Contradictory Dialect, Golf Karts, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam are joined by special guest, Dr. Mario Trono, to discuss 'WOW' word of the week. Is there a place for it in the classroom? Are these words easily forgotten? Plus, Emily suggests a regular activity that would likely have more impact.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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Welcome back everyone. We're here today with Mario Trono. Mario, come on, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? Why are you here?
Why are any of us here, Andy? I am a professor of English and Film Studies, but somebody who's absolutely fascinated to the point of distraction by other subjects that I don't know much about, so I can barely focus on my own work sometimes. Because I want to go, "What are they doing in physics these days? What's what's going on with educational psychology. What are they doing with this?" I'm very paripatetic that way. So that's how I've ended up in your world today I think.
So look, today, we're talking about... well, I don't even know what it is, but I get a sense that it might be a little controversial. We're talking about the "WOW" word of the week. Emily, what is this all about?
So I feel that I'm going to definitely upset people today, but I'm hoping that there might be some people who agree and are ready for change. But as you know, I'm very passionate about words and I thought this was a good topic as did you with Mario here because of his interest in words and literature. Now, when I go into many schools in the research that I do, many schools have "WOW" word of the week. And it seems to have crept in and is quite popular. And the idea, it does change from school to school, the idea is to encourage children's vocabulary, which as you know, I'm all for, it's a wonderful thing. However, I find that the "WOW" word can become a little bit abstract and meaningless at times because the idea is the children are getting rewarded for how many times they use the "WOW" word of the week.
And there might be more than one "WOW" word of the week. It might be in classes, it could be an assembly. I've seen them hanging from ceilings, I've seen them in various locations. And the idea is that it's to get kids to use this "WOW" word of the week. Now here is my issue, I think it's great to encourage words, but out of context, I wonder how useful that can be. And also it's all about collecting rewards for using this "WOW" word. And one wonders what happens when the week is over. If the children ever remember the "WOW" word of the week or if they do, how to use it and it's meaning. So I would like to open the floor today and discuss whether we think there is a place for "WOW" word of the week or whether, in fact, people would like to join my mission and kill "WOW" word of the week. So Adam, as a teacher, I would like to know, are you for, against, or do you just not even care, or even know what I'm talking about, Adam, with "WOW" word of the week.
No, I know what you're talking about. Of course. And I've seen similar things where there's a particular focus on something. The issue, of course, with all of these things is they drop like hot stones the following week. So that word, "Ah, man, the grammar test, this word is just something special. This is brilliant." Well, at least it is until three o'clock on Friday. Then come nine o'clock on Monday that word is utterly irrelevant. Now, I'm being slightly facetious, but I think it's the same. We've talked about stuff like this before, learn your times tables. You don't have to remember them forever. We get told that continually you don't have to remember them forever because the reward comes on Friday afternoon after you've done the test. Monday morning, new set of times tables.
Those last ones, no, we've had a chance, the reward there. So I just think anything where we put such a massive like this emphasis on something so huge and then whip that out from under the poor little word's feet. What sort of message are we saying? What are we going to do? Equality for the week? "Let's look at equality for the week." We don't care about equality anymore. No, this week we're doing something else. We're onto inclusion. "Well, you can't..." I don't know. Mario, help me out.
No, I'm hearing you. It gives people the impression that if you just amass enough words, you're going to be intelligent. If you know a billion different types of facts and you're able to kill it on jeopardy, but, of course, what are you going to mobilise that in? But more importantly, you better be learning more than 52 words a year. 52 isn't very many. I think we learned more than that, but it was something Emily said earlier on. It's too strange a situation where you say, "Okay, now the word of the weak", it gives this sense of a big segment, and then the teacher goes, "Sibilance." And everybody stops and says, "What the heck?" And sometimes the words are a little more complicated because that's the idea you're trying to up the bar in vocabulary.
So, you've got this estranging word, that's come at you in no real world context that matters. Other than somebody saying, "Okay, it's word of the week time. I like the idea of a weekly segment. I like the idea of regularity. People like that." That's why you see it in mass media so much. Regularly repeating segments. People do like that. They're sure by it, they're like, "Oh, what's going to happen with it this time, but it's got to be something more interesting.It should be called 'word misunderstanding of the week.'" And some famous example, how people got a word wrong and then got divorced or the CI operation failed or something like that. Just to give it a little more oomph, because context is everything. And get this, I'll show you what context is everything. When you emailed me to tell me that one of the topics for discussion today was kill "WOW" word of the week.
I thought you meant "kill" was the word of the week and we were going to talk about it. Because I didn't have context for, what the heck, there was no context. So you can imagine what the confusions are going to be with students when you go, "Word of the week, 'sibilance'." So I went and did research and found out that, this is interesting, by the way, in north Virginia, you can use "kill" to express sympathy, the word. So somebody says, "My brother passed away." "Oh, kill." That actually makes sense in Northern Virginia. I don't know why, maybe because America's so violent. I'm not sure. But anyways, I wasn't going to waste that little tidbit simply as you didn't give me any context for word of the week.
That has just blown up my mind.
Context is everything
Can I just say, coming back into the regularity and weekly, the best way, and I'm not a primary school teacher, but I have worked with hundreds of teachers and all sorts of children, just read quality children's literature. Keep 15 minutes story time, half an hour if you can. Really good literature. Read to the children. I tell you their vocabulary and their words, it won't just be one "WOW" word of the week, it'll be multiple "WOW" word of the week. And they'll understand context and they'll have comprehended it and they'll remember it because it will have been something that they can take away with them and they will have had some emotion potentially. That's the way that for me, if you're going to do something regular, bring back regular story time where it's not about just read to them for fun. Not because you've got to find how many... can you give me an example of 'simile' or can you give me an example... but just read to them. And that would be more powerful. I do feel that would be a very powerful thing. So that would be my mission, but maybe alone on this one.
The other thing to say about "WOW" word of the week. So here we go. Coming back to your "kill" thing is the significance of the word. Just because a word is long, I was thinking about, there are so many different poets and writers and they might use words sparingly. They might choose just to say "big" instead of "enormous" for a very good reason. So if you do "WOW" word of the week out of context, you are suggesting that this particular word has a greater significance than another. But without context and purpose, it just starts winding me up.
I hear you. I teach an Sylvia Plath poem, and she uses the word "ponderous" in it to mean "big". And it's a rare, a lesser well known sense of the word "ponderous", just to simply mean large in some sense like "big" as in big and importance.
Do you remember the verse or the...?
Oh, it's a fascinating poem. It's called Metaphors. And so it's very cool because she's talking about a woman being pregnant and so is the poems called Metaphors. And when you look at the poem very carefully, there's nine letters in the word "metaphors." There's nine lines in the poem and nine syllables a line. So there's the nine month gestation period peeking out at you everywhere. And she says, "I'm a means a stage, a cow and calf. I've eaten a bag of green apples. I'm an elephant, I'm a melon strolling on two tendrils." So just all these little riddles of what I might be. It's a great poem. But at one point she says a "ponderous house." And my students just run into a wall on that one. And I always think, "Gee, I wish she hadn't used that word. It's too abstract in the way that Emily was saying.
The other ones were so good. "I've eaten a bag of green apples." And who more figures out the poem most quickly? Boys in the back of the class who you often aren't killing it in language arts courses, because they go... They make a big full sound and they stick their gut out. And one of them inevitably goes "pregnant", because they know Sylvia Plath's a woman, and they put two and two together. And it's one of the rare instances where the girls at the front of the room, their head swivel around and go, "What's with the boys killing it in language arts at the back of the class, all of a sudden." But anyways, the word "ponderous" just kills it. I so hear you on that, Emily, to pick a simple word.
The word that resonates in my mind right now while you guys are talking is "fluency." Just to focus on--
Why is that?
So while you guys are talking, because I rarely think about what you guys are talking about to any great depth except when somebody calls me on it. Yesterday, when Anne said to me, "That's not a word." And I said, "Yes it is." And then I had to look it up. And then we got into a heated debate about whether or not it was... what was the word... conformance. She said conformance is not a word. I thought, for sure, conformance is a word. This is nonsense Anne and I argued about.
Who won the argument, Andy?
Anne always wins. Even if it's in a dictionary, she still wins. Because she's just better than I am in general.
I pay money to hear you two have one of those dinner table arguments on a podcast. One day, please do it.
Okay. So back to fluency. Why am I saying fluency? Because look, fluency. When we talk about language and we talk about vocabulary, often the thing that we're aiming for is fluency. We want people to be fluent with the language. So what does that actually mean? What does it mean to be fluent? Does it mean that you know a lot of words? Or does it mean that you know a lot of rules about grammar? Or is it something else? You see to me fluency means that you've got an inkling about when to use what word to convey the right message. That's what it means to be fluent. You know, in this context, I can say "kill." That's being fluent. So is that what we're aiming to do? And if so is word of the week helping? I don't know. That's the big question for me.
Adam, you seem very thoughtful. It's like you're not even fluent in what we're talking about.
I'll tell you why because what you guys have done in trying to say kill word of the week and then really slightly, and certainly what you guys have done have changed my mind on kill word of the week. I'll tell you why, because everything that you've talked about that we can look at and use in a single word is rich. What you've described. The issue isn't kill word of the week. It's not word of the week. It's how it's used. If it's just a, "here it is use it. We are going for mass frequency. Get it out there as much as you can. I don't care if the context is right, wrong, or somewhere in the middle, you just get..." and it's frequency, boom. There's your reward. All right, let's go to the next one next time because we've ticked the boxes. I've seen the use has increased. That's gone through the roof, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So what we're talking about is the quality of how it's used. What you guys have said, West Virginia, where did that come from? It wasn't West Virginia?
Northern Virginia. You're thinking of the song, "Take Me Home..."
Sorry, I don't want to cast West Virginia in the same light that might have something to say about it. But I think the bottom line is, is that sort of stuff peaks my interest. Because if I heard that on "WOW" word of the week, I would be like, "What other complete sort of contradictions? What, kill is care? Really? What other words are like that? Can I look up murder? What am I going to find about murder? Oh, murder of crows? Where did that come from? Wow, this is mad. Take me down this path." But this now is getting me passionate about words. Word of the week is now getting me passionate about words.
Word of the week has such a nice sound to it. Word of the week. You know what you're getting, but we need something more exactly what you were saying. But it can't be word context that we're doing every Monday. You will have to keep working on this, maybe listeners have ideas.
What if we flipped it? So it's words of the week. We've still got all iteration. It's plural. And we let the kids and the teacher, when they come across stuff like this, they can actually collect it. And it becomes a meaningful thing as opposed to... so when you have that, there is a context, but people get excited like your own school, dictionary or... I don't know. But it feels like it shouldn't be, "Somebody decides Monday, the 1st of September. Today, we are going to do..." And then come up with something. I don't know. The ones that get me at things like Beatrix Potter, soporific. The rabbits ate too many lettuces. The effect was soporific, I can't remember the exact line. But I remember as a kid, that's exciting. "What? Soporific? That's awesome."
And I know on previous podcast, we've talked about my favourite word, "rumpus," let the wild rumpus start. Rather than there being, I'm thinking now a medical like a doctor's done a prescription, "Here is your wow word of the week. Please use it wisely. You can have it once." And it shouldn't be like that. It should be an excitable collection. So Adam, you've got me all fired up. Now maybe it's not kill word of the week. Maybe it's changing its purpose. And as Mario said, its context and let's get the kids to make choices.
What's the point. If I just want children to memorise a word, what's the point? How utterly pointless other than your name, that's probably a good one to memorise. You need to memorise that. You need to have that. And I suppose that's at the heart of it for me is that if we are not sophisticated enough to think, how is this going to enrich a child's life? I used to sit with my grandmother, most lovely memories I ever had. In the back of a New Zealand newspaper, it must have been weekly, there was a collection of letters. And my granny had made these out of little bits of paper. And you'd have to see how many words you could make.
How many words you could make using this particular combination of letters. And I'd sit for hours with her shuffling these letters around. And then there was like the star word. The one that used all the letters, oh my God. "Are we going to get close to the star word, granny?" And because I was very fortunate, I was with people who were utterly passionate about words. If we did get it, it didn't just stop with, "Oh, we've got it." It would then be, "Let's look it up in the dictionary. Let's look it up in the thesaurus. Let's think about this word. Let's do it." The importance of words for me were drummed in from such a young age. So I think that what's the point, I think that's probably what it comes back to.
And I know what we don't want it to be. I know what point we don't want. And that's to accidentally turn people into pompous prigs, who are running around using big words to impress people, because we know what a nightmare that is. And it's happened to me by accident sometimes because I like words so much. I get very excited about that when somebody uses one, I'm like, "Oh, that's soporific, but nice." But I, but I took my young son golfing once and the golf cart broke down on. And the person who works on the carts drove out to give us a hand and he had flipped the cart over and he was working on it and he was struggling. And I could tell, he wanted to swear. He was really mad at the mechanism. And so I thought I should just suggest that we get another cart and he can do this some other time.
He doesn't have to rush for us. And I said, "Listen, I'm sensing your consternation building here, right now. Do you want us just to get..." And he wield on me with these fierce eyes. And he said, "Yeah, consternation, that's just the right word. Isn't it?" He was angry at me. He felt that I just had tossed a word out to be fancy. And I thought to myself, "Oh, gee, I have to be careful about that. People were very hostile when words got flung around and you don't know what they mean." So I thought, "Gee, I hope I'm not turning my son... Well, no, that's good." I said to my son, "I used the wrong word for the conversation here." That was alienating, instead of communicative. My son didn't care. He was on his phone, but I still tried to teach him, but that's the point.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.