At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What Does This Mean?

Yes, I know. It's surprising to see me back in the blogosphere.

I've been away for awhile. Sorry for springing that sabbatical on everyone. It wasn't intended. Just needed some cyberspace R&R.

But recently, I've been thinking about a situation in education that seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.

First, a story.

It was during the 2010-11 school year that I entered my 4th period classroom at Westminster Christian Academy. This was before we moved to our new campus, and at the old building you were taking a risk on the room atmosphere being temperate. Hot and cold extremes raged all year long, so I wanted to get in the room and open the windows in case I felt it was a bit toasty. Now this room wasn't mine [I was what they call in pedagogical parlance, a "floater" from one room to another] as Laura Pettay, our sophomore English teacher, had the room as hers. I arrived early enough to catch a conversation she was having with a student. Apparently this student had been disrespectful to Laura during class and she was shaking him down afterwards. Now their conversation was semi-private, but I didn't need good ears, plus I seem to have a gift for acting like I'm ignoring people when I really have an ear on their activity. After calling him out for his insubordination, Laura asked him, "So how are we going to remedy this?"

To which the student said, "I don't know."

That seemed to send Laura well over the edge. "Are you kidding me?" she gasped. "You were that disrespectful in class, you've had time to think things over, and you're going to tell me that you have no clue how to remedy this?"

The student, straight-faced, replied, "No, it's 'remedy'. I don't know what you mean by that word."

Back turned to the proceedings, I promptly grabbed a hand towel near the white board and stuffed it into my mouth to stifle what roaring laughter I was about to emit.

Looking back, that moment has transposed itself in my mind…from hilarious, to tragicomic, to outright sad. I realize now how very different my upbringing was, where I knew the meaning of "remedy" from an early age, likely because there were so many situations that I in my childish silliness had to make right from said screwups. But there were other things that set my upbringing apart as well.

Before coming back to that, another story.

Recently, I gave a test in Ethics class. We just finished the seventh commandment (that is, in the non-Lutheran version), so we were closing things out with an exam on sexual ethics, divorce, pornography, and homosexuality. It was a third of the way through the test that a student approached me with a question about an item in the multiple choice section.

It read, "In the Sermon on the Mount, what reason does Jesus give in permitting divorce?"

The choices were (A) financial ruin   (B) sexual infidelity    (C) lying   (D) murder of the spouse

The student's query was "What does 'infidelity' mean?"

Never mind that we'd defined it over and over. I felt like I was living Laura Pettay's class all over again. I said, "Look at the root word. Think about what it means. Notice the prefix 'in'. Think about what that does to the root word. That should help you."

I'm not sure it did, but those moments are increasing exponentially. Students are asking what "detest" means, for the definition of "genetically", "fragility", and "sacrilege". Granted, the frequency of these moments isn't as wanton or shameful as Miley Cyrus fans who can't even recognize Joe Biden from a photograph. But it's there. And if you don't have a deep, functioning vocabulary, you will severely disable your ability both to communicate and to understand communication.

What to do?

First, get off your digital devices (except for this of you reading this right now on one!). They do no good for communication (text messaging is not a life skill, people) and in fact, they harm cognitive reasoning, attention span, and the desire to know and learn for its own sake. Plus, people who spend so much time on their phones and such have this annoying habit of failing to look people in the eye when in conversation. Quite frankly, that sucks and those types of people should be ashamed of themselves.

Oh my gosh, do you ever need to read. That is the way to build vocabulary skills, not these vocabulary books in which you learn definitions, take a quiz and then forget everything you wrote by lunchtime. When I was younger, my dad read to me and my two younger brothers. Sometimes Dad--who always followed the text with his finger as he read--would say a word that ordinary I didn't know, but he wouldn't stop and define it for me. And I don't think he expected me to ask (although I'm sure I was free to ask if I wished). But by a seemingly implicit agreement, I would listen to what he read and then I'd figure out the meaning of the word in question from the surrounding context. It's an ironclad truth: Reading builds and strengthens vocabulary.

On a curricular note, I'll offer this remedy (pun intended from referencing the anecdote above!): Any move a school makes to resist the offering of Latin or any move a school makes to eliminate Latin from their curriculum is academically suicidal. Knowledge of Latin (and Greek…I'm a big fan of teaching Greek in the middle and high school grades) meets several objectives. One, the wrestling with declensions and forms in the classical languages is of a higher level of reasoning ability than other disciplines. But secondly, the amount of cognates and linguistic transfer from Latin and Greek to our English tongue is quite substantial, so a thorough drenching in the classics can assist students in figuring out textual meanings. (One can also make a case for expanding German in our school curricula, given that English is a significantly Germanic language, but one step at a time).

Ask yourself: If your school is not taking definite, forceful steps toward reading excellence, why not? And if schools are actively implicitly or complictly leaving Latin out of their curricula, one has to question why? Why limit your students? Why offer mediocrity when they can have the chance for an education of distinction and supreme quality.

Words. They are meant to be known. And loved. But we actively need to pursue that.

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