A Good Word

Margo Sorenson
Mar­go Sorenson

As teach­ers and writ­ers, we all love words. Would­n’t we love to be able to infuse that same love into each and every one of our stu­dents! Teach­ing Eng­lish to mid­dle school­ers and high school­ers for years gave me plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to try out dif­fer­ent ways of attempt­ing to kin­dle enthu­si­asm in my stu­dents for becom­ing avid lexophiles.

One method to do this was to encour­age them, in their own dis­cus­sions and inter­ac­tions, to use words and expres­sions from the lit­er­a­ture we were read­ing in the class­room. At the begin­ning of each unit, I’d put a sheet of butch­er paper on a class­room wall and encour­age stu­dents to write the words on the paper they thought would be fun to use. Thus it was that, all dur­ing our To Kill a Mock­ing­bird unit, stu­dents would be greet­ing each oth­er with a “Hey,” answer­ing my ques­tions with a “Yes’m” or “No’m,” and say­ing expres­sions such as, “That’s real nice,“ “Now hush your fussin’,” “What in the sam hill,” and dur­ing Shake­speare, their Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish expres­sions would pop out using “Zounds!” or “Out, out, brief can­dle,” “Hoist on his own petard,” or even, “Part­ing is such sweet sor­row” (the lat­ter being one of my eighth grade boys’ favorites, deliv­ered in dra­mat­ic fash­ion when the bell rang to end class). It seemed that by stu­dents using some of the same lan­guage from the books and plays in their own real-life speech, they helped the lit­er­a­ture to come alive for all of us, using the pow­er of words.

MacbethAnoth­er method that end­ed up tak­ing on a life of its own, and which many of you may also use, was using a dif­fer­ent quote each day as a jour­nal response prompt. Some­times, it would be a quote from the lit­er­a­ture we were read­ing, such as Shake­speare, or The Odyssey, or Our Town, or Langston Hugh­es’s poet­ry. Oth­er times, I’d pick inspi­ra­tional (hop­ing!) and thought-pro­vok­ing-quotes from dis­parate per­sons such as NCAA-win­ning leg­endary coach John Wood­en, or his­to­ry-chang­er Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., or coun­try music leg­end Dol­ly Par­ton. Often, we’d share our respons­es aloud, which could elic­it “Aha!” moments and cre­at­ed a feel­ing of community.

As an aside, you might think this works only for old­er stu­dents, but, this past sum­mer, it was lots of fun to use that same quote method with our eight- and twelve-year-old grand­chil­dren, when I was tutor­ing them (so that, as their moth­er said, “Their brains don’t turn to mush”). They enjoyed apply­ing the quotes to their own lives and shar­ing their ideas, even at those younger ages.

quotes from readings

In my own class­room, the sur­pris­ing bonus occurred after I began to invite all my stu­dents to bring in their own quotes. It seemed they began to real­ly pay more atten­tion to what oth­er peo­ple had said and writ­ten, and to appre­ci­ate the val­ue of the words used. I still have my note­book of quotes, includ­ing all their con­tri­bu­tions, writ­ten in their own hand­writ­ing, taped to the pages. The look of joy­ful sur­prise on a stu­den­t’s face when he or she saw a con­tributed quote on the board was tru­ly a spe­cial moment, and stu­dents appre­ci­at­ed each oth­er’s quotes, adding to the cama­raderie of enjoy­ing words together.

Per­haps some of our stu­dents may nev­er love words as much as we do, but, using these two meth­ods added mer­ri­ment to the class­room as well as enlight­en­ment about the impor­tance of words. As famed jour­nal­ist Eric Sevareid wrote, “One good word is worth a thou­sand pictures.“

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