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October 30, 2012 Exploring Etymologies, the Stories of our Words By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    This is a story of classroom kismet (origin: Turkish, from Arabic qisma, meaning portion), when events aligned for an utterly authentic exploration of the origins of words. It was one of those moments when my students’ interests aligned so perfectly with some of my planned curriculum and special magic happened. You know, that magic when all the students are completely engaged, when they move the unit beyond where I imagined it going, when I am learning alongside and from my students.

    This magic happens in our classrooms when we teachers ride the tide of our students’ passions, and for those of you who have experienced it, you know that you want to shout about the experience from the rooftops. It just feels so … authentic and alive! So I hope you’ll join me as I recount our journey into the history of words. (That being said, I also hope some of our etymology exploration activities may prove useful in your classroom, too!)


    Scene 1: Mythological Momentum

    Several weeks ago I had to pause during one of my lessons while a fire truck passed by below us on the street, its shrill siren forcing my students to cover their ears. This alone is not unusual. Teaching in the heart of Manhattan, I compete with all sorts of interesting street noises for my students’ attention. What followed was unusual. One boy’s hand flung up, and before I could say his name, he was expounding on the origin of the word “siren.” He held everyone’s attention as he eloquently told the story of Odysseus, tied to the mast of his ship, to avoid the Sirens’ calls.

    You see, since the first weeks of school, my students have been avidly devouring every mythology book they can get their hands on. Fueled by Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian series for my boys, and by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’ Goddess Girls series for my girls, my students are fast on their way to becoming self-taught mythology experts. Shortly thereafter, my students were noticing all sorts of words with ties to Greek mythology – nemesis, Titanic, and atlas were subjects of serious discussion among my students.



    Scene 2: Vocabulary on the March

    As I mentioned in a previous blog post, we hold a Vocabulary Parade at my school each year on Halloween. Towards the end of September, I read Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster aloud to my class, and my students begin brainstorming unusual and inspired costume ideas. October becomes a month-long celebration of words. We collect tempting words in “Word Jars,” inspired by Donovan’s Word Jar by Monalisa DeGross. I draw attention to words that delight me throughout the day, and soon enough my students become avid “verbivores” too.


    Scene 3: “Who says ‘pen’ means pen? YOU do!” 

    Andrew Clements’ bestselling chapter book, Frindle, truly lit the spark for my students’ word curiosity. I used Frindle as my first chapter book read-aloud this year. It tells the humorous and thought-provoking story of a 5th grade upstart who decides to create a new word as a prank. Along the way, we learn about how words become words and the evolution of our language.

    FYI, Andrew Clements’ website has wonderful resources about his process as a writer and his inspiration for Frindle. My students particularly enjoyed studying the book covers of Frindle translated into different languages. Scholastic also provides a comprehensive discussion guide about Frindle.

    Frindle really caught hold of my students’ imaginations this year. One student spontaneously brought in pens for the entire class and my students proclaimed it “Frindle Day.” They begged to use their pens for the entire day (of course I acquiesced,) and even posed for a class picture holding their frindles, much like the class in the book.

    My students joyfully pose with their "frindles."


    Scene 4: Lexicographers Light a Fire!

    Perhaps most exciting, Frindle really got my students talking about where words come from. Two days after our impromptu Frindle Day, one girl excitedly asked to share with the class a YouTube video she had found about how words get added to the Merriam Webster dictionary. (While we can’t stream YouTube videos at school, I was able to find the same video on the Merriam Webster website, much to that student’s relief.)

    After we finished that video, a list of other videos featuring Merriam Webster lexicographers talking about word origins popped onto the screen. “Can we watch the video about ‘okay,’?” “How about the one about ‘X-mas,’ can we watch that next?” My students insisted that we run down the list of etymology videos, and being a big word-nerd myself, once again I acquiesced. (Are you noticing a trend here?)

    Sure, some of these videos were a bit over the students’ heads, but they were so engaged! I faced a chorus of frustrated groans when, after the fifth video, I announced that we had to move on with our regularly scheduled programming. “Aww, can’t we spend more time learning about where words come from,” one boy petulantly demanded.

    I paused. I blinked. I looked around at my students’ cranky faces and thought, oh boy, these kids really want to pursue this! So I told my students, that yes, of course, we could continue to explore the stories behind words, but give me a few days to think about how we’d do this.


    Scene 5: Independent Projects Save the Day

    Here is where reality intruded a bit. Because while I was also pretty fired up about exploring etymologies with my students, I still had a lesson plan book full of other “stuff” I had to teach. Giving it some thought, I realized that with my students’ motivation level so high, they would eagerly attack etymology research as independent projects at home, and then I could give them time to share their etymology projects with the entire class.

    More for the students’ parents sake (since my students seemed to have pretty clear ideas about what they wanted to explore,) I developed a list of sample etymological research topics. I wrote up a rubric to provide clear expectations, and my students and I negotiated a due date.


    Download my Etymology Project guidelines, rubric, and list of suggested topics.


    Scene 6: Providing a Helping Hand with Schema

    After a few days of independent research, many of my students began coming to me with questions: Were the Normans actually the French? What’s with the Norsemen? I realized that I had set my students a very challenging task — and they probably needed a helping hand building their background knowledge to succeed with their research.

    Video came to the rescue again, this time courtesy of The Open University. They have created ten uproarious and highly informative videos entitled The History of the English Language in Ten Minutes. We slowly worked through the videos, taking notes along the way, and my students built a strong foundation for understanding the etymological information they’d encounter during their research. (If you decide to share these videos with your students, please note that the fifth video, The English of Science, mentions the coining of several anatomical words, including the sex organs.)

    Download my Note-taking Organizer for The History of the English Language in Ten Minutes.


    Scene 7: The Students Teach … And I Learn!

    Yes, this post is all about the power of words, but I’m going to let some photos do the talking here. My students picked some fascinating etymological topics to share with the class, and I learned so much while reading their projects and listening to their presentations!

    (Click on any of these photos to view a larger version.)


    Scene 8: Let the Etymology Exploring Continue!

    When we’re learning about a topic we’re passionate about, how often do we assume a “been there, done that” attitude? If you’re like me, exploring a new subject simply serves to whet my appetite – I wind up with more questions, more articles to read, more curiosity!

    I want to encourage my students to continue to pursue topics that interest them well beyond the end of a lesson or unit. Classroom experiences should be a beginning, and I feel responsible for helping my students find the resources they need to continue to go deeper. Here are just some of the resources I’ve curated to feed my students’ curiosity.

    •  There are a couple of books to support an elementary etymology study. In a Word: 750 Words and Their Fascinating Stories and Origins and the Scholastic Dictionary Of Idioms are both worth adding to your classroom library.
    •  Podcasts are a great way for students to access resources that are above their reading level but not necessarily their comprehension level. Several of my students enjoyed listening to certain segments of the public radio program, A Way With Words.
    • Merriam Webster’s website has a host of fun word activities and articles including the quiz-style game, Name That Thing, and their “Trend Watch” that tracks the most frequently looked-up words.
    • My students enjoy learning while doing good thanks to the World Food Programme’s Free Rice website. Correct vocabulary answers means a donation of rice to hungry people.


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Susan Cheyney