Friday, March 21, 2014

Why does he want to lick him?

Image credit: Retronaut
Found myself next to an old-timer today. Skinny, grey, gaunt face. He still had a clear, resonant tone to his voice and sat with pointy elbows on the bar, and hunched shoulders over his beer like the wings of vulture.

He caught my attention when he announced aloud to no one specific, "One of the demarcations of old age: I heard Stairway to Heaven today in an elevator."

Not long after, and I have no idea how he got to this point, he said, "They still made snuff when I was a kid. I remember it. You could buy it.  Been years since you could buy it. Bahhh, somebody probably sued."

I'll draw the curtain on that scene. I included it because mentioning snuff helps us date the man.

The vocabulary of seniors catches my ear. Both the charm of a sometimes antiquated word choice, and the clarity of word choice, emerges only from people who lived through many decades.

And people who read.

Armed only with their auditory senses, readers can spot other readers. Vocabulary is certainly one clue. Enunciation is another. And this guy had both--the age of experience and the time put in over great books.

This week, some of my students started The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and some are stumbling through the language, most often asking with complete sincerity, "What does 'licked' mean?" or "Why does he want to lick him?"

In the novel, Tom finds himself in a scrape with another boy:
Tom drew a line in the dust with his big toe, and said: 
"I dare you to step over that, and I'll lick you till you can't stand up. Anybody that'll take a dare will steal sheep."
So many wonderful terms emerge in Twain's text. Of course "steal sheep" from above, but students asked about "clod" and "cuffed" and so many words that it gave me pause between classes. My gosh, there are so many great words in Tom Sawyer (like sagacity, adamantine, skylarking, alacrity, and evanescent (to name a few)) that we will cover but where do I end it?

I despise the idea of stopping and starting a story to write answers to questions or to write definitions to words. I refuse to give my kids a thick study guide so that can answer arbitrary questions. I try to distance myself from any lessons that might drive them to hate an experience which is already challenging.

And, quite honestly, I hope to teach them to love reading and the skills of great readers. What do great readers do when they encounter language or situations that they don't know? Look for context clues? Sure. Open a dictionary? Yes. Talk with others about it, or ask? For sure.

Stop reading at the end of the chapter and write notes and summarize and extract important quotes and start reading again only to stop at the end of the chapter to write notes and summarize...start, stop, start, stop. (No.)

Maybe that works for some, but...

I read someplace, imagine being asked to stop skiing to reflect on it after every five feet downhill.

The answer, of course, is balance. Finding the time to build mini-lessons that frames some of the vocabulary, or the themes, or the setting, or any issue the kids wish to discuss.

It is so important to take care to not drive kids away from reading because it is, hands down, the greatest builder of vocabulary, imagination, writing skills, knowledge, values, sense of self, and reasoning.

As a matter of fact, someday, these kids are going to be the old-timer sitting in a bar next to some (not-so-young anymore) hot shot and they will be talking about hearing Justin Timberlake in an elevator.

And when that happens, I hope they have read enough good books to develop the vocabulary to tell colorful stories that inspire that hot-shot sitting next to him to write about it in his blog.


  1. I like the idea that readers can hear other readers. I am imagining us all with whale sonar right now & it is pretty lovely to picture.
    Anyway. I remember reading Tom Sawyer in school, & being surprised that my classmates didn't understand on their own the meaning of "licked." It was the same when we read Hound of the Baskervilles. It just hadn't yet occurred to me that my weird love of books was making me different from my peers. I didn't identify as a "reader" yet because I wasn't aware that we were different from "non-readers." I didn't realize that we didn't all see a new word, or a word in an unfamiliar place, & find ways to figure out what the word could mean. I didn't realize that people didn't keep reading to try out a possible definition, reread to check or try again, or try to use the word in my own sentence. That wasn't "so much work," as my students groan. It was just reading. It was kind of fun.

    I'm going to listen closely this weekend, see if I can echolocate any fellow readers.

  2. I am, also a lover of words and the way they weave, change, and shift meaning. You are an astute observer of language. It is encouraging how you teach literacy to your students, too.

  3. So, a teacher walks into a bar.... The punch line: He's still thinking about school. Not enough beer! I love the description of the old man and the beer. (Perhaps Hemingway should have written that book.) I struggle with the same things in my HS English Classroom. I love the skiing metaphor. Annotation can be a barrier between a student and a text. I have tried offering choices, but I don't have the answer. Focus on those skills with shorter pieces of writing and let them just read longer fiction for the pleasure and the big picture?