Words Open Worlds I
Bill Long 6/28/08
Towards a Middle School Curriculum on Words
One of my firm convictions is that learning happens when we infuse life into the curriculum that we either have inherited or chosen. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for tests they must take; but is it also designed to enhance learning and to encourage a love of exploration and self-teaching? The purpose of these two essays is to suggest directions that a middle school curriculum on words should take so that learning not only takes place, but a hunger for more learning results. Before laying out the curriculum itself I will mention three values and two sources that either lie behind or enhance these suggestions.
My Three Core Values as A Teacher
To illustrate my first value, let me begin with a story from my teaching days at a small college in Kansas. At the end of the Fall semester 1992 I received two cards from students; let's call them Jim and Shone. No, they weren't trying to butter me up for good grades or give a Christmas present to make me look favorably on them. One card came from a student all acknowledged to be the sharpest at the college; the other came from a student generally regarded as the slowest. Let me read you what each said. First, from the slow student (who had a very interesting story--adopted by American aid workers in Nepal after being abandoned). It said, in rather crabbed hand,
"Dr Long, Thanks for all you have done, and giving me a chance. I appreciate how you have worked with me. God Bless, SF."
The other, in neat block printing, said,
"Dr. Long, Just a note to thank you for your work here as a professor. Your ability to communicate with students and stimulate learning is unmatched on this campus. Although history has never been my forte, you have opened it up to me. I am convinced that understanding in any area, be it art, science, literature, religion, etc.. is not fully gained without historical context. So thanks for helping me gain a little understanding. God bless you and have a Merry Christmas. Jim."
I have treasured these cards for 16 years, keeping them pasted inside vol. 8 of my diary notes. They mean so much to me because they illustrate much better than I otherwise could how I am committed to teaching every student. I look at the quickest, and the slowest, as equally valuable and equally deserving of my best effort as a teacher. I am not satisfied until I have found the key to opening and stimulating the mind and heart of the "extremes," and then of those in "the middle."
Second, and more briefly, I am committed to internationalism or linguistic/ethnic diversity as I teach. I look at a person's "other" culture as a potential gift for us all. An example will also illustrate this commitment. When I was a law school professor, the course most difficult for me to teach was Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code--Sales Law. Already I can tell your eyes are glazing over... It contains about 100 paragraphs which try to capture the essence of the law of sale of goods, laws which we probably couldn't articulate because they are so engrained in our manner of sale and payment of goods. Well, I dreaded the class at times because it was so large (80-90 students); most students only took it to prepare for "the Bar exam," and it is difficult to make concepts like "anticipatory repudiation" or "express warranty" exciting. One day I hit on an idea. Before beginning my class for the day, I asked students who had a fluency in another language to come to the front of the class. Surprisingly, there were about 20 such students. Several of them were non-native English speakers (a young woman from Romania, two from Mexico, one from the former Soviet Union; one from Japan). Many were also American students who had disciplined themselves to learn another language. The most exotic was my student George, an African-American who had mastered Mandarin Chinese. I asked each of them to say a sentence in the other language and then tell us what it meant. While some students (as always is the case in law school) thought that the exercise was a "waste of time," several students came to me and said that this was the first time they had had their native tongue or a concept other than "mainstream American" affirmed at law school. They were grateful, and I gained an interesting collection of new friends that day.
Third, I am committed to education that makes use of as many senses as possible. Historically, intelligence in our culture has been measured by a person's ability to reason and use words and mathematical concepts well. We have a "logocentric" understanding of intelligence. Yet, as Howard John Gardner argued in his 1983 classic Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, this emphasis often overlooks other equally cogent intelligences that people possess. Some might be kinesthetically outstanding; others might have empathetic skills of impressive proportions; still others might be musically gifted. Applying Gardner's theory to 2008 suggests to me that learning, to stick, must engage more than one sense. Learning words by combining touching, tasting, hearing, smelling and seeing not only will make the words "stick" in our minds, but will give us a pleasure in learning that far exceeds most of the "logocentric" learning that is the basis of many curricula.
The Two Sources
I conclude this essay by briefly mentioning two sources which I would require in order to maximize learning: access to the Internet and availability of a comprehensive dictionary online, preferably the Oxford English Dictionary. Because I am a firm believer in the academic value of Robert Frost's dictum that "way leads to way," I use the Internet when we learn a new concept in order to "massage" it and see if it also illumines yet other things. In order to give words precision and a history, access to a dictionary like the OED is essential. Is the OED too difficult for middle schoolers? Some of it is, but it can be presented in a way that allures. Some college textbooks are too "difficult" for the students, but not only are used but actually prove very effective. There are ways to use the OED that will stimulate learning, even for students as young as 11 or 12 years old.
With these values and resources at hand, then, we are ready to understand the "flow" of my curriculum. The next essay does that.