When I first began teaching ninth grade English I remember thinking about the language I was going to use and whether or not the students would understand the way I normally convey language. And the thought process was all tied up and twisted together with the zone of proximal development I had learned in my education program in school, the process of learning that forces kids to stretch beyond their normal reach but not so far that they get frustrated. It also provides for some scaffolding to help kids reach that level instead of letting them flounder out there. But I think for ease’s sake, too many teachers, nay, too many parents, participate instead in the dumbing down of language.
My mother used language that I didn’t understand all the time when I was growing up, but she also encouraged us to ask questions, and the same was true when reading books. One of the biggest issues most kids have when it comes to tackling large words when reading is that they want everything given to them. As a parent it’s hard to watch your children struggle with doing anything, much less trying to tackle words that are a bit too big for them, but one of the worse things you can do is to make it too easy for them. They won’t learn the glory of perseverance and the satisfaction of achievement, and they will take too much for granted. My mother believed in that philosophy, making sure she never gave me or my sister those words, providing us with support with letter sounds and blends, but never handing it over pre-packaged. And I appreciate her for that.
But when I got into my own classroom I worried that I wouldn’t have time to do something similar with my students. There is only so much time in each class period to truly delve deep and allow the students time, space, and guidance to get there on their own, so I did the unthinkable. I dumbed it down. And I hated myself for it, but it helped things go faster, I must agree. After all, I was meeting them where they were so things had a flow to them. But they weren’t learning anything new, and a student actually called me out on it one day after class. She came up to me and asked me why I didn’t take those opportunities to help the kids learn for themselves, and instead of telling her that I was the teacher and not to question me, I realized that’s what I wanted. I wanted those questioning minds, those minds that wanted to learn something new, not to gloss over things.
From then on I decided I wouldn’t ever pass over a word again without allowing the students to figure out its pronunciation, its definition, and its usage. So I grabbed dictionaries and put them throughout the classroom, telling students I would give them bonus points for defining in their own words a word they hadn’t known previously, to stop class in order to do this. And wouldn’t you know it, things slowed down, but by making it a contest it stirred interest that hadn’t been there previously in the classroom. It brought us all closer together as a unit, and it made me realize that time spent in contemplation and reflection on language was time well spent.
And it still is.