You can't change the world or the personal lives of your students, but maybe you can make them "aware" of language and how language development and acquisition can have a major impact on their lives.
I almost gave up on getting students who come from various socio-economic backgrounds to complete my homework assignments. There are too many factors/variables that are out of my control. I can't change unfortunate family dynamics, poverty, and apathy that some of my students experience when they return home from school. So, I've resigned myself to accept the terms and conditions of the "Serenity Prayer" and chose to focus on what I can really change.
Well, what I can change is AWARENESS. And that's just about it.
ALL year, students say they do the same things every afternoon and weekend. They view the same TV shows, play the same video games, and hang out with the same people. And every Monday they report back to me that they have not learned or "listened" for any new vocabulary words that may have "passed" their way.
I wish for them to be exposed to new vocabulary words that come from new experiences. Yet all of my pep talks, examples, and lectures seemed to be in vain. Not a single student, in any of my classes, could recite or retrieve a new vocabulary word that they heard or learned over the weekend unless it was connected to studying for a content-area test.
ARGH!!! How will my students' reading skills, Lexile scores, and overall success in life be impacted if they always do the same thing, day after day, when I am not with them? How can I get them to become life-long learners and actively connect with learning new words, and understanding the nuances of language if they are unaware of words and terms around them? And this includes ALL aspects of Figurative Language! Then I thought that the missing key in their lives was awareness and that becoming more aware of events, words, and experiences, that typical people encounter just by living can maybe, just maybe, help them to be mindful of words and how words can impact their lives.
Then I thought about things that typical adults do when they seek change in their lives.
1) What do adults do when they desire to lose some weight or get in better shape? They may talk about it, eat less, exercise more, join a gym, read about methods, etc. Maybe they consult a health care professional, a fitness guru, and their family members. Perhaps they write their goals in a journal, on a white board, or maybe just in their heart. But they do something! They change their routine and thinking in some small or big way.
2) What do adults do when they need to save some money for a goal such as buying a house or preparing for retirement? Maybe they create a budget, spend less, work more, invest in stocks, seek a financial counselor, or change spending habits. Whatever it is, they do something!
Okay, what do you do when you desire your students to increase their vocabulary? You may make a concentrated effort in teaching new words, use these words in context when you teach, and then test them on the words. Right? Well, yes, but wrong...a little wrong.
Nothing changes till something changes. As teachers, we can change how we present material in class, but students, along with their parents, must also support these changes as well, if the goal is to increase vocabulary.
So, I decided to make a change and alter my weekend HW assignments, for a month. Completing worksheets, independent reading log entries, studying for quizzes, reading passages and then answering questions about them, etc. went out the window -- for a month. Goodbye. Done. Ta Da! Over! But only for a month because I needed to pilot the experience.
Here's what I Asked My Students (not their parents or tutors) to Do:
Assignment: Over the weekend, record two new words that you learned. Explain:
- How you heard (came across) the words
- What the words mean and
- Use the words in an original sentence
For additional points: share an image/graphic of the word. For example, if the word is "pomegranate” then present a picture of this fruit.
On Monday, the students are asked to share their new words. If they have new words, great! If they don't, then they don't. Bonus points are offered for students who have their words but no points are taken off for students who didn't follow through with the challenge.
Most of my students arrive to class on Monday with MORE than two words that they learned over the weekend. And for the students who didn't bother with the assignment, well, they actually became more motivated to learn new words and share them with the class the following Monday.
We will ALWAYS have students who do not, or claim that they cannot, do HW. I have heard and witnessed a million excuses under the sun for "not" being able to learn something outside of school. But this assignment has brought more HW compliance than any other assignment given in the past. Why? Because they can teach ANY new words that they learn just from living through the basic routines of life. They can share a food from a menu, a term from a video game, a word that they heard their parents using, a word from the news, or a "slang"term used by their friends.
It doesn't matter, for the most part, what the words are. What matters most is that students are becoming aware of words and how these words can impact their lives, education, and relationships with other people. What most matters, is that students are becoming cognizant of language and learning how to use it to increase the quality of their lives. Words are powerful, and the more words, used correctly in context, can help students with decisions they make in their lives.
I want my students to become life-long learners, not just weekend HW completion, students.
If you've always done what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got! Now I've got students who are competing with each other to see who learned or "came across" a new word that no other student may know...yet! Now, that's meaningful HW and healthy competition! And that's a way to get students using real words, instead of substances or bullying, to express their feelings and goals in life.