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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?

Answer: Language.

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 profileBob Zakrzewski is a 2009 PAWLP Fellow.  Teacher since 1999, he currently teaches English at Strath Haven High School and Cabrini College.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I genuinely enjoyed reading this article, from the golf analogy to getting students interested in language. As an aspiring golfer, I am very familiar with the notion of only one good shot giving hope for next time, and I really look forward to bringing that concept into the classroom. It’s a really positive way to look at helping students improve. As for being socio-linguistics, I find it really fascinating that you did something productive with that desire for us to analyze language through accent. Many classes I was a part of have started out with the class thinking about their pronunciation, but I don’t know that any of them were English classes. Once, we got a new student who pronounced “milk” as “melk” and it threw the whole school into a tizzy. But there is that basic desire to get to the bottom of our differences, and including that in an academic setting, as opposed to pushing it away from the classroom, just seems like a really smart and engaging move.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 16, 2015
  2. Kathy Barham #

    Bob, I thoroughly enjoyed your post and truly you are preaching to the choir on discovering that you weren’t teaching younger versions of yourself. I was so disillusioned by my Conestoga students’ disdain for Holden Caulfield, who was my favorite character in high school literature. “You little Philistines,” I thought to myself. What a fabulous idea to have students apply today’s language to characters that preceded them. What is today’s equivalent of “phony,” for example? This kind of inquiry forces students to think about characterization before they even get to the language “transposing” component. I recommend a wonderful book and video titled Do You Speak American? by Robert MacNeil. He hits the road “to examine the dynamic state of American English” in celebration of slang and regional variety. This is copyright 2005, so by current student standards, very outdated, but my students especially loved the surfing slang like “gnarly” for example. It’s fun to compare different expressions for the same thing. I still refer to tennis shoes instead of sneakers, for example, giving away my Roanoke, Virginia roots.

    Liked by 2 people

    November 12, 2015
    • rmzak #

      Thanks, Kathy. I’ve also seen and enjoyed the “Do You Speak American?” series, and have weaved clips of it into my lessons. It’s so helpful for the students to actually hear the differences in how we talk, and that video and others made available by today’s technology offer great tools for teachers. I’d love to see them update that series. If they’re looking for a new host to travel the country talking to people about language, I’ll happily volunteer my services!

      Liked by 1 person

      November 13, 2015
      • Kathy Barham #

        Great idea to update MacNeil’s production! And I would volunteer my services to travel the country to talk to people about language, too! Maybe we should start our own independent version of “Do You Speak American?” but I guess copyright laws would prohibit that. Dag!


        November 19, 2015
  3. Michele Patarino #

    What I love the most about this is what you have discovered through self-reflection and assessment. You have found how language not only connects all people no matter what their background is, you found a way to motivate your students through the study of language itself. After reading your blog post, I found the following quote to be extremely motivational to me as a future educator: “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”. Keeping this thought in mind will give me a sense of hope when I encounter struggles myself.
    Thank you for posting this blog. Language is a powerful tool, but I never realized how powerful it is to the point where it has the potential to motivate students. “Instead of starting with the literature and branching out to language, why not start where all were comfortable and move into the less familiar?” This is a great question, and I would love to find or create methods of making language a path to discovery and critical thinking when students begin to read. This is a way of teaching through backward design. Your goal is to make sure all students are engaged and interested in what they are learning. Through studying language first to spark interest, you found that students are more likely to participate in class, thus reaching your goals of learning and reaching each student. I will absolutely utilize this method in my classroom as well. If you have any more lesson or project ideas, please post them. I would love to know more about them.

    One last thing: I am from New Jersey. Those sugary rainbow or chocolate specks on your ice cream are called sprinkles. Language really is a powerful tool 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    November 11, 2015
    • rmzak #

      Thanks for your feedback, Michele. One of my favorite things about this profession is the consistent opportunities to improve upon the day before. There’s always something that can be tried differently. Certainly keeps it from getting boring!

      And we’ll have to agree to disagree on the ice cream toping…as long as you call those certain sandwiches hoagies and not subs!

      Liked by 2 people

      November 11, 2015
  4. I too would love to hear more about this! I am always interested in ways to increase the relevance of my content to student lives and this seems just perfect.

    Earlier this semester I tried out something similar in a genre project for my Freshman Comp class. Essentially I asked my students to pick select a broad or specific genre (such as free verse poetry or sports writing), research it, experiment with it, and write an informal analysis based to share their observations. The end results were showed me that students were, by and large, engaged and very curious about the unique ways that writing surrounds us. Taking this idea another step forward and asking them to explore language would be a great way to continue the theme.

    This has already given me plenty of ideas for the next time I run that class, Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 3 people

    November 11, 2015
    • rmzak #

      The genre project sounds great, Joshua. I like how it balances student choice with a structured outcome. As you noted, a focus on language would be a natural fit, such as listing jargon and tone particular to each genre.

      It reminds me some of how a colleague of mine recently adapted one of my lessons to her poetry unit where students investigated different spoken and written styles; noting nuances about language helped them better appreciate and understand the implied messages and intended audiences.

      Feel free to contact me to exchange more ideas.



      November 11, 2015
  5. I’m completely absorbed by this idea. I would love to know more–specifically, how I might start with independent, self-selected reading? Do you build your lessons from another model or do they come purely from what is inside of you?

    I have been wrestling with ways to invite students to recognize and explore a personalized vocabulary study from their own reading. Any thoughts?

    Liked by 4 people

    November 11, 2015
    • rmzak #

      The independent reading question is a great one, Brian. Like many English Departments today, my colleagues and I have been re-evaluating our classics/cannon heavy curriculum with an eye toward more student choice in reading selections. As a result, this year’s goal for my language project has been making it adaptable to different classrooms and curricula.

      I’ve had success and am very willing to share my ideas and activities with you or anyone else interested. The lessons are my own, with valuable input from a collaboration with Betsy Rymes, Professor of Educational Linguistics at University of Pennsylvania GSE.

      I love the concept of “recognizing and exploring a personalized vocabulary”. What an important experience, perhaps even more essential in a world where we communicate in so many different ways. As English teachers, we have the unique opportunity to help students navigate and manage language in their own lives, while enriching their reading/writing experiences by applying their findings there too.

      Thanks for your interest and your thoughtful response!



      November 11, 2015

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