It’s nearly impossible to make vocabulary fun.
When I’m in a jam, I sometimes try to think back to how my teachers at The Pike School taught various lessons—after all, I enjoyed classes and excelled in it at that age; they must have been doing something right… But I remember being slightly bored whenever we were starting a new vocab chapter. I would sit, reading ahead as the rest of the class reviewed pronunciation and meaning, and start on the homework exercises for the words we were learning while I waited for the bell to ring.
Vocabulary is one of those things that I feel most educators probably dread having to teach. I know I do. It’s something that simply needs to be done. The kids just need to learn it. And things that simply need doing are rarely enjoyable.
Thus, I’ve made it a small mission of mine to make vocab fun. It’s a challenge I’ve set up for myself in every class—to make every lesson a fun lesson; to make every subject an interesting subject; to make every class and exciting class. I sometimes fail. I also occasionally feel guilty, as though I’m trying to “trick” the girls into learning. But then I remember all the learning that I get done when I’m not even thinking about it, and realize that the best lessons are often absorbed unbeknownst to the “student.”
My class enters the room. It’s an advanced group of students, the most ambitious and gifted of the seventh and eighth graders, and while half of them are the quiet, obedient, passionate-about-learning pupils that every teacher immediately cherishes (and craves), the other half are that type of student that has gotten by on their natural abilities, often not having to work very hard; girls who can afford to let their minds wander (and their mouths follow) and still pass with high marks. So today, as usual, half the kids come in and immediately sit quietly, open a free reading book (which is not in my lesson plan), and are quickly ensconced. The other half is talking loudly—extremely loudly—and I have to start shouting to quiet them down.
“Guys!” I shout. “Guys!” And I become self-conscious suddenly, remembering hearing the girls at lunch mocking other teachers, saying to each other in high-pitched, irksome voices, “Ladies, settle down! Layyy-deeez!” while their peers laugh and join in, and soon there is a seven-girl chorus of “Ladies! Ladies!” being shouted in the lunch room. I wonder if they mock me, deepening their voices to shout: “Guys! Guys! GUYS!”
Finally I get their attention, and turn stern for a moment. “You’re seventh and eighth graders. Does it make any sense that I should have to shout to be heard? We’re already five minutes into class. This shouldn’t be a challenge for a group like you.” They are quiet, and meet my eyes with a gaze that I remember giving teachers as recently as high school; one that is full of recognition but void of apology; a stare that shows no fear, actually shows no emotion of any kind, masking the guilt swimming inside my brain and the butterflies flapping in my stomach.
I look at them for a moment, and let them simmer in their own shame as I, too, flounder inwardly, knowing I’ve just made a bad-teacher move. I could have gotten them quiet without filling them with unwarranted guilt and perhaps animosity towards me. Yes, they should know to be quiet, but they’re only middle schoolers, and is talking such a sin?
I never feel worse than when I come down too hard on a student, and realize seconds later the mistake I’ve made.
My response, when I do suddenly turn unusually and undeservedly harsh, is to turn bland for a few moments—either letting them work on their activity and staying quiet, or simply leading the class as an average, run-of-the-mill teacher might, all the while hoping the mood will pass. Then, I will become my energetic, perky, enthusiastic self and pray they forget my momentary lapse a few minutes prior.
So, into bland mode I go. “We’re going to be starting ten new words—these are words that you guys are likely to see on the SSATs. How many of you have taken the SSATs already?” A few raise their hands, and the rest, who have also taken it, start telling me about the test, talking over each other already, mere moments after I just shushed them.
“Ok, ok, ok,” I say, quieting them down again. “So, I’m going to pass these out—” I say. As eyes start to roll, I start to pass around lists of ten vocabulary words, complete with parts of speech, definitions, and a sentence showing the word in context. “We’re going to go around, the first person will read the word and the definition, everything typed under the word, then the next person will use it in their own made-up sentence. Got it?” No one answers, and I know they’re as bored as I was in their position.
We start going around, and the girls begin to loosen up a little bit. I know this is due to a mix of causes, one major one being that they have given into the boredom, resigned themselves to the fact that yes, this is what we’re doing, and yes, it is extremely boring, so you might as well get used to it and make the most of it. Or at least shut up so it’s over with quickly. I recall similar conclusions of logic when I was in their seats.
The list begins at accentuate and we continue past aloof, boisterous, cavity, dilapidated, and four other words, arriving finally at our last word, euphoric. Sensing the activity is coming to a close a few of the girls start to get noisy again. One girl mutters something snide, mocking JV’s mispronunciation of “euphoric,” which she has pronounced “yyyup-whore-ick,” and JV snaps back at her with a violent threat.
“Yo, JV, quit being so belligerent!” I yell at her, putting one of our vocab words to good use, hopefully shutting down the fight and setting a vocal example.
“OHHH!” the rest of the class jeers, and JV’s eyes widen and she starts grinning at me in shock.
She quickly recovers her composure, as usual. “Yo, Miss, CR’s jus’ bein’ boisterous over here. She should min’ her own business and be more aloof, or I’ll punch a cavity in ‘er face!” Everyone starts laughing and threatening each other with vocab words.
Inspiration strikes quickly. “Ok, ok, guys. So here’s what I’m thinking…”
“Miss can we play charades?” CR asks. We played charades with different idioms a few weeks ago, and since then a few girls haven’t stopped demanding we play it again.
“No, guys, we don’t have enough words yet!” I chuckle. “The game would be over in five minutes. Maybe once we learn more, though.” They shrug and don’t push the issue further. I found if I give a valid reason for why we are or are not doing something, I rarely face objections. Rules are acceptable. Arbitrary and trivial rules are “stupid.”
“I want you guys to break up into three groups—NOT YET—” they have already started splitting up and chatting noisily, but sit back down quietly—“and then I want you to create a skit that uses as many of these vocab words in context as you possibly can.” I stop and hear a few whispers, but for the most part it’s silent. I look around, waiting for them to begin. “Go!” I say, releasing the girls, and within seconds the din in the small room is overwhelming. I don’t bother to quiet it down, though, and when one group of generally well-behaved students asks to work in the hall where there’s more room, I allow it as long as they promise not to make too much noise. They give me their word and are dismissed.
The rest of the class period passes quickly, and with ten minutes left I ask if any groups are ready to perform. Only the group in the hall is, so we all crowd outside the door to watch their performance. I notice some seventh- and eighth-graders from a science class next door are watching from their classroom doorway while the rest of the class cleans up the lab they’ve just finished.
“I’m the magical tree,” RM informs us in her shy voice, perhaps explaining whey she is standing off to the side away from the main action.
“Awesome!” I say. “I like this skit already!”
Two of the girls begin catwalking down the hallway, arm in arm.
“Oh my,” says one, pointing at the tiled floor as they stop and stare beyond their feet. “Look at this huge cavity in the middle of the road!”
“Yes,” agrees the other, “that’s quite a pothole!” They peer down at the imaginary hole. Their voices are affected and proper. I smile.
Suddenly, from inside the computer room, a third girl emerges into the hallway, walking with the most overdone and ridiculous swagger I’ve ever seen. Immediately I see in my mind’s eye an image of how the Notorious B.I.G. would walk if he were a zombie, more limping than strutting. This zombie-gangster creeps up behind the cavity-inspecting-but-entirely-unsuspecting girls, who suddenly turn and see him.
“Eek!” shouts one in mock surprise. “What a daunting thug! Run!” It is probably the first and last time I will ever hear a thug described as daunting, but according to the definition I provided (“scary; intimidating”), yes, the thug is quite daunting.
The rest of the skit continues, somehow the magical tree is incorporated, and it all ends with our applause and a consensus that nine of the ten vocabulary words were utilized correctly, if unusually. Next week, the other two groups will perform.
Fast forward a week. I have ten more vocab words that I will introduce (this time it’s words that begin with the letters F through J), but only after the girls in the other two groups have performed their skits from the prior week. One group performs theirs, and the class agrees that seven words were used. The last group—and only group of three—takes the stage.
Two girls, SR and JV (the belligerent one from the week prior), stand off to one side and JR approaches as the skit begins. She holds her hands in front of her stomach, clutching a mimed cafeteria tray between them.
“Ya gatta cavity in ya tray!” JV shouts at JR in a raspy, New York accent that makes her sound like a fifty-year-old Jewish Manhattanite who’s smoked her whole life. Jerry Stiller’s female counterpart.
“I know, I want it filled with food,” JR says in a soft, schoolgirl voice.
“Heeeah’s ya tuna!” JV scoops imaginary tuna out of an imaginary serving dish with an imaginary spoon and slaps it onto the imaginary cavity in JR’s imaginary tray. JR says a dainty thank you and turns to walk away.
“Hey! Girl!” shouts JV, “ya need ta loosen up ya shirt! It’s assentuatin’ (accentuating) ya cha-chas!” The rest of the class explodes laughing. There’s a pause in the skit and then JV returns, skipping, to the two cafeteria ladies.
“Can I have more tuna!” it’s more of an excited exclamation than a question. She’s grinning broadly. JV looks at her with pure disdain.
“Don’ be so euphoric—it’s jus’ tuna!” she says.
Finally, the other lunch lady steps in. SR says in a kind voice, “Aw honey don’ listen tew ‘er, ‘cwourse ya can have mwore tuna.” Another New York accent, this time the w-heavy “cwoffee” genre.
JV turns on SR. “Don’ be cajoled by this lil’ brat!” she says.
SR retorts, “I’m simply espousin’ her desiyah (desire) fah mwore tuna. Why you always gwotta be so belligeren’, huh?”
JR pipes up, “you two are so boisterous. It’s very daunting!”
“Sworry, honey,” says SR.
“Heeeeah’s ya tuna!”
There are a few more lines incorporating more vocabulary, and the skit closes. I’ve been trying not to burst out laughing during each and every sketch, and this one has seriously tested my poker face.
I smile at all the girls. “Awesome job, guys, these were really good!”
CR, who always has a suggestion for how class should be run (only about one-fifth of them useful or productive), speaks out without raising her hand. (Coming from Exeter, this doesn’t bother me and I rarely scold the girls for forgetting to raise their hands, and only enforce the rule when they begin talking over each other).
“Yo, Miss,” CR says, “I think we should do this again, because, like, it really helped me remember the words and learn them, y’know?” The rest of the class is nodding and agreeing.
“Ok,” I smile, and nod my head. “If it helps, then definitely.”
As I calmly pass out the next set of vocabulary words, I am jumping for joy on the inside, ecstatic that I’ve discovered a fun way to teach vocab.
Stop bein’ so euphoric! I think, and grin a little bigger. It’s jus’ tuna!
(304): all you did was keep googling “what time is it” over and over and over
… I opened a new tab and Google’d “what time is it?” Google answered correctly. And knew what town I was in. Creepy or awesome? I’m still deciding…