mash, break, and squeeze. I wanted them to get used to the material they would be using. I then compared it to the materials of a writer – words, pen, paper, thesaurus, dictionary. Then I gave them a task. They were to create a pencil holder. Having this focus helped them have a goal in mind as they worked. In writing, this would be the main idea of the piece of writing. What do you want your reader to know? How do you want them to feel?
As I looked around and saw a variety of shapes ready to hold pencils, I asked everyone to smoosh their design. Completely mash it up! “That was just your first draft,” I told them. “Maybe you want to try some other way to approach it this time.” Again they flattened, rolled, and sculpted until they had something that they liked. Something that would work. That’s when I told them to smoosh it again!
This time they really moaned. “It’s fine. That was your second draft. Start again. Show yourself that you have even more ideas in that creator of yours!” As they worked I continued to talk about how this was similar to writing. I shared with them my personal writing process. I write. Then I reread and change some things. Then I start all over again with a whole different approach. I write. I read. I change. I write. I read. I change. I do this until I am satisfied my writing says what I want it to say and in the way I want it said!
As I asked them to begin their fourth and final pencil holder, I told them they could choose to create something completely different, go back to a design they loved, or combine one or more of their previous ideas. The whole point here was that the creative part of us has lots of ideas. When it comes to writing, it’s no different. “Let your creator drive you in the beginning writing stages and don’t ask your editor to come out until the final stages of your writing!”
When they were ready for their first edit, I asked them to get feedback from one other person. Perhaps they would make a change, perhaps they would not. I asked them to look at the pencil holder from many angles. I told them this was like revising writing. Making sure what feels clear to you as the writer is also clear to your reader. Then we were ready for final editing. In writing that would mean checking spelling, punctuation use, paragraphing, and other writing conventions. In the art of pencil holders, it meant adding a small amount of one other color for some finishing touches.
Since then we have played with writing ideas. We haven’t finished anything, but we are getting familiar with the materials a writer uses. We have tried some story starters and a few were ignited enough to take home their notebooks to write more. We are trusting that our creator is indeed full of ideas and we are enjoying being pleasantly surprised at ourselves!
Orthography and Science…..
In my last post I described how I involved the students during orthography by asking them to create posters that illustrated the structure of a specific science word. There were only two in a group, so in order to keep the project moving forward, each needed to contribute! The students wrote out the word and then wrote it again as a word sum or algorithm. They researched the word to find the denotation of each base (all words were compounds). Next they found words that shared the first base in their words. So, for instance, the group that investigated <thermosphere> shared a list of words that included:
As you can imagine, looking at these words and discussing their relationship to their shared base <therm> which has a denotation of “heat” is a great way to understand not only <thermosphere> and this specific list of words, but also of words they may encounter in their future that have <therm> as part of their morphological structure!
But as wonderful as that process is, I realized this week that for many of my students brand new to the idea of a bound base, morphemes such as <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> seem foreign and totally unfamiliar. They are so used to working with lists of words that are unrelated to each other, that they don’t expect words to berelated to each other (unless the examples are walk, walks, walked, etc.) It is extremely difficult for them to see <atm> and not think of the ATM machine near the bank. So I needed to go back to the idea of involving them in yet another way in order to make <geosphere>, <atmosphere>, <hydrosphere>, and <biosphere> memorable.
This time I thought of using their bodies and their voices paired up with good old fashioned repetition and rhythm. I worked the denotations of <bi>, <ge>, <atm>, and <hydr> into what they chanted as a class.
As we continue our discussions and discoveries about the bases we are encountering in these science words, we are also noting how often we see the bases <graph>, <meter>, and <loge> used with them. That in itself has led to connections between the words biology, geology, astrology, zoology, and hydrology, biography, geography, lithography, and thermography, thermometer, atmometer, geometry, and hydrometer.
At least once a week I overhear someone say, “Mind blown!” The first time I heard it I was delighted. The fact that it has become frequent gives me even more satisfaction. They are understanding like never before! With some patience (you can’t push the river), these students will discover for themselves the fascinating stories that await them when they look closer at words! They will know for themselves that words have structures that are reliable, and that English spelling makes more sense than the majority of its speakers realize!
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” I know I teach with a combination of all three. I tell, I show, and I involve. And I keep trying to get the balance right — which means load heavily on the “involve me” end!