Thursday, October 15, 2009
Pumpkin Patch...The Puzzle of Language
This is the time of year that many schools have their first field trip. I remember years ago sending home permission slips to take my class to a local farm to pluck apples right from the branch and to pick a pumpkin out of the patch. I talked to my class about the trip for two weeks. Each day I reminded them of the upcoming event by reading stories about such adventures, or with art projects that included fall-leaf rubbings and apple printing. All of the children seemed so excited. All of the children but one, that is.
Each time I brought up our field trip to the pumpkin patch, Jollene's head dropped and she sighed. I remember encouraging her to engage in the project of the day. She would raise her head, look at me for a moment with the saddest face and then settle into the activity. I was really puzzled by her mood.
The day before the field trip, after reminding the children of how we were going to get to the farm (parents had volunteered to take several children in their mini-vans) and how to behave after we arrived, Jollene asked to speak with me. She looked me in the eye and said, "Miss Dyer, you and I are not going to be able to get a pumpkin patch." As she said this a tear ran down her cheek. She slowly raised her left hand. Next she cupped her left hand over the left lens of her eyeglasses and continued, "We can't get a patch because we wear glasses."
Her shoulders shook as she wept with anticipated disappointment.
I took her to the library and showed her a photograph of a pumpkin patch. She was so relieved. My heart went out to this little girl who was so upset over a misunderstanding. But, when did I ever describe a "patch" of land? It isn't one of the land forms on the geography shelf. So how would she know what it was without previous knowledge or experience?
I recently told this story to some of my fellow teachers while sitting around the staff lunch table. "That sounds just like something from an Amelia Bedelia book," one of the other teachers said. "Amelia takes everything literally," she explained. "Like when she was told to 'draw the drapes,' and she drew a picture of the drapes."
I thought about this conversation when I drove home. How much do we assume children understand, have knowledge about and can determine implied meaning? What language activities do we have in our classrooms to assist them and how can we, as their guides, choose words and give directions without assuming knowledge?
My mental conversation reminded me of a writing project I worked on a decade or so ago. My chapter in the communication textbook was focused on women's grassroots communication patterns ( My name at the time was Susan Dyer-Bennem). I wrote several pages on quilting.
After my editor reviewed my first draft, she wrote me a note stating that I needed to re-write several paragraphs as I assumed knowledge. I took for granted that individuals all over the world knew what a quilt was and how it was made. I did several sketches of quilts and then thought through each step in the construction of one. I re-wrote the paragraphs. My editor found my second draft to be much more clear and informative. I broke down the steps so that the reader could piece together the information as a quilter pieces together a coverlet.
These two moments in my life return to me again and again. They remind me to do all of the orientation games with my new students, to rotate the objects in my sound box, to present again and again classification cards, to include practical life labeling in my label the environment cards, to present the sight/puzzle words and to include more specific information in my definitions of words and descriptions of places.
Now when I talk about a pumpkin patch, I include a description of a patch of land, of a farmer, a hay wagon, types of pumpkins and apples, corn stalks that may be used in the making of scarecrows, a description of scarecrows and so much more. It slows things down a bit, but perhaps that is also the point.