Saturday, June 23, 2012

Listen . . .

It wasn’t all that long ago I had a group of kindergarten students in my speech room and I muttered, “Now where’d I put my tea?”
One of my students who is always a willing helper (and has an extremely difficult time sitting still) hopped up, darted around the table, circled a standing bookshelf and scrambled over to my desk before I could explain, it was a rhetorical question. He bounced back to our group with my room key in his hand. “I found it!”
He looked so triumphant, I didn’t mention his error but let my tea grow cold and pulled out a listening game.

Listening is a prerequisite skill for speech development. Kids have to hear the difference between various sounds before they can pronounce them correctly. Listening is also critical to building vocabulary, sentence structures, and other language concepts. And some might say listening is a prerequisite for good writing. One popular piece of advice is to listen in on conversations and jot them down when you’re working on dialog. (You have to be discrete when you follow this suggestion.)

And what of poets? Don’t you believe when Longfellow wrote, The Sound of the Sea, he spent some time listening to it? Note the rhythm of the sea reflected in these lines - you can almost hear the rush of waves over the beach:

“The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;”

I plan to keep teaching my students to listen for small differences, like the difference between “tea” and “key” or “thumb” and “some”. But my hope is they’ll listen for more as they grow older. I’m hoping they’ll listen to, and recognize, the beauty of language; the tone of voice, which speaks a warning or a warm welcome; nuances and subtleties. I’m hoping their listening skills will provide a foundation for good relationships – from political to personal.  

If you’d like to practice your own listening skills, take a listen to this 12-second clip from behind my back fence. The wind is rasping over the microphone on my iPad but you’ll hear birds chirping. Listen closely. There are sea lions barking in the background.

I plan to take a walk along the river today and listen to it lapping over the rocks . . . but hold on, my husband is about to walk out the door and he’s saying something. I think he’s looking for his tea.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reading Fun to End the School Year

School is out! This week has been a whirlwind of activity – class parties, field trips and visiting pets. My speech groups ended last week so I had a chance to pop into a few classrooms and share a new book. I had a pleasant surprise on my doorstep Wednesday after school – Tons of Trucks, a new book by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Betsy Snyder. It arrived just in time to share with students before our summer vacation. It was a hit.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

The rhythm and rhymes in this book are a pleasure to read,

 “Tons of trucks,
before our eyes,
in every color, shape,
and size!
Strong trucks
Big trucks
Scoop and dig trucks!
Old trucks
New trucks
ARMY CREW trucks.”

Every page has a moveable part: a flap to lift, a tab to pull (revealing top secrets in the army truck), and a spinning wheel to turn the tank of a cement truck. It ends with a hushed evening scene where sleepy travelers pull into a rest stop. Young listeners may find the restful ending a nice way to end their day.

I read this book to a few kindergarten classes and they were enthralled. When I asked the first class how they liked it, they gave a loud cheer. (That’s always a good sign even though it is not a behavior teachers encourage.) In the next room, the students said the book was “fantastic,” “great,” and they “loved it.” In the resource room, one student felt Buttons, the resource rat, should have a chance to see the book and so he did.

Abby thought Lucky, the goat visiting her classroom, should have a turn and so we took the book to room 44. She read to Lucky and a classroom of lucky students who were sitting at her feet.

We didn’t want to leave any visitors out and so our resource specialist, Beth Kirkley, read the book with Lucy on her lap. Look how captivated that puppy is!

This book doesn’t need cute kids and animals to make it adorable. It is that all on its own. The illustrations are bright and engaging. The opportunities to interact with the story made it all the more appealing to our students. For younger kids, it introduces vocabulary and concepts: shapes, colors, and contrasts such as “in and out,” “open and close,” “up and down” and others.

It isn’t easy to tell who is more excited about summer vacation, the students or the teachers (or maybe the class pets.) But we’ll all carry with us good memories of the school year and memories of some great books. I’ll be exploring more over the summer and when the students return, I’ll be ready with a truckload. Perhaps a haul truck, filled to the brim with books.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Multi-meaning words and idioms

A friend of mine once told about a visit she had with her grandchildren. Early one morning, while she was in the kitchen, three-year-old Rylan came in and asked her for some apple slices. His voice was bass-low and raspy so she said, “Rylan, you lost your voice. Where did it go?”  She turned back to slice his apple but soon noticed him wandering around the kitchen, head down, searching. When he lifted his face, she saw a tear coming down his cheek.

“What’s the matter, Rylan?”

More tears fell and he squawked, “I can’t find my voice.”

He was sure if he looked into all the corners, under the table or in the back of a cupboard, he was going to find it.

That misunderstanding might make us smile but children are not the only ones who get confused over language. A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers announced in the teacher’s room, her son had lost his first tooth. Most everyone in the room looked worried. Someone said, “How sad - he won’t be able to put it under his pillow.” His mom quickly explained that he still had his tooth and was now wearing it around his neck in a plastic tooth-shaped holder.

Multi-meaning words and figures of speech can bring to mind some unusual pictures if we misinterpret them. A second grade class put on a play this week and one of my students was extremely worried about performing. Before the play, I met him outside the stage door to give him a few words of encouragement. I had to stop myself from saying, “Break a leg.”

This year I discovered a great resource to introduce kids to multi-meaning words: Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon. It is filled with clever humor. My students didn’t catch all the word play, but they learned, and the story entertained us all. Take a look at a few quotes:

 “No one stirred, not even Spoon.”

“At first, Chopstick was just plain stumped.” (The illustration shows him standing on a cutting board that looks like a stump of wood.)

“Knife knew this revelation called for a toast.” (Knife is pictured holding a slice of toast.) “He was sharp that way.”

What a fun book – this one was a hit with my students and a good teaching tool “to boot.” (Don’t you wonder where that phrase came from?)

I know many school districts are already out for the year but we have one week left. As summer approaches I’m already making plans to hike a few trails, take a couple short trips and get lost in several good books. I just hope I don’t get lost on the trips or trip over the stack of books collecting next to my favorite reading chair.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Speak Well, THINK Well

Last weekend my husband and I went for a drive. We followed the directions given to us and started out just fine - heading east. But the road took us around several bends, up a hill or two and through a tunnel of overhanging branches and so when we came to a Y in the road we paused (not long enough as it turned out) and checked our notes, which read, “Turn east at the Y.” As I said, we were heading east when we started and now as the road split sharply to our right and sharply to our left, we had no idea which way was east. Well, that is not exactly true. We had an idea, just not the right one (even with a 50-50 chance of choosing correctly.) Eventually we made it to our intended destination but the experience reminded me of a seminar I listened to recently.

A friend of mine, Sandy Glickfeld, heard Stanford cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky speak at a conference a couple weeks ago and had high praise for her presentation. When I heard the subject matter I was intrigued. So I googled Ms. Boroditsky and found a link to “The Long Now Foundation” with her seminar entitled, “How Language Shapes Thought.” It was fascinating. One of the stories she told was about a small Aboriginal community, Pormpuraaw, located in northern Australia, where the people have a great sense of direction (unlike the people in the paragraph above.) She told of asking a five-year old girl in the village to point north, and the child did so, accurately, with no hesitation. That skill was common to the whole community. Ms. Boroditsky made the same request to a group of distinguished scholars at Stanford University and they pointed in all possible directions. That made me feel a little better about our experience at the Y in the road.

The reason for these vastly different abilities, according to Lera Boroditsky, is language. In Pormpurraw, people use direction words such as northeast or southwest instead of the terms left and right. So they might say something like, “Put your name in the northwest corner of your paper, just south of the date.” Of course the students would all need to be facing the same direction for those instructions to work. (This wasn’t one of Ms. Boroditsky’s examples but you get the idea.)

She did say, “in Pormpuraaw one must always stay oriented, just to be able to speak properly.”  No wonder these people had a great sense of direction. But the interesting thing about this story, and others she told, was, as Ms. Boroditsky pointed out, when you teach people a new way to talk, you teach them a new way to think. The Pormuraaw people didn’t just learn the vocabulary for north and south; they developed an intuitive knowledge about where those directions were. In Russia, where they have more than one word for the color blue, they actually perceive the different shades of blue more rapidly than English speakers. And that made me think about some of my students who struggle with their native language. How does this struggle affect their thinking?

Most of my students wouldn’t have the slightest idea where North is on our campus but that knowledge is rarely required of them. They are, however, expected to understand prepositions, multi-meaning words, sequencing words and directions like, “Before you open your book, put your name on your paper in the upper right hand corner.” Some language-delayed kids listening to those directions would be as lost as my husband and I at the Y in the road.

I found Ms. Boroditsky’s seminar fascinating and also very encouraging. If by teaching kids a new way to talk, we are teaching them a new way to think, then speech therapy can have a huge impact on their lives. So too, does children’s literature, which introduces new words, concepts and builds language skills on so many levels.

My hope is to teach my students new vocabulary so when they look at the world around them, they can actually perceive the different shades of blue, understand prepositions so they know where they stand in the world, and give them a strong language foundation so when they come to a “Y” in their path, they’ll be equipped to understand their choices.