A Gift Well-Given
Words are the building blocks of thought—and stories. Words spoken by a blind poet around the campfires of old celebrated the cunning ways of a rogue named Odysseus. Words written by Hebrew poets on parchment still tell the tale of the origins of our world: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
My students use words every day, not to tell stories, but for far more mundane purposes:
“May I go to the restroom?” “I need to sharpen my pencil.” “What’s my grade?” “Can I go to the nurse?” “Can I get a drink of water?” “Do you have a tissue?”
My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, for words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.
On Monday, I opened one of our test-preparation booklets to an exercise on correct spelling. Because I work with kids who have IEPs, I encouraged them to use a dictionary to check the spelling of each word in the list.
On Tuesday, I selected five words at random from the list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and asked my students to find the definitions. I also asked them to use each word in a sentence. When that task proved too daunting for more than half of them, I made up sentences, wrote them on the board, and asked my students to copy them.
“Get acquainted with these words,” I said, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”
And we did:
Once upon a time there was a falcon named Julian (although sometimes he called himself Joshua). He was a very confused falcon—probably because he lived in an untidy nest.
One day he decided to start an odyssey. The odyssey would take him to a magical land where the phoenixes rise every morning.
The odyssey lasted so long that wrinkles appeared on the falcon’s face. He grew wise, and became the envy of other birds who lacked wisdom.
“I like that!” I exclaimed as we finished our story. “I think I could turn what we’ve written into a book.”
Even if I never expand the story of Julian the Confused Falcon into a book, this little writing exercise engaged every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly shared their ideas orally as I wrote them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students opted for brevity in telling their tale.
Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is that I am giving my students the gift of words so that one day, without my help, they will be able to tell their own tales as their eager children gather ’round to listen.
A gift well-given keeps on giving.