Heels-over-teakettle, and Other Festivities

Today I’m thankful for all my fellow word-lovers, past and present.

I’m thankful for my grandmother, who chatted with everyone she met, and picked up other people’s conversational expressions the way a dog picks up burrs. She kept and passed on treats like enough blue sky for a Dutchman’s britches and one pickle short of a quart. Listening to my mother and my grandmother talk together–with a what in thunder is he celebrating? here, and a heels-over-teakettle there–marked me for life, in the best possible way.

Once again, I’m thankful for George Batchelder, brilliant junior high English teacher, the one who gave us whole class periods for the Times crossword puzzle. He also asked us to list, on a page in our notebooks, plausible but nonexistent words: words with English prefixes and suffixes and blends, that were nonetheless fake, of our own manufacture: beautaceous, recrunk, preventicate, loombipuddle.

I’m thankful for a host of word-crazy students, including Andrew Cozzens, who often leaned over at dismissal to confide his word of the day. Even after he had left my school, he wrote emails telling me wonderful words he had recently discovered, such as loquacious.

I’m grateful for the poets of Every Other Thursday, whose recent poems have included the words moonbeamedcantedphlegmatic, and loris, and the phrase crammed and nuzzling.

I’m everlastingly thankful for Alex Brown, and his children (who are also my children), and for our tendency, when together, to lapse into the synonym game without warning. Why stop with playful, when you can keep right on with lively, exuberanthigh-spirited, festive and frolicsome?

That leads me (inexorably, but also gleefully) to word games. Today I offer just a few, in honor of long car trips to and fro, and in tenderness toward family relationships more amenable to word games than to talk about affairs either local or international.

Warning: there may be a sequel, down the road. In my family, word games were not scarce as hen’s teeth; we were two-thirds wealthy with them. (What?) And then I went on to invent some.

First, my grandmother’s (and mother’s) special rules for Scrabble.

  • You may let a word edge over the boundary of the playing grid, by just one letter, any time you need to, in order to play a particularly satisfying word.
  • If you have the right letter to replace a blank, you may do so, and take possession of the blank, at any time; this doesn’t count as a turn. (My cousin’s wife Terry, during one particularly hilarious game, replaced a blank with a blank, but I can’t remember why, only the way we were reduced to mirthful tears.)
  • At the end of the game, everyone collaborates in an effort to place every last orphan letter on the board, in genuine legal words.

My mother, at 86, still won’t play Scrabble scored, because she wins so reliably that her opponents become discouraged (down-at-the-mouth, or even mad as a wet hen.) Once in a while, we’ll calculate the point value of a word just because it’s so delicious.

All my successive families have played the geography game in the car. My class used to play it when lining up for gym or dismissal.

  • The first player names a place: a town, a country, a street, a river, a mountain–anything that could be on an ordinary map. Let’s say Merrimack River.
  • The second player ignores parts of the name like River, focuses on the last letter, and comes up with a place name that begins with that letter. Given a K, the average person will say Kansas, but you can be playful–that’s the point, right?–and say Kalamazoo. I always try to, unless someone else has used it already in that game.
  • Small children may name a place somebody else has already used, if they need to, and anyone may have help with the spelling of tricky place names with ph making the f sound, like Phoenix, or endings that sound like ee but are actually spelled with a y. Etc. Our language, including our geographic language, is full of these opportunities, but adults should go easy on the pedanticism. (No, you won’t find it. It’s in the category of plausible but manufactured.)
  • You’ll want a good supply of place names that start with y, such as Ypsilanti.
  • Do not be alarmed if your game drifts into the dreaded A-swamp: America / Australia / Andalusia / Africa…  My class once made it through the entire line (becoming slightly late for dismissal in the process) using place names that begin and end with A. Like many hardships, the A-swamp arose there in our geography to test your indomitable spirit.
  • In the days of smart phones, it’s easy to resolve arguments about spelling. In my family of origin, I was definitely not the final authority, having the spelling memory of a flea, or maybe a rock.

Speaking of spell-checkers, you can play a solitaire word game by typing in the names of your friends and seeing what the spell-checker makes of them. Or follow the eight-year-old Colby Brown’s example: randomly type a paragraph entirely in gibberish; then let the spell-checker do its best; then write an actual paragraph around whatever words the spell-checker has found.

Last, for now, here’s a game that requires either a dictionary or, if there are no dictionaries available, a referee. It’s called the Syllable Game, and this one I invented.

  • We played this game many times beginning with the word Touchstone, the name of our school. Compound words generally work well, but the rules just require words of at least two syllables to start, and for every turn. In fact, you’re better off beginning with a word of three or four syllables. In class, this was often a word central to our current study. So, for example, transportation, or, for the purposes of the game, trans / por / ta / tion.
  • The second player comes up with a word that preserves one of the syllables of the first word. This is where you need the dictionary, to check the official syllabication of the word, which will often contradict your first impression. (On the other hand, there is nothing like a car full of people carefully enunciating the word metamorphosis to judge its syllabication. Just designate a syllabication referee as well as a driver, and you’ll be fine.)
  • In class, students were absolutely required to use a dictionary, which gave them great practice, exposed them to related words, and could lead to all sorts of pleasant detours.
  • The pronunciation doesn’t have to be preserved, but the spelling has to be preserved exactly. So trans / late or por / tion or im / por / tant could all work as second turns, but port / man / teau or tran / scribe could not, because the por has been changed to port, and the trans has been changed to tran.
  • Let’s say that the second player decides on trans / at / lan / tic. In a two-player game, the first player now jumps forward from that word, with all sorts of lovely possibilities: lan / guage or fan / tas / tic or at / ten / tion. Etc.
  • The syllable you’re preserving can show up anywhere in the new word, jumping from second syllable to first, or third to first–so long as it’s the exact same syllable spelled the same way.

Assigning this as homework, I asked students to play with a parent or older sibling, and to record the whole ladder of turns, showing syllable breaks. Parents notoriously resisted using a dictionary, but came up with wonderful words.

syllable gameFinally, for whole class play, to help the game move faster, I invented a variation called The Syllable Web Game, which we played on the spare white board at the front of the room. Any syllable on the board was available to  any player, even if it had already been re-used. (In the illustration, you can see how the ce from cement was reused in celesta, and then in celestial and cerulean and something I can’t read in the photograph.)

Usually we played this game during morning sketching time; sometimes also writing time and silent reading time. Players showed the syllabication and initialed their words, and then explained their meanings in the class debrief.

So now I bow, gratefully, to all the sources and innovators and playful practitioners of the language we share. It’s a very full room, and you’re all in it!

syllable Touchstone

Troubles with Writing

According to family stories, I composed mangled (but apparently highly expressive) Christmas carols, almost as soon as I could talk. I used those little wooden alphabet blocks to build my own typewriter, and then imitated my mom, tap tap tap. I was getting a kick out of writing before I could write.

Year by year, in school, I loved most the teachers who assigned the most writing. Mrs. Duleba, second grade, shared her invaluable confidence that meaning mattered more than spelling. I’m forever grateful to George Batchelder, who thought English class should be fun, and to the State of New York for saying (in 1960) that seventh and eighth grade students should have two periods of English, every day—which gave us room and time to do actual writing, as well as diagramming sentences. Oh, and to the school administrators, for letting Mr. Batchelder be my English teacher for two full years of essays with titles like “When Mother Drives Father’s Car.”

Early attempts at humor aside, all my life I have thought more clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers. In a rough stretch in college, I kept myself going by writing about why I couldn’t write what I was supposed to be writing. Writing has helped me survive many kinds of hard times, and it has been a source of joy, and a vehicle for joy, a way to let joy travel into other lives, or into my own life, later.

When I started teaching, I thought, “Aha, I finally have full right to read all the papers being passed towards the front of the room,” something I got in trouble for when I was younger. Gradually, though, I realized that the hardest thing to teach can be what comes naturally to you. I struggled to understand why writing was so hard for some of my students.

StefanI didn’t take photographs of kids not writing–too mean. Sometimes, though, when I was supposedly writing along with them, I did quick sketches. So this is Stefan (now a thoroughly successful adult) curled into a pretzel to hold himself still for long enough to get a few words onto paper.

Classes and conferences and reading have helped me understand better. I’ve also extrapolated, sideways, from the many other things that challenge me, and I’ve looked carefully at my own bouts with writer’s block. As teachers, we have to value whatever we know in our own learning selves about our students’ challenges. Above all, fortunately, the circumstances of my teaching let me learn from students.

Talking with kids, all kinds of kids, it came clear to me that written language is both commonplace and tricky in human experience.

Books and a long string of PBS documentaries told me that we haven’t been using written language very long, in the evolution of the human tool set. (By tool set, I mean both our physical equipment and coordination, and our cognitive abilities.) We’ve evolved to shout, to sing, to run, to dance. Also to gossip; to complain; to give praise. (So happy, for me, to visualize young adolescents doing all those things!) What comes naturally for us can overflow usefully into writing, can claim writing as tool. Still, we haven’t evolved to write.

Writing is complicated. I once heard Mel Levine make a powerful case for this. (Like many other teachers and parents and kids who learned from Levine, I’m trying to let his wisdom survive his wrongdoing.) Levine listed things a writer has to think about, all at once: ordering sentences; spelling individual words; forming letters; using the tiny, powerful signals of punctuation; structuring paragraphs; choosing between similar words that mean different things, or different words that mean similar things.

Listening to Levine, I thought: well, that makes bowling seem simple. For me, bowling is a nightmare. I stop looking at the pins to think about my feet, and suddenly my hand is no longer holding the ball reliably, and I’m liable to drop it. I’m easily distracted by the conversation of the people bowling in the next lane. (Are they sisters? Friends? Co-workers? What’s this they keep saying about horses?) I haven’t bowled in years, but I remember clearly the sensation of trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube of my own body, to do everything right at once, with all my limbs—especially while other more interesting things were claiming my attention.

I’ve come to understand that for many kids, that’s how it feels to write, either physically or cognitively.

Bearing in mind the evolutionary novelty of it all, and grateful for the supplement of human culture (including technology), I’ve watched some kids discover that they feel fine writing on a keyboard, which removes the difficulty with forming each letter—just a keystroke does it—and makes it so much easier to control spacing and organization on a page. I’ve watched other kids get a crucial power assist from software that translates a voice into written text.

Those bypass strategies for physical challenge don’t necessarily simplify complex cognitive challenges. Writing demands enormous coordination of attention and memory, enormous stamina for making choices and weaving them together. Pre-writing activities can help to some degree. Still, like me eavesdropping on the people in the next lane at the bowling alley, a kid can very easily be distracted by what’s going on in her head, including the other way she considered phrasing whatever she started to say. Kaboom—the two phrasings have a crash collision, and the reader is left to pick over the pieces.

In one of my favorite examples of the ways kids can advocate for each other, an eleven-year-old born writer once said to me, ‟You really can’t ask R. to worry about punctuation yet. He’s trying hard just to keep the beginning of the sentence in mind while he writes the end.”

sad girlThen there’s the endless circus of early puberty, easy to dismiss as generic, but in fact a different journey, with different rewards and different obstacles for each child. There’s also emotional trouble: for example, the kid who is keeping a scary secret so huge she can barely think, let alone write spontaneously or thoughtfully, since both of those require some inner freedom.

Sometimes I watched the struggles of the child who’d been told too many times that he was a good writer, who became, with the self-consciousness of early puberty, his own impossibly hard act to follow.

That brings me back to my own experience: writing helped heal emotional wounds, helped make sense of confusing changes and challenges, helped hold and channel euphoria. Wisely or foolishly, I wanted the powers of writing to be available to every child with whom I worked–wanted that just as intensely as I wanted the magic wand that could remove all their troubles. (Not a good idea, of course.)

I cared a lot about kids, and I had faith in the power of language—and that meant I had a huge incentive to figure out the strategies I’ll write about next time, for how to help kids just get words on the page.