“Our thoughts are unseen hands shaping the people we meet. Whatever we truly think them to be, that’s what they’ll become for us.” — Richard Cowper

“Prejudice feels like a white-hot wire being pressed to your heart.
Even when the sting goes away, a mark is left there.”        (M.F.)

“Prejudice feels like you are the broom
being pushed against the floor.”        (K.M.)

“You are separated by an imaginary wall from everyone else.
You just keep losing over and over again.”          (C.L.)

Such powerful images.  Illustrating feelings of being uncomfortable and not at all in control.  It might surprise you to learn that these feelings are being described by ten-year-old White children in a predominately White school in a small, predominately White village.   How could they possibly understand what being on the receiving end of prejudice might feel like?  How does anyone begin to understand an experience that has never been their own?

I credit Jane Elliot.  She is one of many people have inspired me to try new things throughout my teaching career.  Even though I never personally met Jane Elliot, I couldn’t shake the impact she had (continues to have) on both adults and children. I first heard of her in 1998 when we were showing a video to our fifth grade students entitled ABC News: Prejudice – Answering Children’s Questions.  The video was hosted by Peter Jennings, and Jane Elliot was a guest on the show.  As part of the show, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment.  She gave green collars to all of the children who had blue eyes.  Then she proceeded to treat them as if the color of their eyes indicated that they were not as smart, not as able, not as trustworthy, and not as patient as the children with brown eyes.  It was something to watch.

After seeing how she conducted this experiment and how the students reacted, I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about her.  I found this video and watched it.  It is a documentary of the full experiment she implemented in her all White classroom in the late 1960’s.  The  very first time she conducted this experiment was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  She knew that something had to be done so that her White students could understand what Black people were experiencing in our society.  Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and in a multitude of situations.

Watching the shorter segment on the Prejudice:  Answering Children’s Questions video, we saw how angry the students became who were told to wear green collars.  Some wore expressions of confusion and hurt.  Others became belligerent, which only made things worse for them.  It was powerful because it was quite obvious those children hadn’t ever experienced such unfairness based on something they couldn’t control (eye color).  My students said they could understand what those with green collars must have been feeling based on the demeaning language and harsh condescending tones coming from Jane Elliot.  But was simply watching it enough to leave a lasting impression?  I didn’t think so.  So I asked my students if they wanted to do this same experiment in our classroom.  They didn’t hesitate.  This was something they wanted to try.

Before we actually carried out this experiment, the students had an idea of the role I would play and what might occur with them.  But still, we needed to have a heart to heart.  I warned them that we would all need to take this very seriously.  I would still be their teacher, Mrs. Steven, but there would be things I said and did that would surprise them.  And not in a good way.  I would need to play the part of a teacher who truly thought some of the students were “less special” than the others.  The fact that they were still excited to do this and thought it would be fun, told me just how necessary it was.  I hoped I could pull it off.  I told the students to go home and discuss with their families what we would be doing based on what they saw in the video.  There were about three parents who contacted me to let me know they were strongly in favor of this.

In preparation, I brainstormed several things I could do that children would think of as unfair.  That wasn’t a difficult task.  I decided that dividing them by eye color was probably the best.  I happened to have some pink felt, so as the students came in the next day, I looked into their eyes and handed the blue-eyed children a piece of felt and a safety pin.  That way it was more obvious to all which students had blue eyes, and which didn’t.

I knew my students had gym first thing, so I contacted the gym teacher the day before to ask if she would be willing to participate.  She thought it was a great idea, and thought of her own ways to discriminate.  As the students came in, she told the students wearing pink felt that they had to jump rope for a warm up and that they had better get going.  The rest of the students were given a choice of running laps or jumping rope.  It was the first of many times that morning that feelings would be hurt and things would not feel fair.

After gym, it was normal to let the students get a drink at the bubbler, and then walk back to class.  However on that day only some were allowed to get a drink at the bubbler outside the gym.  The students wearing pink felt had to use the bubbler in the first grade hallway.  When they arrived back in the classroom, they were scolded for having taken too long.

I had some desks arranged in a circle and the rest in rows toward the back of the room.  My tone was sharp and impatient with students wearing the pink felt, whereas it was smooth and friendly with the rest.  When there were questions about the work, I answered the questions asked by the brown-eyed students first and was very thorough in my response.  If that group had no questions, I answered the questions asked by the blue-eyed students, but hinted that they should have learned the information last year.  I suggested they work harder and pay better attention in class.

The students noted later that our room had never worked so quietly.  But it wasn’t a comfortable quiet.  The morning subjects were interrupted by one 15 minute recess, and the students came back grumbling about having had a rotten time.  When it was time for lunch, I joked with some and sent them off with a smile.  With others, I implied they were holding up the line and to hurry!  When they returned from lunch and recess, they were visibly upset.  Their emotions were so stoked that the littlest look or the smallest criticism was crushing.  They hated this day and this experiment.  It hadn’t been fun for anyone, including me.  But did it hit its intended target?  We would see.

I told them that the experiment was officially over and that those with the piece of pink felt could now remove it.  There were cheers signaling relief.  As I was collecting the felt pieces, I had everyone put their desks back into the normal arrangement and then get out a piece of paper.  I told them how important it was for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while it was still fresh in their minds.  What follows is a sampling of those responses.

Today freaked me out.  It was scary.  So what if I have blue eyes.  I heard tons of comments Mrs. Steven made about us and saw the things she did.  I would almost be the saddest person on earth if this happened to me every day.  This whole day I have been writing things down on my desk about what happened.  For one, there were two milk counts.   Eli, a “bluey,” had to go get the milk for his group in a cardboard box, and Sam got to use the regular milk crate for the rest of the students.  The “blueys” even had to use the third grade bathroom which is all the way down the hall, when the fifth grade bathroom is right outside our door!

During science, she only let the “brownies” read aloud from the book.  When she handed back papers, the people with blue eyes had to get up and get their papers while people with brown eyes got to stay seated and Mrs. Steven handed their papers to them.  When we called the other students “brownies,” Mrs. Steven said, “Don’t call names!”  When we said, “But they were calling us blueys.”  She said, “Well, you are.”

I hated it soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much.  I was treated so badly.  I wanted to go home all day.  I was wishing I had brown eyes.  I felt like getting my stuff and walking home.  I felt like almost hurting someone.  I felt mad at some of my friends.  I felt alone and stupid.  I felt like if someone shot and killed me, nobody would care.  It was a horrible/awful/hateful experience.

I felt like I was very special compared to the blue eyed people. 

I wanted to tell her not to treat us like that just because we’re different.  She wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.  When Mrs. Steven did that to us, I felt like nothing … like a piece of dust in the wind … or an atom, because I was so tiny.

I liked it because Mrs. Steven trusted the “brownies.”  I hated it because at lunch recess I was playing four square, and some people that were “blueys” said I couldn’t play because I had brown eyes.  That right there cut me real deep.  I don’t know if they were joking or serious.  Either way it cut.  I didn’t like how my friends separated from me.

The blue-eyed people asked for help on math, but all she said was, “You’re smart kids, aren’t you?”  It would hurt my feelings if she said that to me.  It hurt my feelings, and she didn’t say it to me.

Today Mrs. Steven was being prejudiced.  Even though I wasn’t hurt by her words, I could tell other people were.  I care about my friends, so that’s why I got mad when she was being mean to them.”

This was the worst day ever.  It was awful.  I didn’t know Mrs. Steven could be such a pain.  She acted so serious.  The only reason muddy eyed people got to go first at everything and get treated better is because Mrs. Steven doesn’t want to be second class.  She wants to be “Little Miss Perfect.”  Man,  Mrs. Steven must really love being born with muddy eyes.  I hope she is not offended, but I feel like I could punch her.

Prejudice is awful.  It’s a problem.  I liked it at first, but then it got serious.  All this fighting about something stupid.  My friends hating me.  Me hating them.  At one recess no one would play with me except the other “brownies.”  I didn’t have any fun.  When we came in, some of us were calling the other kids names.  It got so out of hand.

This experiment began at roughly 8:15 am and ended at 12:45 pm.  I stopped it when I did so that we would have the afternoon to reflect and process.  What you’ve just read is really something, isn’t it?  This half day experiment had a big impact.  Some were hurt and took the pain inward. They felt defeated and wished they weren’t born with blue eyes.  Others were angry at the unfairness.  Some of that anger was directed at other children, and some of it was directed at me.  You could sense that the anger was bubbling, and if this had continued much longer it might have turned into something physical.   Those were some of the reactions to those with blue eyes, anyway.  The reactions of the brown-eyed children were different.  Some were angry, yes.  They saw the unfairness and felt bad for the blue-eyed children, but they didn’t cross the line I had drawn.  They didn’t get as angry and didn’t reach out to those for whom they felt sorry.  In a very real sense, both groups displayed a kind of powerlessness regarding the situation.  At any rate, I’m glad the feelings were real and that they were strong enough to become embedded in their memory.

Let me clearly state that even with their “powerful” feelings, I think these children had only an inkling of an understanding about prejudice and discrimination.  How could it be more than that when they have not experienced it in the real world day after day after day?  But an inkling may be enough for them to develop an empathy for people who do experience these things.  It may be enough for these children to remember that everyone isn’t always treated equally in our society.

After the initial writing was finished and people said what they wanted to say about the experiment, I handed out big 12 x 18 inch pieces of construction paper and colored chalk.  We spaced out our desks so that each person had a bit of privacy.  It was to be a quiet time to explore feelings about prejudice and discrimination.  I told them I wasn’t looking for recognizable images, but rather for them to choose a color to begin with and to let how they were feeling be the thing that moved that piece of chalk on the paper.  They could change chalk colors as they wanted.  After I felt students had had enough time to express what they maybe hadn’t yet put into words, I had them wash their desk, their hands, and then stand in a large circle with the desks displaying their drawings in the middle.  I made it very clear that no one would be asked to defend or explain their drawing.  We were going to look at the drawings and see what we noticed.

One of the things that stood out was that several drawings were full of dark colors that were kind of scribbled reminding us of a tornado or a knotted ball of string.  Others had sharp angled lines or zigzags with marks that looked like tears falling.  There were squares within squares drawn that were dark and smudged on the inside.  These did not evoke feelings of happiness or cheeriness.  More often the words offered by the students were trapped, confused, angry, sad, hurt, helpless, and furious.  Now contrast those drawings with the few that had suns drawn on them and included lots of flowy bright colors.  Happy, fearless, content.

The drawings were a meaningful way to share what other people were feeling without those people having to say a thing.  And yet the drawings themselves speak loudly about what prejudice and discrimination do to the members of a society.  The children with brown eyes felt bad momentarily for the other children, but in the end their own life was still represented by sunshine and cheery colors.  They saw, they recognized the difference, but felt it wasn’t something they could change.  There was at least one or two who drew images that evoked conflicted feelings.  One side of the paper would have a light fluffy kind of feel, but the other would have an image that became swirled into a colorful mess.  It wasn’t dark or smudgy or angry feeling like some of the images drawn by the blue-eyed children, but there was a feeling of unrest.

Can you see how these feelings reflect some of the real life tensions we see in our world today?   Those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination don’t all react to it in the same way.  Some push and question the authority of those whose actions are discriminatory.  Some are overwhelmed with feelings of anger and frustration at how unjust the system is, and they physically, sometimes violently, react to it.  Some become withdrawn, powerless, and lose self-worth.    And what about those watching the discrimination and prejudice?   Some speak up about the unfairness, but many like being first and the privilege that comes with “having brown eyes.” They tend to look at things as fine the way they are, even though they wouldn’t want to trade places with the group being discriminated against.

The last part of the day was spent writing poetry.  I asked them to try to put into words what they saw in their drawings. What follows is a sampling of those poems which were formatted and finished the next day.

 

Prejudice really stinks.
All the anger builds up and up.
I hate it.
It’s like a rainstorm on a party,
a bomb exploding in my head.
It’s odious.
I want to run away from it.        (J.B.)

 

Laughing was not allowed
Eyes made us different
From everybody else
Today.

O
ut of the way, the brownies say
U are not the best
Today.                                      (E.G.)

 

Prejudice is
like I’m a squirrel trapped in a cage with bears,
like I have no power,
like everyone is an eye, and I am blind,
like I’m a rabbit in a wolf family,
like I’m being blamed for something I didn’t do.           (D.P.)

 

Prejudice feels like getting trapped under
a dock in the middle of the sea.
It’s like the devil pulling you to the core of the earth.         (K.S.)

 

Prejudice is like you’re in a glass cage trying to get out.
It’s like walking up an escalator that goes down.                 (N J.)

 

Prejudice makes you feel like a rain drop in a pit of flames,
like there’s a dark wall, or maybe a giant not wanting to move out of your way.
Don’t people know?  It’s what’s inside that counts.                 (A.H.)

Prejudice is a storm, screaming and yelling,
laughing, not with me, but at me.                            (L.S.)

 

Prejudice feels like someone keeps hitting you
until you just fall down in pain.
It feels like the rage of a storm over only your head.
Prejudice feels like walking through a jungle of people
determined to make you feel hurt.                             (G.L.)

 

To me prejudice felt like no one cared about me.
It made me feel all alone.  It’s hard to describe with words.
I felt hatred, anger, sadness, and confusion.
I wanted to scream.                                                     (M.M.)

 

I have many many more poems in my collection.  Because from 1999 until 2014, I repeated this experiment with every new group of fifth grade students.  We usually did it in January while we were reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biography.  That was when we were encountering those words, so it made sense to do it then.  Later on, in March and April, we applied this deeper understanding of what Black people have been up against in our country when we were studying the American Civil War. We stepped away from the textbook and each were responsible for several researched reports that when pieced together gave us a broad picture of how the War affected people from all walks of life at that time.  One of my preferred read-alouds during this study was Day of Tears by Julius Lester. It is a story of the largest auction of slaves in American history.  Over 400 slaves were sold in two days.  I felt as if my students were better equipped now to imagine what it would be like in someone else’s shoes.

Many times we also wrote poems to reflect on our study of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.  Some wrote letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. instead.  In 2012, we published a book of our poems called An Unequal Freedom.  Each student (and the teacher) contributed a poem and a drawing.  The students named the book and they each submitted art for the cover that we later selected by a vote.

Here are some samples from our book.

 

  

 

  

  

   

Even though this was an uncomfortable kind of experiment, I am glad I saw Jane Elliot when I did.  I’ve been reminded of her recently.  Because of the racial unrest in our country, she has been interviewed and many of her videos have resurfaced.  If you haven’t heard of her, I suggest you read this NPR article about Jane Elliot, or search for her on Youtube and watch some of the other videos of her in action.  Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and  in many situations.  Every time I watch her in action I am reminded that it is the experience that helps you “get it.”

Every once in a while I will run into a former student who will mention that this experiment is something that has left a lasting impression.  Below is a recent comment I received from just such a student.

“One lesson I will never forget was when our all White class was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, our all White class that lived in an all White community, and you divided us up by eye color to teach us about racial prejudice.  It was a lesson for a lifetime.   I remember that day so clearly, and I was in the 5th grade!”

As much as I love that comment, what I love even more is that this student was in my fifth grade classroom in 1999!  That is 21 years ago!  Talk about a classroom activity having a lasting impression!  But did it change the way those children thought about Black people?  I know it did at the time, but how many of my former students took this understanding into their adult lives?  I think it is pretty obvious that the effectiveness of this experiment isn’t the kind of thing I can measure properly.    So many experiences contribute to the shaping of who we are at any given moment.  And I have no way of knowing what other experiences those students have had that may have either strengthened or weakened what they learned that day.  But I believe it was important to do.  Many students have mentioned it over the years as we have talked and reminisced.   Much like the student I’ve quoted above, they didn’t really feel the full impact of it until they were adults navigating jobs and social situations in the real world.   And I believe that it provided a glimpse of something they wouldn’t experience and understand in any other way. 

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”    Wayne Dyer

 

 

“If we knew what it is we were doing, it would not be called research.  Would it?”  -Albert Einstein

The above quote by Albert Einstein is one of my favorite.  I have hung it in the hallway in anticipation of our Science Fair every year.  But after a few years of replacing spelling instruction with Structured Word Inquiry, I began to realize how well it applied to what we were doing with words.  I love that scientists aren’t expected to have answers ready at every turn.  Science is methodical and takes the time it takes.  Even when research is finished and conclusions are drawn, it is understood that those findings are temporary.  They are the current understanding and are open to further questioning and research at any time.  And when someone takes the time to research, test, and publish new findings, those findings are thoughtfully considered by fellow scientists who either accept or challenge them.  In that respect, science is not static.  It is always moving towards a deeper understanding.  If you are using Structured Word Inquiry, you will recognize the parallels here.

When I think about the first part of the quote, “If we knew what we were doing,”  I recognize that SWI can feel like that sometimes, especially at first.  You want to just jump in and use it with students, but so many things nag at you.  “What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?  What should I do first?  What needs to be taught before I begin with SWI?”  Personally, I ignored those kinds of questions when I started and asked instead, “How long before my students are asking the kinds of questions that Dan Allen’s students ask?”

(It was on the weekend before we returned from winter break in 2012 that I happened upon Dan Allen’s blog and found out about Structured Word Inquiry. What drew my attention were the questions the students were asking about words and spelling, AND the fascinating discussions that followed.  I couldn’t wait to bring it to my students and see what we could learn!  How could SWI deepen our understanding of words and help with the spelling struggles that are typically seen in a classroom? It was two days after reading and talking with Dan and Real Spelling that I began talking about words with my 5th graders.  Our human resources were Dan Allen, Real Spelling, and Pete Bowers from WordWorks.  What a team!)

One of the first words we investigated as a class was ‘prejudice.’  We first encountered it while reading a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr..  It stood out as an interesting word,  along with discrimination, segregation, emancipation, equality, separate, justice, integration, civil, and protest.  Prior to January of 2013, we would have briefly talked about these words as they were used in the reading, and perhaps the students would have matched up the word to its definition on a worksheet.  No doubt a few of my students would have probably requested that these words be added to their weekly spelling test as “challenge words.”  But now I was looking forward to something different, something worthy, something that would change our understanding of English spelling.  After we investigated this word together, I split the students into small groups so they could each investigate one of the other words and share their findings.  So what did we learn with that very first investigation?  And how did that investigation shape all the ones I’ve guided students through since then?

Investigating ‘prejudice’

Let’s start with a screen shot from one of my earliest blog posts.  It was published on January 23, 2013.

You will notice that all five hypotheses identify <pre> as a morpheme.  More specifically, the students identified it as a prefix that they were familiar with.  The first hypothesis feels like syllabic division, doesn’t it?  The last hypothesis illustrates a knowledge of letters being “dropped” in spellings, but not a knowledge of when or why.  This was a great first step.

It is necessary at this point, to remind you that when I began bringing SWI into my classroom, my own understanding of English spelling was on a par with that of my students.  These were great hypotheses, but my own preferences over which one might be most likely were based on what “felt right” rather than what I could support with evidence.  I was talking the talk, but was in the weeds as far as having a personal knowledge of the regularities of English spelling.  But then again everything we do and want to understand begins with that first step, doesn’t it?  I was more excited to see what we could all learn through SWI than I was scared to reveal my own lack of knowledge.  My excitement overpowered my fear, and that turned out to be a good thing for all of us!

In the second step of our investigation, we read the entry for ‘prejudice’ at Etymonline.  We learned that this word was first attested in the 13th century.  At that time it meant “despite, contempt.”  Earlier in the same century, this word was used in Old French with the same spelling we see today.  Prior to it being in Old French, it was in Medieval Latin and spelled prejudicium.  Earlier yet it was spelled praejudicium in Latin where it meant “prior judgment.”  This earliest spelling could be analyzed as prae “before” and judicium “judge.”  We talked about the fact that the sense and meaning of this word hadn’t changed much in all the years that it has existed.  We use it today to denote a sense of prejudging a person and usually in a negative way.  At that point we felt ready to collect some words that might be related.  We were off to use Word Searcher by Neil Ramsden.

It was at this point that we missed an opportunity to have a better understanding of what we would be looking for at Word Searcher!  We had boatloads of enthusiasm, but lacked experience in conducting word investigations.  You see there was a hyperlink to the related word ‘judge’ in the entry at Etymonline that we ignored.  There was pertinent information related to the spelling of ‘judge’ that would have made us look differently at the words we found.  But we were eager and jumped a little too quickly to the next step.

We found a list of words that we knew to be related in meaning to both ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge.’  We thought about the spelling of each word and noticed which letters were exactly the same in each word. We wrote the word sums listed below and created the accompanying matrix.  The following is another screen shot from that January, 2013 blog post.

At this point we were pretty pleased with ourselves.  We had noticed that all of the words had <jud> in common.  We made the leap that it was the base.  Did I really think that <ge> was a suffix?  I thought, “Maybe.”  I mean, my head was just as full of “spelling is random” as my students’ heads were.  Let me interject that at this point I had been teaching for 18 years, and none of the spelling curriculum I had been handed talked much about suffixes beyond <ing>, <ed>, <s>, and a few others.  You added them to words, you removed them, and you learned rules like “Double, Drop, Change.”  Our spelling books focused more on the “vowel pattern” (pronunciation) and word use.  My college education didn’t include much information either.  There was a Language Arts textbook that was focused on teaching children to read, but it didn’t really reveal much about spelling.  Anything I knew about words and how they can be considered to be made up of parts, I deduced from my own K-12 schooling and by noticing words when I read.  Obviously I was missing some pretty foundational pieces!  Everything I was learning as I introduced Structured Word Inquiry to my students was as new to me as it was to them.  And I must say we had a glorious time learning together!

What is it that I missed?

Had I followed that hyperlink at Etymonline to the entry for ‘judge’, I would have learned that as a noun, it was first attested in the mid 14th century.  At that time it was used to mean “public officer appointed to administer the law.”  Earlier it was from Old French juger, and further back in Latin it was spelled as iudex and meant “one who declares the law.”  I might have been confused by the spelling in Latin.  Why was an <i> the first letter in the Latin spelling?  In Spellinars I have taken since (particularly Latin for Orthographers), I learned that in Latin, <i> and <j> were considered to be the same letter.  It may sound confusing, but the people who spoke Latin understood its use well.   Here is an excerpt from the book Letter Perfect by David Sacks which gives more information on this.

“… the shapes j and i were being used interchangeably to mean either a vowel sound or a consonant sound (which in English was “j”), and similarly, shapes U and V were used interchangeably for a vowel or a consonant, “u” or “v.”  In the hands of printers of the 1500s and 1600s, shapes J and V gradually became assigned to the consonant sounds.  Later J and V would officially joint the alphabet as our final two additions, letters 25 and 26.”

There are, of course, a number of books available that will provide a more complete understanding of these two letters, along with all the rest.  As I reflect on finding out that letters, too, have stories, I am reminded of a particularly lovely moment from a year ago.  We were looking at a sentence on the board and focusing on each of the words.  We were noticing what language each word was from.  A student raised her hand and asked a question that no student has ever thought to ask before. “If words have histories, and letters have histories, where do punctuation marks come from?  Do they have histories too?”   I still smile and can picture the student asking it.  I think it stays with me because it reveals  how curious this student had become about our language.  I like to picture this student slowly opening a door and seeing more of what’s on the other side, bit by bit.  The eyes widen in wonder.  Back to Etymonline’s entry for ‘judge.’

A less hurried scholar wouldn’t have stopped with the entry for ‘judge’ either.  I should have kept reading.  The next entry as you scroll down is for <judge> as a verb.  Its attestation date as a verb is 200 years earlier than as a noun!  At that time it was spelled iugen and was used to mean “examine, appraise, make a diagnosis.”  Moving forward to c 1300, it was used to mean “to form an opinion about; to inflict penalty upon, punish; try (someone) and pronounce sentence.”  Now moving back in time prior to its attestation date, this word is from Anglo-French juger, Old French jugier.  Further back it was from Latin iudicare meaning “to judge, to examine officially; form an opinion upon; pronounce judgment.”  From there we learn it is from iudicem (nominative iudex) “a judge.”  What comes next in the entry is very interesting.   The Latin iudicem was a compound of ius “right, law” (see just (adj.)) + root of dicere “to say.”  You can see that in the spelling of iudicem, right?

And then in the next paragraph there is this, “Spelling with -dg- emerged mid-15c.”  If I look back at the spellings of this word as it moved from one language to the next, I see that in Latin the first three letters were <iud>.  In Anglo-French and Old French, the first three letters were <jug>.  Then in mid-15c. the spelling with <dg> emerged.  Hmmm.  A good place to get evidence to illustrate this is the Oxford English Dictionary.  There are citings of the word being used over time.  Below I have listed the year and how one of the ways it was spelled at that time.  What is interesting is the inconsistency in spelling prior to 1500.  Then from 1500 to 1600 we see a consistent spelling, but with <i> instead of <j>.  As we learned earlier, it was with the use of the printing press that the <i> (when representing a consonant) came to be represented with a <j>.  It is also when <j> became an official letter of our alphabet.

?c1225  iuge
c1400   jugged
c1475    iugid
1486     Iuge
1534     iudge
1547     iudge
1597     iudge

1645    
judged
1680     judged
1711      judge

What this information tells me is that the <ge> can’t possibly be a suffix in the words judge, judgment, judgmental, misjudge, or in many of the other words that were included in my first matrix.  What this information makes clear to me is that ‘prejudice’ and ‘judge’ do not share a base in modern English!  The <ge> cannot be a separate morpheme from the <jud> in the word ‘judge.’  How do I know that?  Because if I think about the graphemes in this word, I will note that there are three (j.u.dg) with the single final non-syllabic <e> functioning as a marker (marking the pronunciation of the <g>).  If the <d> is part of the digraph <dg>, it cannot cross the boundaries of the morphemes to do that.  Remember that a morpheme is made up of graphemes that represent phonemes.  And letters in two different morphemes can never combine to become one grapheme.

That understanding is something I didn’t have when I made that first matrix.  And that’s okay.  I believe that a matrix is more like a snapshot of one person’s understanding at a given moment in time than it is like an answer key for anyone else.  It is so tempting to see a matrix that someone else made and grab it to use in your own classroom.  In fact earlier this summer I saw a teacher happily sharing a whole set of word matrices that she made in preparation for this fall.  Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  But is there a good chance that many teachers will happily use those without looking carefully at them ahead of time? I think there is.  If there is something on the matrix that they question, my hunch is that they will distrust their own thoughts and assume that someone else’s work must be right.  It is so important to carefully look at a matrix and to question things that maybe you wouldn’t have put on there yourself.  My first matrix is a good example of that.  If other teachers use it without questioning that <ge> suffix I listed, they will spread their own misunderstanding.  They won’t be spreading mine because I have moved on from what I understood then.  From that one matrix, I made two that reflected our new understanding.  This is a common and acceptable part of learning, isn’t it?

   

I’m so glad that this experience was one of my first.  I’m glad I blogged about it then, and now I’m glad to be able to reassure others new to SWI that they can expect to learn along the way.   Here are two valuable things I have kept in mind as I have continued to jump into word investigations with students in the years since.

1
Let go of the need to be right all the time in front of students.  I used this opportunity to celebrate having learned something that probably felt quite obvious to others.  It’s not my fault that I didn’t learn about graphemes, phonemes, and morphemes until that point in time.  The students can relate to that feeling.  How often have you seen that look on a student’s face – the one where you know they are feeling bad because they didn’t know something everyone else seemed to know.  I make it a habit to share how delighted, even giddy I feel when I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know!  Enthusiasm is catchy!  And modeling this kind of response to having a misunderstanding gives students a healthy alternative to feeling bad.  There should be joy at having learned something.  And when a misunderstanding becomes an understanding, learning has occurred!

There is another side to this need to be right and to be ready.  Often we feel obligated to anticipate the questions that the students are likely to ask and to be ready with an answer.  If an unanticipated question is asked, we still feel the need to answer it as best we can.  What if we didn’t feel the need to answer every question?  Some of my absolute best classroom moments have happened when I put the question back on the student and listened to them think through their own question.  Or let others respond which gave the original questioner a different perspective – one that they didn’t have to assume was correct (like they might if it came from the teacher).  It is also a powerful thing to say in front of your students, “That is a brilliant question.  I have no idea what the answer is.  But I can tell you this. I will be thinking about your brilliant question all day!”

2
Don’t rush through the etymological story in order to get to the matrix.  The teacher I mentioned previously that shared a whole set of matrices with other teachers did so thinking she was doing them a favor.  They even thought that she was doing them a favor.  But what none of them realize is that researching and gathering a list of related words in preparation for a matrix is a marvelous opportunity to walk through a word sum hypothesis yourself.  Certainly there are words that may stump you (is that a prefix or a base?), but by figuring out where to look or perhaps who to ask, you get better at the process.  And when you feel better at the process, you can exude a calm when faced with uncertainties in your classroom.  Because of your experience, you will offer suggestions of where to look for the evidence to support the current thinking in regards to a specific word.  Exactly what do those teachers using someone else’s matrix know about the story of the base on each of those matrices?  What interesting tidbit can they share with their students (or find with their students) about that base’s history?  Can any of the graphemes in the base’s spelling be explained by information found in the word’s ancestry?  How old is the base and what language did it originate in?  Of all the words that can be completed using the elements on the matrix, which is the oldest?  The newest?

There are many reasons for using a matrix with students.  A person definitely doesn’t need to know everything I’ve mentioned above in every instance.  But there ARE interesting things to know, and quite often it is those interesting parts of the word’s story that are memorable to the students.  And we want the students to remember the words, right?  A matrix can be part of an activity, but if you present filled out matrices to your students week after week, what are your students learning about determining a word’s structure for themselves?  Think of it this way.  Is using someone else’s summary of a book a great way for you to completely understand the book yourself?  Of course not.  You would be missing many of the finer points.  Make sure your use of matrices is part of a larger picture of a word.  It should include the sense and meaning of the word, its etymology (which can reveal so many things), and a look at its grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  The matrix celebrates a family of words.  The other questions of SWI reveal the details of that family.

I guess my big message here is to mix up the way you use matrices.  Sometimes you create them, and sometimes your students create them.  Sometimes they are part of a full investigation, and sometimes they are used alone because there is something specific you want to highlight.  ALWAYS carefully consider a matrix that someone else has made.  If it jives with your understanding, great.  If it doesn’t, don’t assume that questioning it is off limits.  It doesn’t matter who created it!  Be discriminating and teach your students to do the same.  This is part of achieving a more solid understanding no matter what you are examining.

I have met many wonderful people while teaching my “Bringing Structured Word Inquiry into the Classroom” online class.  At the first thought of using SWI, there is hesitancy.  There is a feeling that there is so much to learn before they could ever start using SWI with children.  It is true that there is much to learn.  But there are resources, classes, workshops, and people to help.  And there are the wise words of Aristotle.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Definitely take some classes and ask some questions.  By all means purchase a subscription to Real Spelling’s Tool Box 2!  And then begin doing, so you can learn.