Archive for October, 2012

What is the aim of a dictionary?

I am certainly my mother’s son. There are times when, as a teacher, I find myself channeling my mother, also a teacher herself. Growing up, this would usually arise when she would hear the destruction of the language. One example would be the word “vulnerable”, which was often (and still is) pronounced as “vun-rable”, thus doing away with the “l” sound altogether. At the time, I recall the way that she would enunciate the word carefully, precisely.
Come forward to more contemporary times and I am having to decide my own reaction as my two children, aged 8 and 5, have started to use the word “versing”. Versing, as in, “Who are we versing on the weekend?”
This clanger has been around a while now in Australia. Having taken a number of sporting teams over the years, we were often versing this school or that, or, after the event, who we versed on the weekend (clearly, the past tense usage of the event). The fact that there is only one form of the word, versus, has not got in the way of this level of functionality. For a while, having failed to correct its use, I tried a different tack. I’d say, “Okay, I’m prepared to accept the word versing, if you are prepared to alternate with againsting“. While they could recognise the discrepancy, they weren’t prepared to opt out of versing either.
And, I suppose, why should they? Am I the dinosaur who (admittedly mixing my metaphors) is tub thumping in order to force an unnecessary rigidity into language usage, thinking and application?
So, if U.S. president Warren Harding can cheerfully bring ‘normalcy’ (apocryphal tale or not)  into mainstream usage (the word does not even prompt the red-squiggly line as I type this), should I be reconciled to my fate and brought into the present day as an accepting acolyte…
What about the contrary position? If we are adding words to the current “lingo”, what about the words that are taking on archaic status? Year 8 students are the first to ‘do’ Shakespeare and I am often presented with queries such as “Is this old English (or sometimes, middle English)?”, despite most of the words still being recognisable, if not commonly used, today.
In writing this post, I “recalled” that the size of the complete Oxford dictionary was massive. Of course, completely underestimating what ‘massive’ meant, I decided to check online and ended up at the Dictionary Facts page of the OED. The totals are nothing short of stupendous, with such mind boggling elements including that it would take 60 years for one person to proof read the 1989 version, containing 291,500 entries and weighing in (in paper form) at over 60 kilos! It is wonderful and horrifying in equal measure. The average (whatever that means!) person today makes use of between 5000 (high school educated) to about 8000 words (college educated). I say about, as in looking up this question alone, the range of answers, depending on your choice of sources, varied quite wildly (20 000 was quoted by one optimistic site). If Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his works, what on earth is going on with the other 270 000 odd (give or take a few between friends!) words?!

Words

Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel – Alby Headrick)

Which brings me to another idea – perhaps heretical to some – Should we look to remove words as well as add them? Is a dictionary more of a historical document? A record of language (and thus society and culture) through all ages rather than just a device for looking up (at its most mundane) the meaning of the word you are now presented with? Going back a few posts of mine… does Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak Dictionary ironically help modern humanity with removing the morass of ultimately redundant words? This would at least give us a living dictionary, pertinent to all using it today.

But then the chance to come across that lovely, colourful and hopelessly archaic word would be lost forever.

PS: Thought I would close by mentioning a discussion that took place in my department yesterday about another ‘term’ doing the rounds with the students. The phrase “Don’t dog it” (and variations thereof) are in vogue – the word dog signifying Sir-you-are-being-slack-and-how-unfair-is-that! An example might be an attempt for a student to give me a high five, which, if I don’t respond within milliseconds, might elicit the “Don’t dog it!” The irony here is that dog seems to have become a verb or an adjective, while the usual idea of the noun has gone.

What current lingua franca are you facing in your locale from students conversing with you and other students? Would love to hear…

Looking to do some drama in your English class – perhaps something more developed than a warm up game? Then I present the Robot Game – which I originally saw in Peter Moore’s When Are We Going To Have More Drama, now out of print.
This is probably the most requested (long) drama activity that I have done with students. The ‘performance’, which takes most of a lesson, can often be hilarious, as students who have not prepared sufficient ‘actions’ realise that there may be some tasks that their ‘robot’ will struggle with.
In doubling in this post, I have also decided to upload my first Explain Everything video, created to introduce the task to the students – so I am looking to explore the practicalities of this app (part one) in the English/Drama classroom.
So, before any embedded videos, here is the ‘print’ form of the task, aimed at teachers:

Premise: You are captured in a prison on an alien world. Your only resource to help you escape is a ‘robot’ that does not speak English. You must learn its language in order to guide it through a ‘maze’ in order to retrieve a set of keys.
Procedure: DAY ONE: Divide students into groups. At first, the students work together to create a fake ‘language’ of about 5-15 commands (you don’t need to tell them this) in order to pilot the robot. Foreign languages are out, or other simplifications of English (eg Left = L). In the past, things like Simpsons characters, car brands and jibberish have been popular. Students then rehearse/test the language with the robot (the robot will NOT have the commands on the final run).
DAY TWO: While you set up the course with the course planners, drivers have a final practice run. Robots sit outside until called. Drivers are brought in and the course is demonstrated to them. Then each robot is brought in and the drivers have to pilot the robot around the course.
THE RUN THROUGH: A robot (that is, a student) is brought in and sits down on a chair. The two drivers (the other two students) ‘sit’ on their hands, with the instructions in front of them and can only offer the rehearsed “commands” (i.e. no eye contact ‘offers’, no pointing etc). Any use of English (e.g. accidental calls of “NO!” or “Stop!”, incur a 5 second penalty. The total amount of time is (usually) 5 minutes. A robot may get ‘stuck’ at a point and you may offer the drivers the option of a one-off, 30 second penalty to ‘advance’ past this procedure. The total time having expired, may see robots finish while still on the course, so keep tabs of where they finish (plus penalties).
Other Observations: The only ‘caveat’ is that robots will need to be outside, for up to (in the case of the last robot), the bulk of the period. This has never been a problem for me, but could be an issue, depending on your class. The lesson is usually hilarious, based on the absence of necessary commands, with students walking “into” tables because they haven’t thought about climb over or crawl under in their set up. You can make it as hard or as easy for your class as you need. I’ve usually run this with year 7 but it would work up to year 9 potentially. You will need to keep the changeover of robots tight, otherwise you’ll easily run over time.
Possible Marks/Extension: You can use this as a group mark, based on their ability to work in a group (esp in period 1) effectively. A reflection task can be to have the boys discuss ideas of communication and how they were challenged by expectation and what happened.

Explain Everything – a reflection

Below you will find my first ‘attempt’ at Explain Everything. All up, it probably took about an hour of solid work to get it done, and I beg your indulgence at my efforts! There were a few issues with crashes (and some odd slide clashes) that probably made the process a little more frustrating than one would hope and expect. My aim was to create this solely using my iPad – so that the idea of lightweight, portable content creation became the focus.
Here are some other observations about the app from my first go:
1. Ensure that you have your ‘script’ created beforehand. I did this, which worked well. Having all of the images, photos and the like set up (my son drew the rocket ship) before, rather than stopping and sourcing/creating them as you go, would also be advisable.
2. Overall, the feel and use of the app is great. It is easy (the help ‘manual’ is good, although perhaps not as extensive as one might like) to use and mostly intuitive. I would liked to have seen the ability to copy images from one slide to the next (unless I’ve missed how to do this), as this is a common trait that makes the iPad a boon in most areas. Instead, I sometimes tried to duplicate the slide and erase elements that I did not want. The only downside from this was that (for some reason), some of the erased elements would magically re-insert themselves later on – frustrating. I’m sure this is a glitch that will soon be fixed.
3. Consider how you are going to ‘animate’ it ahead of time. I found trying to make it look ‘smooth’ while doing any voiceover (again, apologies for the tone that suggests “I’m concentrating here!”) at the same time. However, it is relatively easy to pause and break the animation and thus the voiceover.
4. Practical uses for the English Class. Thus far I can see two main uses. The first is for something like this, where you can make it a story tied to a series of instructions. Students could look at this the night before (reflecting possible ‘Flipped’ class models), work online together to come up with their “list” of commands, and come in ready to go with the rehearsal/performance the next day. The second would be as an explanatory tool. At present at my school, Year 9 are working on a unit studying a range of sonnets. Explain Everything would work quite well as a ‘study guide’, that covers the structural elements that make up a sonnet. The advantages would be that, despite some time investment (several hours), you would have a resource that you could use again and, perhaps more importantly, a guide that students can visit more than once in order to help with their study of the form.
I think I’ll see how I go with that as my ‘second attempt’. In the meantime, the first attempt is below. Let me know if you need any clarification with the task, or wish to make suggestions about other ways Explain Everything might work in the English (Drama?) classroom.

Just a lighthearted look at some observations…

1. Like is the new um
Not sure if this is due to the rise of Facebook, but pauses in thought while speaking (formerly signified with sounds such as er, ah and um) are being filled with the word like. So, the following is not unfamiliar: “Sir, you know how like Demetrius wants to, like, chase after Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…” Any use of simile or as an indicator of appreciation is unintended.

Throwing Rocks...

Throwing Rocks… (Photo credit: mollypop)

2. Boys are afraid of topography
This is based on many excursions and school camps. Put simply, boys, subconsciously, hate any landform that is higher (or lower) than any other. If you wish to replicate this yourself, take a group of boys out, climb a hill and have a rest at the top. Within minutes, boys will be looking to rectify the imbalance of land by throwing rocks over the edge of the hill. Left unchecked (i.e. as the boys become more nervous at the disparity), the size of the rocks will get progressively bigger. This model also works for waterways, such as lakes and rivers – boys will quickly look to find items to throw into the water in order to plug the gap that should be apparent to anyone.

3. A moving shopping trolley is more attractive
Ever noticed how children feel compelled to grab on for the ride as soon as a shopping trolley starts to move? I think there is a further correlation between the narrowness of the aisles (and perhaps how difficult the trolley is to steer) and the propensity for them to jump aboard.

Let me know if you’d appreciate part 2! [For those waiting for app strategies… I haven’t forgotten… Explain Everything to come shortly]  

How good are words! I enjoy seeing when senior students learn how a well placed word in a sentence has the power to resonate, giving off a ripple effect of nuance and meaning. Conversely, the sentence has to remain in balance, so students using five “big” four to five syllable words feels unwieldy, like the reader is wading through mud. For many students, having them appreciate that more is not necessarily more, can be a difficult thing that seems to be counter intuitive. Having an economy in writing can allow words the space to flex their power.
Ironically, I think George Orwell, in 1984, had a pretty good take on it. Look at the following, as Syme talks to Winston about his efforts on creating (or destroying) the new language for the upcoming 11th Edition Dictionary of Newspeak:

A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word.

The notion that if you remove one’s language, you remove their ability to see, imagine and think is compelling. However, is it possible to explore the other side of the equation. Is it possible to have “too much” language? I understand that there are more than fifty hues of the colour blue. Yet the ability to capture the exact hue one is witnessing is probably unlikely.

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Journey away on holidays – the view from the window as I type…

As a task, students can do or consider the following:
Look out the window and take in the view. Imagine that you call someone on the phone and, being so taken by what you see, set about describing the vista before you. Students can attempt to write, in a paragraph, the picture before them, or even an element of the whole. This is where the limitations of a language might become apparent. On one level, if language could do its “job” of communicating, then the result would be the equivalent of a photograph or facsimile. The listener, despite being deprived of the physical view, would be able to replicate the image in their own head. As a point of comparison, consider how effectively a musical score is able to transfer meaning, or mathematical notation. Of course, at its most reductive, music comes to four possibilities once a note is played. You can repeat the same pitch, have a higher or lower note, or rest. Words offer the potential to take this further, to almost limitless possibilities.

But who wants to be omniscient? Where is the pleasure in having precision in all facets of language when reading poetry? If we had a word for everything, would this equate to being a god-like individual who knows every joke and therefore every punchline before it can be delivered? While it is striking to have so many hues of blue, so many more are left uncharted and benefit from being couple with other adjectives.

In concluding, I counter one of the observations frequently posited by my students when we are analysing poetry – “You don’t think the poet intended all these meanings do you?”

The answer is “no” and “yes”. The beauty of poetry is its ability to conjure up word paintings as we read, based on our own experiences. However, I’ll sometimes show Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth in order to show both how a beautifully placed word exudes power and potency, and an ill fitting alternative can bring about diminishment.

Below is an early draft of Owen’s poem. In knowing the copy that we have with us today, it is appropriate to see how the poet played with words and their placement and, feeling dissatisfied with a choice, sought to improve or rectify the choices made. With writing, it is certainly a gestaltist approach – the sum of the writing is greater than the individual parts.

An early draft of what would become ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – note the trial and error of word choices that Owen makes