Archive for the ‘Words!’ Category

Take back our power in language

Play with words

It’s about time we take back our power in language. We are not controlled by Mrs. Cox, the ghost of public school past sitting on our left shoulders. We are free. We are at home. Let’s figure out how to make writing a freeing, liberating, sparkly experience, shall we?

You know how we let our kids take apart an old phone or toaster to see how it’s made, to learn how to use a screw driver, and to have the satisfaction of working on a “real” household item? That’s a great thing, isn’t it? Little screws lying on the ground, bits of wire, the metal tray, the coils that heat… It’s amazing to see it in pieces and to marvel at the fact that someone knew how to put these bits of metal and wire together to make a tool that burns our toast! Taking the toaster apart is more effective to teach us about the toaster than studying it in a book or even making toast, right?

Some of us have rooms dedicated to art exploration—a similar freedom to discover. We might keep an easel, paints and brushes available any time, a tray of pastels or colored pencils, and stacks of scratch paper.

Still others of us will collect musical instruments—percussion and piano, recorders and flutes, and two kinds of guitars! Or maybe we’re the kind of family who has a whole slew of balls, frisbees, hockey sticks, hoops, and goals available to practice a favorite sport or to learn a new one.

We know that play and exploration produce learning.

By contrast, we’re reluctant to play with, take apart, explore, and mess with language. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the grammar hangover from school where teachers are more about accuracy than inspiration.

Flip the script.

What if your house had an accuracy-free play-zone for words? What would be in it? How about a variety of writing utensils (gel pens, fountain pens, markers, sidewalk chalk, calligraphy quills, crayons, lipstick)? How about some unique writing surfaces (butcher paper taped in a big sheet to a wall, dry erase board, chalkboard, clipboard, various sizes of lined paper, cards, notecards, postcards, an iPad, a mirror, colored paper)?

How about making a stack of notecards with all the words you like—a whole big mixture of words you collect for a week, one per card?

How about putting individual punctuation marks on notecards (a comma card, a period card, an exclamation point card, a quotation marks card, a question marks card – or several of each!)? Then use your word notecards to make a sentence and lay the punctuation marks where you want them to go. Walk around the room and lay them out on the floor. If you want, you can use big poster boards rather than tiny notecards.

Begin by punctuating it all wrong, first. See what happens when you start a sentence with a period or an exclamation point? What if you put one in the middle of the sentence?

What new uses of these marks can you think of?

Are you getting the idea? Language is not meant to be treated like an antiseptic vaccine. It’s a toy! Play with it! See what happens. Discover how the pieces of language and writing work together to create meaning and joy, communication and inspiration.

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Top Image by Virginia State Parks (cc cropped, tinted, text added)

State Slogans

My daughter (21) and I got into a little chat this morning about state slogans. Oh my gosh, how we laughed! If you’re looking for a great way to foster discussion around word play or if you want to expose your kids to the various cultural associations with each state, be sure to Google the list. Here are our favorite top ten:

10. TexasIt’s Like a Whole Other Country (Sometimes, it seems they wish they were!)

9. California: Find Yourself Here (If there were ever a state where finding yourself rose to the level of imperative, California would be it!)

8. Delaware: It’s Good Being First (If you say so…!)

7. Indiana: Restart Your Engines (Home of the Indy 500)

6. South Dakota: Great Faces. Great Places. (Can you name both?)

5. Illinois: Mile After Magnificent Mile (Look up Chicago’s shopping district to understand this one.)

4. Kansas: There’s No Place Like Home (Used to be “The Land of Ahhs” – can you identify the irony in this one?)

3. West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful (Awesome! I want to live where people are wild and wonderful!)

2. District of Columbia: Taxation without Representation (snort)

and finally, drum roll please…….

1. New Hampshire: Live Free or Die! (I ask you: who enforces that?!)

These slogans give you a great chance to discuss word play, the history of various states, their selling points and how advertising is a vital part of any state’s economic growth (is the state emphasizing travel? business? historical importance? shopping? buying a home and staying put?). Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page: State Slogans.

Enjoy!

Surprise! No one teaches it.

Surprise in Writing

In all the writing literature I have crammed between DVDs on my book cases, the one literary element that gets short shrift is: Surprise. I can’t find it—no chapters devoted to expounding its importance. Exercises for plot, dialog, essay format, poetic structure, yes. Surprise? Well, occasionally it gets a passing mention. But almost always it’s tied to some other element (like, powerful verbs should be surprising, or a thesis statement is best constructed in a “surprise reversal” format). But that’s not what I mean. I mean, writing is absolutely dependent on subverting reader expectations over and over and over again, to be considered powerful.

Surprise means bursting through the door unannounced with cookies and milk, just for the reader, right when energy flags and minds wander. I’m not talking about big plot twists or even hiding information only to reveal it later. I also mean surprising the reader with a fresh metaphor; casting a commonly known term into a new grammatical role; picking unusual proper nouns for characters, street signs, shops; starting the story in the middle of the action; saving your best argument for last in an essay; hooking the reader’s attention at the top of the paper and saving the resolution for the conclusion (hook and return); littering the writing with alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme and consonance… and so on.

The best writing is as dependent on generously ladled portions of surprise throughout its lasagna layers of meaning, imagery, cool logic and vivid language as middle-aged readers are on good lighting and corrective lenses!

What’s more, it can be taught! Part of what makes your young writers’ quirky, poorly spelled and punctuated early attempts at written communication so enjoyable is the way their view of the world surprises your jaded, middle-aged one. You “crack up” when they surprise you.

It’s not hard to be surprising, once you know where to hide before you pop out!

Let’s take a look at this mysterious little element and introduce our kids to it. (Psst! They love surprises, so this may be your own subversive way to get them from the couch to the kitchen table, too!)

The “personal experience metaphor” trick

The hardest thing to do is to create fresh comparisons (metaphors, similes, analogies). Readers are sick of the “tried and true,” “old as the hills,” “dry as toast,” cliches that have served since the Spanish-American war! To wake up your readers, take an old cliche and buy it a new outfit. Draw from contemporary experiences that are alive to your kids.

Example: Her body twisted and flipped like Play-Doh in the hands of my baby brother.

Example: He focused his attention like a gamer trying to find the secret passage on level 6 of Mario.

Example: My Mom is older than an Atari play station.

Example: The early bird may catch the worm, but in my house, the early homeschooler catches up on math left unfinished from the day before.

The “grammatical transformation” trick

When I say, “What part of speech is ‘couch’?”; you think ‘noun’.” Right? How about this: “Don’t couch your words in flattery when you talk to me, mister!” Suddenly this ho-hum noun takes charge of the whole sentence (and the offending party!). If you flip the grammatical use of a few words, on a regular basis, you keep your reader vertical and awake! Not only that, habitual meanings can be subverted by using verbs and nouns in unusual pairings. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.” Do they? Well, yeah, kinda! It makes you pause and reconsider your internal vision.

Example: Drew lego-ed the sticks together into a kind of backyard fort.

Example: The birds pinwheeled through the autumn sky.

Example: The solution became a schmear of peanut-buttering one side of the argument while jellying the other, until the two competing options were slammed together into a single sticky whole.

The “collecting crazy names” trick

Get a moleskin notebook—the kind that fits in a pocket, or a purse. When you’re driving around, pay attention to signs. Jot down interesting names. Look at billboards, freeway exits, stores and hotels. Record terms that will serve as good choices for your writing. Names of people can be gathered from Greek myths, the Norse Gods, fiction you are reading, TV shows, cartoons, comic books, Shakespeare plays, a directory of your homeschooling community. It really doesn’t matter how you gather them, but pay attention and collect when you are not writing. Then when you need one, pull it out!

An expert in the field of surprising name choices is none other than J.K. Rowling. Whatever you think about her books, her use of creative names is unmatched. She tells her readers she’s been keeping a little notebook for more than a decade where she jots interesting names to be used at a later date. When she’d create a new character, she’d flip through her book looking for the right name.

Example: There’s a reason Rowling has “Hermoine” paired with Harry and Ron. Much more interesting than “Mary” might have been.

Example: Shakespeare has great names like “Hero,” “Benedick,” “Ophelia,” and “Iago.”

Example: The Greek myths include epic names: “Persephone,” “Demeter,” “Agamemnon,” “Xanthe” and “Kallisto.”

This hunt for a good name applies not only to people, but to stores, cities, street signs, organizations, tournaments—all fiction depends on a slew of proper nouns carefully selected.

Example: Diagon Alley (play on words: diagonally)

Example: Island of the Blue Dolphins (using a Native American name)

Example: Camp Kooskooskoos (Trumpet of the Swan: funny to say)

So join the game! Make “naming” a joy, not a chore.


Party School!

My Kingdom for an Egg!

Repost from previous year. Thought you’d enjoy a fun way to make egg dying a linguistic game. 🙂

Every year our family dyes eggs together and we use the little clear crayon supplied by Paas to write clever quotations making use of the “egg” motif as creatively as we can.
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Tired of Writing? Make a List!

Writing Lists

Writing wears kids out, have you noticed?

Children may get that burst of linguistic energy working for them (when the inspiration strikes, they’re hard to stop!), but when they’re done, they’re done. Sometimes after a successful writing project, all anyone wants to do is lie about doing nothing.

While taking some time off, or while your kids aren’t quite proficient enough to write lengthy passages of prose, you might try writing lists. Lists can be an incredibly therapeutic way to interact with language. For one thing, there is no shortage of topics for lists.

Here’s a list (ha!) of what you might list:

  • birds
  • roller coasters
  • Lego sets
  • favorite lines of poetry
  • seeds to plant in the garden
  • items to purchase for a bedroom redesign
  • hairstyles to try
  • funny jokes
  • not-so-funny jokes
  • words that rhyme with…
  • famous lines of Shakespeare
  • the original old English vocabulary in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (with translations)
  • items in a junk drawer
  • all the vocabulary needed to sew a quilt
  • favorite TV shows
  • past American Idol contestants and when they were voted off
  • types of tanks used in WWII
  • American Girl trousseau items

As you can see, there is no limit to what can be listed!

Lists allow your kids to continue to work on handwriting, vocabulary development, categorizing, ordering, and information gathering. They also offer a place to house disparate thoughts or ideas or fantasies. It’s nice to keep a list of all the things you’d buy if you had $100.00. Cheaper than spending the dough-re-mi!

Lists can be kept in notebooks, on white boards, on sheets of paper. My daughter kept a list on her bedroom wall (all the friends she had and something funny about them).

Lists often mushroom into sub categories too: birds in my backyard, birds I saw on vacation in Florida, birds I saw at the zoo, birds that live at the beach.

So get out a notepad and start a list.

P.S. I love the little moleskin notebooks that fit inside a purse for listing, jotting down words, keeping my thoughts together so that anywhere I am, I can write them down. Your kids might like that too – a portable list!


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