Honest to Goddess true story.
I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my freshmen and sophomores. So far, the reading is going pretty well (when it goes, of course; fully half the students hadn’t read to the assigned chapter yesterday, but that’s not what this post is about).
The deceptively simple story has quite a lot of vocabulary words peppered throughout; though it’s told by a young girl, it’s told as the recollections of that young girl as an adult, and it’s fairly obvious from her syntax that the grown-up Scout got over her dislike of school at some point.
My students are tasked with finding those vocabulary words that they don’t know and writing them down. They weren’t doing it, so I gave them MY list of words (which was no small list, either) and told them to get started. That I had to tell them to go the next step and actually, you know, define them was astounding enough to me, but get this: one child, we’ll call him Danny, brought in the whole long list of words today, all nicely and neatly defined. I scanned his list, then asked him, “Hey, Danny; what does “the act of edifying” mean?”
“Right here, Sweet; you’ve defined edification as “the act of edifying.” What’s more, you’ve got this definition for tenterhooks; one of the hooks or bent nails that hold cloth stretched on a tenter.” What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“So let me get this straight; you spent all this time defining this list of words, right? How many of these definitions do you understand?”
“I don’t know.”
This led to a pretty stern lecture about their NOT cutting and pasting dictionary.com definitions into their homework; the point of this exercise – and I was astonished that I had to explain this to them, and I told them so – is that they UNDERSTAND the words. “Don’t think for a second,” I admonished them, “that I won’t totally call you out if you define a word for me on a quiz and I’m not absolutely convinced you understand what the word means.”