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 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.”




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6 responses to “Really?

  1. Cut and paste society. How convenient.

  2. Yep. Those words are pretty inconvenient, when they make you look up two words to figure out the definition, making their homework take twice as long. :p

    I love that you’re doing this. Please keep me posted.

  3. SW, you can’t REALLY tell me that this surprises you; you’re in college classes with kids JUST LIKE this…

    Lily, I was totally thinking of you and your “words from my reading” posts when I started this whole vocabulary kick. That the kids are perfectly willing to miss great swaths of information by not bothering to look up a word (or a time period, or a cultural reference) is astonishing to me. It probably shouldn’t be, by this point, but it is….

  4. Improbable Joe

    The sad thing is that it is so EASY for them now! We used to have to dig through stacks of dictionaries and encyclopedias to know stuff. Now it is all right at your fingertips. Yet, I’m stunned at how grossly ignorant kids are, and how little interest they have in correcting that ignorance. They have their magical iPhones in their hands and can’t spend an extra second to learn anything.

    Do you need me to drive up there and yell at your classes for a few hours?

  5. Joe, do you have ANY IDEA how much I’d love it if you drove up here to yell at my kids for a few hours? If I thought it would do a damned bit of good, I’d be sending you gas money right now…

  6. Okay, I’m going to take a moment to not be modest at all and say that vocab is one of the parts of my job I do really well. And most of the reason why I do it well is because I make my kids understand those words inside and out, mostly by assessing them in lots of ways. They have to be able to match it to synonyms, match it to antonyms, define it, use it in a sentence, and/or recognize whether it is being used correctly in someone else’s sentence. I had numerous students (and parents of students) who had me last year come thank me because of how much their vocab scores improved on SATs and other standardized tests.

    All that to say that I totally agree with you – memorizing a nonsense (to them) definition is useless if they don’t actually know what the word means. Oh those dumb teenagers. How we love them anyway. 🙂

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