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 special education 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.” “Can I get a drink of water?”
My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, because words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.
I select five words at random from a list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and ask my students to find the definitions, and use each word in a sentence. When that task proves too daunting for more than half of them, I make up sentences, write them on the board, and ask my students to copy them.
“Get acquainted with these words,” I say, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”
And we do:
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 exclaim as we finish 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 engages every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly share their ideas orally as I write them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students tell their tale briefly.
Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is 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.
I search for a new story
in the blackbird’s beak.
My grandson’s battered airplane no longer flies.
My 9-year-old grandson came home from school and said to his mother:
“I got this airplane from the treasure box today. It’s the first time all year that I had enough tickets to get anything. I spent some on lunch with a friend. It’s the first time I got to do that too. So I spent all I had left on this neat airplane that did loops.
“Then at dismissal, a 5th grader grabbed it from me and pretended like he was going to fly it, but he scraped it against the wall and bent the wings, so it doesn’t work anymore. He was a Purple Folder kid, so I know he has anger issues.
“Maybe I can earn some more tickets….”