Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I rarely read Anu Garg’s weekly “compendium” of responses to his Word A Day automated mailing. (Sign up at I was put on the mailing list by a poet friend in Oregon. There’s a similar series on Yellowstone Public Radio called “Kristi the Wordsmith,” which has developed into a book. “The magic of words -- that's what A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) is about. We are a community of more than 800,000 linguaphiles in at least 200 countries. You too can sign up to receive the daily newsletter. Come, explore the world of words, share, and delight in the joy of words.”

Sorta like the vocabulary building that used to be at the end of the Reader’s Digest, isn’t it? What could be more American? In the Fifties our teachers encouraged us all to learn them every month. But now evidently this “new word” business has been found subversive by the same people who object to the President of the United States encouraging school kids. “Aren’t the “old words” good enough? Why would anyone need so many words?”

One reader wants our political consciousnesses raised. The five words for the week were for the colors of fall: ecru, sienna, umber et al. This person is in the Southern Hemisphere and feels it is somehow discriminatory to mention fall because where HE is it’s SPRING! He’s like the church member who wants no event to happen unless he can be there.

But the real shocker, nearly laughable, is this one:

From: James Eng (jameseng
Subject: frustration

“Not frustration with you! Rather, frustration with the powers-that-be here at the middle school where I work. For over a year, I've shared my love for A.Word.A.Day with my students and I have had much positive feedback regarding the words, the clever and creative weekly themes, and the downright interesting, thought-provoking word choices. But a single parent has complained and now I find myself in a morass of having to justify what I do in the class, provide documentation that shows there is, indeed, value to what we do in class, to ultimately prove that our attempts to "control" language via ANY vocabulary program will always be imperfect because the evolution of communication is ongoing and, in the end, best experienced rather than caged. Sigh. It seems that there's no incentive to think outside boundaries or to innovate. It appears that people want something simple, quick, and cut and dried. Well, whatever may be, I will continue to anticipate the words with eagerness. I guess I must accept that at times, my views are "antipodal" to those of others.

“Ironically, the parent's complaint is based on the argument that the words are not usable for the kids, that they're not grade appropriate, which I know is something similar that you all at have experience with. Also, that the use of the material is from a website "not approved", by the district, and that it is not entirely in line with the school curriculum. And the entirely laughable notion that the kids may be exposed to "inappropriate material"! I thought that the basis of ANY language arts curriculum is an exploration of language and the interesting patterns that we notice along the way. Is there anyone in this world who is 100% fluent with any language?

“Really, if this is examined closely, this incident is not about vocabulary, or curriculum, or any of the other stated things. Rather, it's about authority and power. It's about people whose self-esteem and confidence level are based solely on how high they can make people jump. Sad . . .


“Having had a one and a half hour meeting with our school's language arts supervisor, a meeting replete with many, many examples of students' work that clearly demonstrates an active interaction with the vocabulary words from, I was told that administration in the building, "will not approve your vocabulary program". I am flabbergasted at such a statement given that administration has no clue as to what my vocabulary program entails, nor have they shown the least bit of interest in finding out in the past 1+ years that I've been running my program. So, I am writing to you for advice. I need to know a really terrific word that is synonymous with, "manufactured", since it seems that the so-called leaders of the school are devoted, lock, stock, and barrel to such an approach. I am stunned that such obtuseness has become so prevalent and in my 17 years as an educator I am speechless regarding the state of middle school education in my neck of the woods.”

Today I noted a negative review of a children’s book meant to encourage those who feel clumsy, out-of-it, and persecuted. The criticism was that the book used the words “dork, nerd, loser” and so on. I guess the critic thought that forbidding the words would get rid of the phenomenon. If you don't name it, it doesn't exist.

When I was teaching junior high the favorite word of the kids was “fuck.” Like the Marines, I guess they thought it made them sound tough. So I would say, “Do not say ‘fuck’ in this classroom.” And they would rejoin, “Well, YOU just did!” And I would say, “How else will you know what word I mean?” And they would say, “You think you’re so smart.” And I would say, “Why else am I the teacher?

It was a stupid and repetitive exchange but it illustrates some of the issues. One is that they never thought about what the word meant. I did. They would say, “Fuck you.” And I would say, “I’ve had better offers.” Silence.

Another is that the resentment came from a power issue. They were firm believers that being offensive and saying forbidden words would show that they were more powerful and knowing than I was and therefore could not control them. (Taken en masse, they were right. Any classroom of kids could drive out a teacher and will probably have support from parents and administrators who have the idea it is only the teachers’ job to control kids -- not theirs.)

“Be dangerous. Use new words.” A bumper sticker?


Lance Michael Foster said...

reminds me of the bumper stickers "Eschew Obfuscation" and "Be Alert; the World Needs More Lerts"

When I was in third grade back in the 60s I liked to read my Mom's Reader's Digests (I am Joe's Bladder) and Condensed Novel editions. I remember reading "The Good Earth" and "David Copperfield." I was therefore bored with "See Jimmy pet the black lamb. Pet, Jimmy, pet. See the black lamb run." They called a conference and told my folks "Lance is not cooperative, but we are going to make a third grade reader out of him."

They should have put the effort into helping me do better in math. I still suck at math. I hated school. It was all about social conformity rather than helping kids be what they were created to be.

I sometimes think they should just bring back the old school Socratic methods of private tutors. Chiron was a hero of mine when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade. Still is.

prairie mary said...

In this world the advantage of a teacher with horse sense is indisputable.

My mother, who was an elementary teacher, used to tell about the kid on a field trip who caught a bug and took it to his teacher for information. He was in the second grade. His teacher told him he couldn't ask about that bug because it was a third grade bug. Anything but show the kid how to look for info on bugs!

Prairie Mary