Words can be significant and or meaningless

Bird Droppings December 15-16, 2010
Words can be significant and or meaningless

We seldom when we open our mouths to speak really think about what it is we are going to say it sort of just spills out. Occasionally we wonder I wish I could have held on to that word or used a different word. Others often do not hear the word the way it is intended or perceive the thought in a similar vein that we were thinking. Working in public school we face daily kids who have limited vocabulary which much of is learned at home. Standing in front of a group of kids offering an answer only to find you need to explain the answer can be difficult. I was going over a test in literature with some students and most did not know words that were answers to question. How do you answer a question about the meaning of a word if you do not know the words in the answers? Over the years I get responses from folks who read my Droppings and one is a good friend from Texas Dr. James Sutton, a leading speaker on Psychological disorders with children.

“Your “droppings” got me to thinking this morning. To me, existential means the basis for existence, which involves many things, I suppose, and it does have implication into the education process. (For instance, I describe a certain kind of behavior in young people as “desperate behavior.” It’s existential because I believe some youngsters feel they HAVE to do what they do, or something terrible will happen … like they’ll evaporate or something … i.e. cease to exist.)

I got into some conflict in a university faculty lecture talking about this stuff once because one professor jumped on the word “existential” and tried to take it all in a whole philosophical direction. I guess the point is that the words we use are important sometimes … especially if they can be misinterpreted.

Experiential (to me) means to witness for oneself with the senses, and to be able to draw conclusions based on the experience, such as what Montessori taught a century and a half ago. (Isn’t it always interesting, Frank, how we think we come up with so many new ideas, only to find out that good teachers like yourself were doing these things hundreds of years ago?)” Dr. James Sutton, Child and Adolescent Psychologist

On a simple basis two words perceived totally differently yet intertwined for some and radically different for others. As I read and ponder about education and life in general I find how we receive a word from another person often may have been not exactly as they intended. As we move through the scope of human kind in advertising and politics which are very similar, words are being molded and placed in positions and times when they can most impact a certain population. Pondering as I do I can not but help think about my little grand daughter and words she may hear as she grows up. For it is in words that she will learn to read and write at some point in her life. It is in words that she will describe her feelings to her mother and father as she gets older.

“These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward.” Albert Einstein

Over the years I have found Einstein’s wit and wisdom very interesting and powerful. As I read this I started thinking here is a man who was thinking of things that had not been named yet. No words were attached to the thought as he pondered… which in many ways provides freedom. In a spiritual light American Indians would call what they could not describe as the great mystery while n other parts of the world a definition soon was attach to any conception of a God that might come down the pike. Soon thousands of God and Goddesses wandered about each with a new name and title and definition. Why is it we so eagerly need a definition and a name for whatever we come in contact with? Perhaps this great thinker is a good example he chooses to wait till later to attach words and sort of wallow in the beauty of the idea first.

“How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” Black Hawk, Sauk

“Words alone cannot fully convey the realities of the soul or the greatness of the human spirit.” William Shirley

In today’s headlines the word entitlement can convey a negative meaning and yet as I read the paper a group of high school activists in Georgia in response to some Georgia legislators implying that the Georgia HOPE scholarship is not an entitlement as the State looks at reducing the amount awarded to students.

“If it’s not an entitlement, stop advertising it like it is. We are beaten to death in high school that HOPE is there and that we need to do is maintain a 3.0 and our tuition is covered. We should feel entitled to this because a promise was made.” Hira Mahmood, Georgia Students for Public Higher Education

In my own high school we have scholarship contests. Each advisement is encouraged to have students apply for and try and receive as much in scholarship including HOPE as they can. Students are pushed to maintain that 3.0 grade point average because they will receive HOPE. Across our state students in high school and in college are concerned as legislators make suggestions for this program. It is such a simple word, entitlement, but for some a bad word and others it has significant meaning.

“Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. We are Indians and we have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our way of giving is our bank.” Chief Maquinna, Nootka

For several years I wanted to find a copy of a book, To Walk the Red Road, Memories of the Red Lake Ojibwa People produced by the high schools students at the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota. It is not a fancy book but one of few words and many photos. The photos are all black and white and many over a hundred years old. In 1989 Dr. Kent Nerburn was the project director and with the students in his classes accumulated and found the historical information that became this book. It was a combination of providing a vehicle to instill pride in their history and to give some relevance to their literature and language classes. In 1965 Elliot Wigginton used a similar approach developing with his students what would become the Foxfire magazine and books. I am saddened when a student has a difficult time conveying what they feel due to a lack of vocabulary or an inability to put it into words. Listening to students it is that sixteen hours away from school where most of their understanding and language comes from. How can we as teachers promote improving vocabulary at home?
It is our language that drives us and our society. It is the words we choose to use that indicate to others feelings ideas thoughts and dreams. Trying to provide each minute a means of conveying understanding and new words to students occasionally feels frustrating as the stumble and slip and fall over context and content. We finished up our End of Course Tests for this semester and our schools over all grades look good. In the midst of higher averages than previously are still those kids slipping through the cracks. I will admit the cracks are getting smaller but it is still sad to watch a child flounder in his own language and words. Well today I get to announce the acquisition of a new room pet or two. My son found two axolotls for me and while pink and almost transparent they are pretty cool. This amphibian is one that maintains its larval stage for its entire life. It never leaves the water. So I end today with a vocabulary word for all those Scrabble fans that need to use an x for a good score. So for today teach someone a new word of meaning and please keep all in harms way on your mind and in your hearts.


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