Tools of the Trade: Word Up!
By Bob Zakrzewski
Quick quiz: What unites and excludes, is personal and public, judges and is judged, and constantly changes into something new despite relentless efforts to keep it the same?
A love of literature led me into the high school English classroom, but, as is usually true with any long-term relationship, I’ve uncovered many layers to my feelings for my profession since walking into my first class, frightened but optimistic, in August 1999.
My teaching career had a bumpy start. I quickly found the writers I loved would not be embraced by my students simply because I loved them. Among everything those early years taught me, the biggest lesson may have been that I wasn’t teaching younger versions of myself.
As I honed my craft under the gaze of No Child Left Behind, incorporating adaptations and accommodations and catering to Individualized Educational Plans, I couldn’t ignore how most of my lessons left more than a few students on the outside looking in, wondering what the big deal was. My classes’ mixed enthusiasm and varied engagement kept me unsure of my ability and unable to feel satisfied with my work. To many of my students, Holden Caulfield was a whiny and entitled rich kid, Jay Gatsby a gullible and obsessive fool, and Romeo and Juliet naïve and impulsive children. Dismissal of characters nurtured disinterested reading, leading to disinterested writing (creating a stack of disinterested grading). Even when things went pretty well, something always wasn’t quite right.
Being a bad golfer, I’ve found one good shot per round can offer hope for next time. Likewise, one good lesson can inspire a struggling teacher to keep trying. On rare occasions, a perfect shot onto the green perked up drooping heads and had everyone adamantly debating opinions as a bell took us by surprise instead of taking forever to arrive. This lesson focused on language, and not just the language of literature, but the living language we use each day. I began looking for any opportunity to recapture this magic. The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby provided reasons to research early 20th century slang, and Shakespeare’s vast and archaic vocabulary opened a window into language change over distance and time. Participation flourished when our discussions moved from the books into our lives: How would Holden and Gatsby sound now? What words and phrases best exemplify the English language today? What differences were first noted by those who moved here from somewhere else? How much has language changed in our lifetimes? Could I have “Googled your hashtag and clicked the link to the GIF you tweeted” ten years ago? Could you “have enough bars to send your bae’s snap” last year? Let’s get our learn-on and keep it real, ok class? (“Aaagh! Make him stop! Please don’t ever say that again, Mr. Z! I promise to do all steps of the writing process if you never say that again!”)
Without fail, every class I taught came to life during my language lessons. Try it yourself: Ask the people around you if they call ice cream toppings “jimmies” or “sprinkles”, how they pronounce “crayon” or “caramel”, or if txt speak is hurting the English language, and notice the passion with which they state their case. Our language is a prized, personal possession, a key aspect of our identity, and most people (especially adolescents) defend theirs with a pride they show for little else. Regardless of grade level, academic track, economic background, ethnicity, gender, learning ability or disability—in short, the vast array of young people teachers work with every day, every class connected with my language lessons. I began considering how to make them a regular occurrence, wondering if the engagement they fostered could lead to deeper appreciation of language’s nuances, not only in their lives, but in the literature we read as well. Instead of starting with the literature and branching out to language, why not start where all were comfortable and move into the less familiar? Instead of relying on character or plot to engage the students, why not get them curious about the language? The more I looked, the more I found relevant and relatable language paths into everything we read.
The results are not in yet, but I’ve spent the past two years assigning and fine-tuning a semester-long language project with my eleventh grade classes. Each of our literature units involves a couple lessons focused solely on language and at least one assignment where they become “citizen-sociolinguists”, venturing into the world to gather data, test theories, and debunk myths. They analyze “Accent-Tag Challenge” videos on YouTube, interview older and younger people about slang and language change, conduct polls on language sensitivity and offensive words, and observe language variation and code-switching in different settings. By the end of the semester they choose an area of language study that interests them most and conduct a research project related to it, choosing their method of research and the mode to present their findings.
The projects have been as varied as my students. The successes and struggles I witness help me with those trying similar projects the next time around. Like language itself, it’s a project that will always face changes and challenges, but that’s ok. Literature may have gotten me into the classroom, but language keeps me there, and I learn something new about it with each project. So far, it’s a project no one has forgotten to do or opted not to complete. Don’t tell my students I said so, but I think that’s pretty bangin’.
And to set the record straight, those sugary rainbow or chocolate specks on your ice cream are called jimmies.
Bob Zakrzewski is a 2009 PAWLP Fellow. Teacher since 1999, he currently teaches English at Strath Haven High School and Cabrini College.