Saturday, 26 September 2020

I’m defining Gravity and you won’t bring me down

‘Cold’ seems to be ‘in vogue’ in the classroom. Things are getting a bit chilly.  We’ve had cold calling for a while, but now we have cold questions and cold reading. We even have cold classrooms as result of the cold Covid which might be a cold, but we can’t tell. I am even thinking of branding our blended learning as cold blended learning. In fact, for 2020 only  I am adding ‘cold’ to everything associated in teaching. I am planning my cold curriculum and, thankfully, I have already decided on my cold intent whilst thinking about my cold interventions for the cold gaps in the cold students’ cold memory. 

I admit I am terrible when it comes to reading education books. I download them with good and charitable intentions, yet they sit neglected on a shelf next to a thriller or juicy novel. I buy them with great intentions but I am sucker for plot. I am a story addict. For my sins, I downloaded Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ on my Kindle and it sat next to the latest Scandinavian thriller. It slowly got pushed to the back until a student teacher observed a lesson and noted that the lesson modelled Lemov’s techniques well. I smiled and then distracted the student by pointing out some meaningful graffiti on a chair. 

Cold calling, in the classroom, has had its critics. Possibly from people who associate it with cold calling on telephones. They probably think teachers have a list of students’ names and the teacher speaks to them about timeshare options whilst the teacher stares at the computer screen and follows the same script all the time. Hello, [insert name], are you the homeowner? No, I am a kid!  Well, I hadn’t realised I have been cold calling for quite a bit and I have mainly been using it for teaching vocabulary. Let’s, umm, call it cold vocabulary. 

Currently, I am working through some on the GCSE poems with Year 10 and we are exploring each poem over a few lessons. This week we looked at ‘Bayonet Charge’ by Ted Hughes. Here are some of the questions asked of the class. They don’t all relate to lugged, but to simplify things here I have linked to that one word. They are not every question I ask directly, because I ask probably a billion questions over the week. 

[1] What does the word ‘lugged’ mean? 

[2] Is it a positive or negative word? Then – why? 

[3] Where have you seen that word before? 

[4] Can you give me a different word for ‘lugged’? 

[5] What would I mean if I said ‘Tom had lugged his bag from lesson to lesson’? 

[6] What other words does the word sound like? 

[7] Is this a word we’d normally use in this situation? 

[8] Give me a sentence with the word in it. 

[9] What does the prefix ‘anti-‘ mean? 

I find that there is a team identity in the classroom and cold calling actually fosters that team spirit. Collectively we are working to a common goal. Each student has a collective responsibility to understanding the text. Each student has a duty. That’s quite empowering for me as a teacher as you value the contribution of all students and not solely the confident-fluent-and-well-articulated-hand-up-all-the-time-students. 

I use the classroom as a metaphorical dictionary and thesaurus. I used to prepare for lessons by strategically analysing a text for the difficult words or complex vocabulary. I’d produce endless glossaries and the promoted, indirectly, the inability to cope with unfamiliar words. I was reducing the cognitive process to a simple and select find process. As a teacher, I have to model what the reading process is and be explicit about what it is. And, I will stop and ask myself questions about words in the reading process. Yes, I might be a bit of cheat and I’ll skip over a word, but most of the time I will check the filing cabinets in my brain. We’ve largely neglected the thought processes involved in understanding words. We’ve often simplified it to the extent of glossing over the meaning of words. We don’t give that important space to talk about words. Ironic, when we expect students to talk about words for the responses in exams. We don’t need to talk about, Kevin. Instead we need Kevin to talk about words. 

I use cold calling especially with vocabulary to develop the use and understanding of vocabulary. Students in my class will expect me to ask them for a definition of word. I do it all the time. Some times it is for a relatively simple word like ‘dazzled’ so that students can be clear about the image the poet is creating in a particular line. Or, I do it for vocabulary that I feel will be a stumbling block. For new, vocabulary I might try a different thought path and not necessarily go down to the definition route. 

Me: The writer has used the word clod here. Is it a positive or negative word? 

Student: Negative. 

Me: What makes it sound negative?  

Student: Makes me think of clump and plod. 

Me: If I said, ‘the man was digging until found a clod of earth that couldn’t be broken down’, what do you think clod means?   

Of course, it takes confidence and knowledge of the students to orchestrate the classroom dictionary. I know the students to go to if I get stuck with pushing for an explanation. I know the students who need reassurance and support and I will do that with my questioning. ‘Is it a positive or a negative word?’ really helps with that. Plus, there’s always me, if necessary and there’s the dictionary if I am desperate. But, I have team approach to exploring and understanding  vocabulary. Call us the A-Team! I find students rise to the challenge when making a classroom a dictionary. Students with niche knowledge will volunteer without a request when definition links to Harry Potter, military history or Dungeons and Dragons. 

I am jealous of Mathematics because they have their timetables. Their equivalent of push-ups in PE. I think word definitions is just that. The short activity that needs repetition and constant use to help the whole. Defining words is what we don’t do enough of. Defining the easy words. Defining the difficult words. Defining the unfamiliar words. Defining the familiar words. Those words are units of meaning. We are usually defying definitions and defining. 

What essay wouldn’t be improved if a student defined a word? What quotation wouldn’t be improved if a student defined a word? In fact, in all the support I have seen given to students I haven’t really seen any of it refer to getting students to define words. I’ve seen lots of spurious interpretations. Not enough defining. Students will define what a simile or technique they’ve spotted in a text, yet they will forget to define a key word. 

Bin the worksheet on writing the definitions to words. Bin the worksheets matching up the definitions of words. Bin those glossary sheets. Pick a kid in the class and ask them to define a word. See what you get. A student’s definition of a word give you more than if you give them the definition. It’s more personal. Make your classroom the dictionary. Cold calling vocabulary helps to do that. 

Discuss words. Chat about them. Be that person who talks about words. I fear we are losing sight on vocabulary. Be the class that talks about words. There’s lots of talk about Tier 2 and Tier 3 words. There’s lots of cramming. Let’s just talk about words. I dare you: pick a student and ask them to give you a definition. 

Cold calling vocabulary and it isn’t cold! It certainly not hot. Be away with you! More like cosy. Comfy. Yeah, that’s it. Comfy calling. Comfy calling vocabulary. 

Thanks for reading, 


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