Friday, March 4, 2011

Eschewing Obfuscation in Academia via Kinesthetic Jargon-Elimination...

or "Learning Vocabulary"

Sometimes when I’m writing lesson plans, I have an epiphany, and I realize that my kids’ attention spans are no longer or deeper than my own. If I have not managed to retain the definitions of stomata, xylem, and chloroplasts from our reading…they probably haven’t, either. And if a review of the terms simply makes my eyes glaze over…then I know that their “study skills” leave something to be desired, too.

Science vocabulary in particular has always eluded me: it seems an obnoxious way to weed people out who might very well understand concepts but get tongue-tied when it comes to names. I’m the same way with meeting people at church, reducing them to layman’s terms: “Talking Man” and “Meat Sandwich.” (The latter was the unfortunate result of a lady trying in vain to help people remember her name: she’s the wife of a guy named Pat, and in Sunday School, she’d sit next to a girl named Pat. She said she was the middle of a “Pat Sandwich.” She also said her name, but I forget that part. I do know it wasn’t Pat.)

Looking again at the mysterious vocabulary, I began to work to make the mental pictures that allow me to remember faces, if not names. I pretended to care, and the result was the following lesson plan:

Vocabulary: phloem, xylem, leaf, root.
Method: Put on a play.
Name tags are passed out to the audience, including “Flower,” “Bud,” and  “Stem.”
Play opens with Mrs. Root sitting in a blue laundry basket. Leaf is cooking in the kitchen, wearing an apron that says, “LEAF the cooking to the cook!”  Phloem and Xylem are dressed as waiters.
Leaf: “Soup’s on!”
Phloem takes his tray to the kitchen and loads it up with food.  Then he carries it out to serve to the audience.  (This could be play food or snacks.)  He also takes a plate to Mrs. Root.
Xylem takes his tray to Mrs. Root, where he fills it with cups of water.  He serves those to the audience members.  He also takes a cup to Leaf.
The End.
My oldest enjoyed practicing the play so much that he wrote an extended version of the script.  It was simple enough that my two-year-old and three-year-old played the extra parts.  We performed it for our homeschool open house, passing out cookies and punch to Granny (“Flower”), Grand Dad (“Bud”), and Aunt Pat (“Blossom”).
Now it’s easy for all of us to remember that Phloem and Xylem are the “waiters” of the plant.  Which is which?  PHloem serves the Food.  (It alliterates.)
My husband was a Biology major for a semester in college.  There was only the one class before he switched to World History, but from that experience, his conclusion is that learning the vocabulary is half the battle.  In other words, it’s worth some creative effort to help your kids learn the obnoxious terminology—the jargon—of academic fields.
An added benefit?  As the vocabulary becomes more manageable and familiar, the concepts become less foreign, too.  Before you know it, you’ve learned a lot more than vocabulary.  (And your kids have, too!)

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