The 'word wall' stood its ground

By the end of term in my elementary classroom, an entire wall is covered with vocabulary words students in my class have learned.

I cut yellow construction paper into long rectangles, neatly print the words on the "bricks" and, whenever there is a spare moment, we practice learning the definitions together.

The year I moved from a fifth/sixth-grade combination class to a room of second graders, a colleague looked with dismay at my word wall. "Those are really difficult words," she told me. "You're teaching 7-year-olds now. You can't use the same techniques you used in the upper grades."

I knew that she was trying to be kind and helpful, so I responded gently. "Really? Which words do you think are too hard?" I asked.

"Well, you've got words up there like 'glance' and 'trudge,' 'meander' and 'heirloom' - you won't find those words on second-grade vocabulary lists."

"I see," I said and thanked her. But the word wall remained as it was.

Apparently she made her misgivings known. The principal came in one day on the pretext of making his rounds.

He turned with studied casualness to one of my students and asked, "Can you tell me what 'trudge' means?"

The little boy said, "No." There was a momentary pause. Then he added, "But I can show you." He got out of his chair and stomped heavily across the floor.

"See?" he said to the principal. "It's like I'm walking in mud. It's hard to walk in mud. You have to trudge through the mud."

To my knowledge, there were no more discussions about my word wall.

It isn't the principal's or teacher's fault, though, thinking that some vocabulary words aren't "age- appropriate" - meaning too difficult for young children. It's an idea teachers-in-training dutifully copy into their notes.

But I have an advantage. I've been educated by 5-year-olds.

Before I earned my teaching credential, I was a stay-at-home mom, and I would spend afternoons with my son and a few of his friends.

After morning kindergarten class and naps, the gang would congregate at our house to watch television. Their favorite cartoon program was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

I have to admit that I blinked at the words on the screen. "What's this program about?" I asked.

"Oh, it's great, Mom!" my son said.

"Yeah!" his friend chimed in. "These turtles are real strong and smart." I was given a thorough briefing about the martial arts that ninjas employ - with room-rocking, table-knocking demonstrations.

"But why are they mutant ninjas?" I asked. The boys launched into a tale of ordinary turtles covered by radioactive toxic waste. It's what makes them strong, they said, patting my arm.

"What are their names?" I asked.

"Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo," my son muttered, eyes still on the TV.

I laughed. The names of four great classical artists rolled off the tongue of a boy who couldn't keep his shoes tied.

When you grow up, as I did, with kids who learn from cartoons to discuss the possibilities of cellular mutation before they can read ... well, you just don't accept that certain words are too hard for children to understand.

I feel sorry for new teachers going into classrooms, credential in hand, sure of the theories they learned about the intellectual development of children.

But I certainly have faith in the 5-year-olds of the world. If their teachers haven't yet been exposed to that special curriculum - cartoons - then the kids will set them straight.

Susan E. Omar is currently working for the Lancaster School District in Southern California.

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