So I was teaching my students about the word root of the word human a while back. You guys, it’s really cool. Did you know that the words human, humble, humus, hominid, humility, and humiliate all come from the root humus/homo, which means soil? Even linguistically, humanity goes back to the earth. I was waxing on excitedly about this when one of my students pointed out something else: HOMINID SOUNDS LIKE VOMITED! Hot diggity, did that get their attention. We spent the next few minutes writing brilliantly on such topics as when the hominid vomited humbly on the humus. Interestingly (I swear), humor comes not from humus but from humid, as it originally referred to humors, those lovely medieval fluids, and when one was in good humor, one’s fluids were doing well, and presumably, one was not hominiding, even on the humble humus.
I have students who write things I wish I could steal. I have students who can spell better than I can. Sometimes it is hard to know what to do with these gifted writers. They can be on a completely different academic plane than the rest of the class, and can seem to want so much more than I can give them.
It is important to remember that the point is not to shape children into mini-adults. It is not to have ten year olds analyzing James Joyce. It is not to have twelve year old college students. It is to have lit-up, whole people who have been encouraged to work hard and to shine.
Towards that end, I like to encourage breadth in my gifted writers. They provide their own forward momentum.
Maybe their spelling is impeccable. Then I will use them as a spelling resource, directing other students to ask them for help if I am busy, and double-checking words I am doubtful about with them. Maybe they are grammar whizzes — then I ask them to explain why a sentence is incorrect. I don’t try to make them dumb down to the common line, but let them be role models academically. And I have noticed that rather than make the other students feel badly about their own skills, this is one more way of fostering an appreciation for all our different gifts. This works especially well if I remember not to expect these kids to be role models in every way — if I let them truly be their age, even if they can spell better than I can.
But beyond that, I encourage them to play.
I encourage them to begin to follow words and their etymologies through the dictionary. Is human related to humor? When did we first use the word swag? (The answer? 1590 — so now I have a student who says, “that’s so 1590” when her trendy friends say something’s swag.) I show them more complex poem forms, where writing becomes a puzzle. I share puns with them and challenge them to come up with excessive alliteration. I invite them to share things they are excited about with the class. Rather than push their academics beyond their emotional development, I encourage imaginative engagement with the subject through media such as comics, songs, and choose-your-own-adventure novels.
Education can be likened to drawing maps. There can be close-up maps that show every nuance of a thing, or large scale maps that help place things loosely in context. Without a sense of the whole, detailed maps are only useful in a narrow way. The elementary years are about expanding a child’s sense of the world out from their own experience towards an understanding of the world as a whole — in other words, drawing a loose sketch of the universe, drawn in color, with a few unicorns and dragons, not necessarily to scale. Then, when they learn about something later, they will already have a place to put that thing in their mind and will be ready to study it more deeply. That way when they make their close-up, accurate-to-the-nearest-millimeter maps, those maps will have a place in a larger context and every incredible detail will be able to relate to the larger picture of things. That, to me, is much better than being able to create an impeccable but disconnected rendering of something at age seven. Then not only will that child shine academically, they will have a stronger sense of the interconnectedness of everything in the world, and this is the basis of being a kind, proactive adult.
A Grateful Run
Running through the fog today, in the pre-festivity Thanksgiving morning lull, I started thinking about how grateful I am to have work that I love. Frog Hollow is pretty much my grown-up equivalent of unschooling; I get to share what I am passionate about with people who are bright-eyed and passionate themselves. It’s pretty great.
We had a class when I was miserably attending middle school that was called Life Skills, of which I remember two things: people being sent out in the hall for drawing on themselves, and a painful sex-ed video where a camera followed the journey of the sperm only everything was blue and there was bad synthesizer music.
Homeschooling, on the other hand, I learned a basic life philosophy, and I learned it through experience, without a synthesizer sound track. I learned what it feels like to follow what excites me and to trust that whatever crazy place it takes me is a good place for me to go and that if it ceases to be good, something new and exciting will open up. This is a huge life tool for someone as indecisive and hesitant as myself, and the times when I have used it have been some of the best.
Operating from that kind of inner motivation is a profound skill, especially in a culture as grade/prestige/image oriented as our own. It makes both success and rebellion authentic, and I believe that it is the source of most deep positive change in the world.
I feel grateful to have been raised with many role models and the encouragement to develop that in myself, and I feel incredibly lucky to do work that not only allows me to keep following my passions, but where I can encourage that in another generation of young people.
The Fluctuating Fleet of Floating Flotsam and Other Adventures in Word Roots
At Frog Hollow, we often start the day with a word family, sometimes a spelling family but usually a word root. I’ll throw up a big list of words from that root, some familiar, some awesomely new, and then we’ll take five minutes to write a sentence or two using at least one — but sometimes even all — of the words. This gives the kids a chance to engage with the words creatively and to bring them into their own writing vocabulary. And sometimes they write very funny things.
One of my favorite word roots is the related Latin words fluere (to flow) and fluctus (a wave). Go to fl in the dictionary and it’s like a fluere family reunion: fluctuate, fluoride, fleet, float, flue, flotsam…. Even “flu,” though it sounds unrelated, comes from “influenza,” the Italian version of “influence,” or in-flowing, and originally implied an influx of energy from the stars.
My favorite pair in this family is “affluence” and “effluence.” Generally, we think that “poverty” is the opposite of “affluence.” However, linguistically speaking, “affluence” is a flow in, and its opposite is “effluent,” a flow out. That’s something to ruminate on.
It also brings me to one of my favorite-ever signs, which I found hanging in the outhouse at Holland Lake in Montana, warning people not to throw trash into the toilet because “the affluent must be pumped out by hand. Have pity on the poor person whose job this is. This person is not the Government.” Being an English nerd is so much fun!