Homonyms: Fun Four Yew Two

My two classes have been having a friendly competition. Each class has been collecting homonyms of the sounds-the-same-but-spelled-differently-and-means-different-things variety. We set the end of February as the end of the official competition, but neither class wants to stop collecting. As of now, the Carnation class has around 155 homonyms, while the Seattle class was around 275. However, the Carnation class found a six way homonym. (I can’t give it away, but it involves contractions, archaic words and proper nouns.)

The kids are hooked. It’s really fun and both the emerging spellers and the word nerds really like working on it. We let the families help, and some of the parents are hooked too. “I found five more just on the drive over!” said one mom. And even though it sounds like we have a lot, I know there are zillions more. So far in this little blog post alone there are: two/to/too, have/halve, been/Ben (or been/bin — different pronunciations make different homonyms), having/halving (but on our list that wouldn’t count since it’s just another form of have/halve), a/eh, but/butt, mean/mien, we/wee/whee/wii (if you throw in brand names), while/wile, way/weigh/whey, are/r/our, its/it’s, some/sum, more/moor/Moore, one/won, no/know, there/their/they’re — and I might have missed some. It’s infectious. I’ve been editing my novel and I find myself writing them on the margins (sheik/chic, rye/wry).

If you want to try this at home, I recommend making some kind of alphabetized chart (or spreadsheet if you want to get techie). We put them under the first possible letter — so rye/wry would go under “r” — to keep doubles easier to spot. We made columns so we could spot the sets of three and four (and five and six). Once you get going, you might never stop. But it’s worth it. Enjoy!

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Life, Summarized

I found this in my classroom a while back:

“They kept on fighting for four hours intell they looked at each orther and giggeld and in the end they got marreid and they ate grapes for the rest of there lives. and then they had to go get glasces.”

Which pretty much sums it up.

Want to hear more about life, children and writing?  Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.

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Teaching Great Poetry to Children: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins is pretty much my favorite poet. That’s kind of a silly thing to say, since having a favorite poet is like having a favorite food, and how could I choose between ice-cream and fresh blueberries and the perfect hamburger and my boyfriend’s tom kha soup? Poetry is delicious in at least as many ways. But anyhow, I really, really like Gerard Manley Hopkins and I want to share him with my students.

Hopkins as a boy.

The thing is, his poems aren’t necessarily that easy for them — there is dense language, religious language, archaic language. However, there is also wonder and despair and an exulting love of nature, all of which children understand.  Also, there is so much word play and music, so that even if you don’t understand every word, it still sounds cool. Hopkins doesn’t hold back, and kids respect that.

Still, I’ve had hits and misses introducing his work to my class. The first time, I think I read too much of it, and their eyes glazed over. This year, it worked better. I began by telling them about Hopkin’s life — how he’d been a gifted poet as a young man at Oxford, how he loved another man and didn’t know what to do about because of the time when he lived, then had joined the Jesuit priesthood and burned his early poems, how he had been sent to Dublin, where he was sad and homesick, how he loved nature, how he died young of typhoid. They felt a lot of sympathy for him by then.

Then I read a couple of his poems, starting with “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and suggested everyone just listen to the sounds. We’d already talked about alliteration and rhyme, and I told them he was a master at it. I pointed out some particularly musical phrases: wimple-water-dimpled; too too apt to, ah!, to fleet. The class particularly loved how many times he repeated the word “despair” in the lines Be beginning to despair, to despair/Despair, despair, despair, despair. You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians — they don’t beat around the melodramatic bush.

Then we moved on to the classic “Pied Beauty,” and we talked about how he joined words to make particular meanings: rose-moles, fresh-firecoal. We talked about how much he loved nature and how carefully he observed it, and how because of the way he was religious, just taking a walk outside was like having a vision. This is something that many of the children, of many religious backgrounds, seem to understand.

Then, because they were still listening and I couldn’t help myself, we read “God’s Grandeur,” which is one of the most deeply-felt poems I know about people messing up the earth and the earth’s continuing resiliency, which again is a beauty and pain that many of the kids feel deeply.

By then it was high time to write, so we wrote poems about lists of things we liked, the way Hopkins does in “Pied Beauty.” I encouraged specificity, music, particular and fresh words. They wrote some beautiful poems, and a long story about Thanksgiving. Several weeks later, when we were talking about what to make a crankie of, one of the Seattle students suggested Hopkin’s poems. We’re making a crankie of “Pied Beauty,” and it’s bursting with the same exuberant wonder for nature that the poem is. I’ll try to post it when it’s done.

By the way, to give credit where it’s due, I drew my Hopkin’s prompt from Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s excellent book SLEEPING ON THE WING, which is a great anthology for teaching poetry to kids, and which has all the Hopkins poems we read in it as well.

Want to hear more ideas about teaching poetry to children? Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.

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Epic Runes

Did you know that English wasn’t always written in the Roman alphabet? It was originally written in runes, like other old Germanic languages. Then for a long time it could be written in either script. Manuscripts were usually written in the Roman alphabet, while inscriptions were done in runes, which are a type of writing made to be carved. That’s why there aren’t curves in runic letters. That’s also why there aren’t horizontal lines, which are hard to carve across the grain. Unlike Roman letters, runes each have their own meaning as a letter, as well as being able to form words phonetically.

I shared all this with my students when we were learning about the history of English at the beginning of the year. Later on, I asked them what some of their writing goals for the year were, and in one class several of the kids wanted to become fluent in runes. Yep. Fluent in runes.

So we’re learning our runes.  I introduce a rune at the beginning of the day, and students are welcome to substitute it for its equivalent letter. They are also welcome to translate their poetry into runes. I don’t expect everyone to end up fluent in runes, but the kids who are excited about them will have a chance to run with it.

I’m excited about this not only because the kids are excited, but because I think runes are fascinating. They are a form of writing in which the written word is that much closer to the real world. Letters named after real things, letters that look like real things, letters meant to be carved physically into things — as a believer in the meaningfulness of language, I think this is really cool. So wish us luck with the project!

Want to hear more of Becca’s thoughts about teaching writing? Come to one of her upcoming free talks in the greater Seattle area.


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