This summer I read books that have been on my night stand for quite some time. A few very moving kids books such as Echo and The Birchbark House series began my summer reading as well as finally getting to The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Then I turned to a few books for me that included Americanah, When Kids Can’t Read, and The Art of Teaching Reading. In their own unique way, they reminded me of the power of words. Words have never been far from the forefront of my thinking when I strategize ways to improve my instruction. But the idea of making words more visible seems to be pleading with me for deeper reflection. Because of this I am trying to uncover authentic ways to make them front and center in my classroom this year.
Last year as I read books and blogs about comprehension strategies (very important) I kept coming back to the question, “But what if the kid doesn’t even know what the words mean?” It can get exhausting stopping every paragraph or two to decipher the meaning of a word. Whether it’s using contextual clues, looking up the meaning, or asking someone the meaning, each one of those strategies when relied on over and over again can stifle the flow and pleasure of reading. Yet not finding meaning can cause misunderstanding and chip away at comprehension.
In the past few weeks, as our country continues to implode, I find myself thinking about the power of many of the words people are using. Not just their meaning, but the power behind their meaning. As I read responses to news stories I am often surprised by the many interpretations of a passage. An article that left me hopeful, enraged others. An opinion that left me enraged, others are chanting their approval. Initially I found myself feeling deep despair wondering how other humans could lack empathy for fellow humans. But I also wonder, could it be a misunderstanding of the meaning of words? Maybe it’s their prior experiences they are bringing to their reactions, of course, we all do. But there are many new words floating around out there that I wonder if a lack of understanding their meaning is interfering with understanding of what is being written. I find myself googling unfamiliar words such as antifa to understand what the articles are trying to tell me. What if I didn’t take the time to look these new words up. Would I think their meanings the opposite of what they actually mean? I realize that in order to understand a word that is unfamiliar to me I need exposure to it. I need to say it, hear it, write it, play with it, own it.
Like many teachers I have been on teacher blogs looking for ideas for age appropriate books to read to my kids to help begin conversations about what is happening in our country. We are at a historical moment in our country and silence is not the way to approach this. Our kids will have questions, concerns, fears and they need a safe place to ask those questions and discuss their fears. Why wouldn’t they? We adults do. As I order books and read them I realize again, it’s the words that stand out to me. I turned to Eve Bunting, a fabulous writer who handles delicate subjects in such beautiful ways. I ordered Terrible Things thinking that would help begin a conversation into why our country is dividing itself. But as I read it I found myself thinking that I just can’t read that book. It was her words…”terrible things, terrible shadows, blotted out the sun, ran, screamed, carried them away”…. her words, such terrible words with such terrible images. Her words brought up emotions just as they were meant to do. But for me, they were too much.
The words of today’s problems bring me to a few words that changed our country, “All men are created equal.” What a powerful phrase. But what exactly do those words mean? Does it depend on your perspective? The men who wrote those words consider “men” as educated white men. Now does the phrase mean the same thing to you? Many people wonder about women, where do they stand in the “created equal”? Or people of color, where do they stand? Words. They matter. It really is all about words. Words that are used and words that are left out.
As I read though When Kids Can’t Read by one of my favorite reading teachers, Kylene Beers, she talks about Words Their Way, a vocabulary program we use. One suggestion she gives is to begin using 5-8 words daily in speech and writing a week before that sort is introduced. What a simple, brilliant idea. That is just one strategy I plan to use this year as we focus on words.
Words, enjoy them, play with them, and use them carefully because words are power. Have a great school year.