Language matters to me. Among my earliest memories are playing word games with my parents and siblings on those interminable family vacation trips. Fast on the heels of that (thanks to the elasticity of memory to a 62-year-old) is my delight, thought suspect by my 7th grade peers, in the daily etymology lessons in middle school English classes. Words and the laws governing how to use them matter to the point that I majored in literature on my way to my first career as a high school English teacher. There, I used Jabberwocky to teach those laws and diagramming to illustrate them. I moved on from that career-wise but as someone mentioned recently, “Once an English teacher, always an English teacher.” I guess the strongest evidence that my infatuation has not faded is how frequently I need my library card replaced and how much fun word games remain, though now often in the guise of staff meetings or political debate.
Language matters to us. I have four grandchildren from four years to six months old and language is as much a part of our play as are Legos, stuffed monkeys, refrigerator boxes, or dress-up clothes. We play with sounds, words, rhymes, songs, nonsense, and more nonsense. The two older kids love to make jokes with and about words, and not all of them are about poop. One of the younger ones was using sign language at several months old before he was speaking actual sentences.
All that is foundation for a confession. I have learned more about language, how it is structured, how it is formed, and how we can deliberately nurture all that in my 10 years at the Stern Center than in my previous decades. English teachers in my era didn’t know about, much less teach phonemes, morphemes, and other language essentials. We taught literature and writing, and tended to assume our students were good to go with all the rest. We were wrong; just check out this nation’s most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading scores.
Language matters. The more we know, the better we are at using and teaching language in all its forms. We don’t all need to diagram sentences or become etymology experts, but we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our children, to work at better understanding our language and how it works. Perhaps I feel this need more pointedly in the heat of our current political climate, but whatever your motivation, one place you can start is by attending the first of three 2017 Stern Center Symposium sessions at the Main Street Landing Film House on March 10th.
Edward R. Wilkens, Ed.D.
Ed Wilkens served as a Vermont public school principal for 19 years across all grade levels pre-K through grade 12. He lives in Charlotte, VT with his wife and enjoys reading with his grand kids.