Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Vocabulary Is Where You Find It
The book by the psychologist Albert Ellis had remained unopened on a shelf in my home for many years. Looking at the title, though, gave me an idea for an entertaining vocabulary lesson, and I brought it into my classes the next day.
At the beginning of the period, when I usually did a quick vocabulary segment, I asked the class, "Anybody here a procrastinator?" When hands went up I asked for personal experiences, aware that most of them were familiar with the word, having been called procrastinators by parents and teachers. And when someone calls you something, good or bad, you remember it. The word stuck, too, because it was fun to say.
"I'm a terrible procrastinator myself," I said, after several students had given examples. "But one day I bought a book that would eliminate my procrastination. And here it is."
I picked up the paperback from the desk, thrust it toward the class with both hands and read the title: Overcoming Procrastination.
They laughed. I waited a moment, then, still holding out the book, said to the quiet room: "I bought this book ten years ago." I looked at them with a straight face as they waited for me to continue, and when I didn't, but continued looking at them, it dawned on them what I was leaving unsaid, and they roared.
Then I asked them to write the word and its definition on the last page of their notebook, making it the first entry on their Found Vocabulary list.
Ordinarily, I might not have taught procrastination as a vocabulary word, as it was, indeed, so commonly known. But I had foreign-born students in my class who might not have been exposed to the word at home or in their former schools despite an extensive vocabulary acquired since attending American schools. That was strikingly pointed out to me years before when two ninth-grade Russian-born girls who were fluent in English asked what a fib was, after the word came up during a class discussion. Told by a classmate that it's a mini-lie, they immediately understood, and knew its Russian equivalent. Similarly, a twelfth-grade girl, recently arrived from Israel and also fluent in English, did not know what mud was. Truth to tell, though, even if I'd been certain that everyone in my class knew what procrastination meant, I would have done my little routine anyway. A good classroom laugh over a five-syllable word? Anytime.
A tradition had begun: An object encountered in my everyday life would suggest a vocabulary word and I'd bring it to class for a quick lesson. Overcoming Procrastination was the first. From then on, I was always on the lookout for objects that could provide a few minutes of enjoyable and effective vocabulary instruction.
I hold up a handful of wooden coffee stirrers and say to the class: "I took these from the Three Star Diner yesterday. Would it be correct to say I stole them?"
Heads shake and I'm given reasons why stole is too strong a word.
"How about these plastic spoons from the Carvel store? Ripped off?" Heads shake. Same reasons.
I hold up a stainless steel fork. "Luigi's Pizza Garden. Stolen?"
"Yes," everyone shouts, laughing, and from the back of the room a girl calls, "And bring it back! Luigi's my uncle." Lots of laughs.
These scenarios lead us into a discussion of the distinctions between synonyms for steal; and by the time we're through, we have covered the differences between pilfer, shoplift, rob, swipe, purloin, rip off, filch, embezzle, swindle, and any other theft-related word the class offers, including hijack, plagiarize and pirate.
My emphasis, though, is on pilfer, and it's the only word I ask them to write on their Found Vocabulary list.
"Anybody have a pilfering story?" I ask. A raised hand.
"My —." I interrupt quickly. "No names, please." Laughter.
The funny, outrageous and sometimes plainly criminal stories could go on for an hour. (Sheets and pillow cases dropped from motel windows into waiting arms?)
We talk about the ethics of pilfering by office workers, restaurant goers and hotel guests. It's a vocabulary lesson, a critical thinking lesson, an ethics lesson. And, as usual, I'm having students associate their vocabulary word with something in their life experience. That's what makes new words stick most of all.
I dislike the scent of potpourri as much as the next guy, but I couldn't pass up buying a bag of Spring Blossom from my local mall's candle shop a few days after my journalism class encountered potpourri in a New York Times concert review — in that sense a mixture of musical pieces.
As my journalism students sniffed the sealed bag's mixture of dried flower petals, spices, and herbs as it was passed around the room, I explained to them that a potpourri was originally a medley of meats cooked in a stew, later on a blend like this one and, eventually, a mix of anything. On the board I placed synonyms I knew they'd enjoy, like pastiche, olla-podrida and salmagundi, but told them they only need write potpourri and its definition in their notebook. Most of them wrote the synonyms anyway — students love learning weird words.
I felt like a chemistry teacher as my students gathered around my desk, watching the Alka Seltzer tablet fizz in the glass of water. The word was effervescent.
"Does this remind you of a type of personality?" I asked.
"Sick," was the first response.
"Cheerful," someone said.
"Bubbly," from somebody else.
"Do you know anybody like that?" I asked the group.
"Her," a boy said, pointing to a girl who blushed. But he was right, she was bubbly, adorably so, and everyone in class agreed. On the board I wrote effervescent, ebullient and vivacious as the tablet fizzed, and then we talked about personal experiences of theirs that made them particularly ebullient, even momentarily, and asked them to name actresses they would describe as effervescent. And while I don't remember their choices, at that time Olivia Newton John, Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews may have been among them. Ask your students whom they would nominate today.
The Hidden Palace Café, a tiny Chinese restaurant on a busy Brooklyn shopping street a few blocks from my former home, lasted only a few months. I passed it frequently and never saw anyone eating there except the cooks and waiters. But you can't say it didn't try. Its menu attempted to appeal to as ethnically varied a group of customers as a menu can, and from the moment I perused it I knew I had the best illustration of the word eclectic that I had ever seen.
The Hidden Palace's takeout menu, which I have before me as I write, lists at least a hundred Chinese dishes, but in the soup column, wonton soup and egg drop soup are followed by New England clam chowder, French onion soup and borscht. On the appetizer list, spring rolls and fried dumplings are followed by French fries and Mexican fried chicken leg. And along with main dishes like General Tso's chicken and kung pao beef there's pork chop cordon bleu and Portuguese chicken. Want a light lunch? How about the ham and egg sandwich? Do you think students forget what eclectic means after hearing what's on that menu? But there's more personalizing to do, as I ask a roomful of young people to talk about their eclectic tatses in food, music, movies and reading.
My found vocabulary accumulated in a desk drawer in my classroom — among the collection a whetstone to show where whetting one's appetite came from; a piece of costume jewelry to illustrate a gewgaw; a casette tape to illustrate obsolescence. Your obsolete item can be a roll of film, a floppy disk or, to guarantee a discussion, a book.
If you have similar stories about word teaching through found objects, please share them with us.