November 10

Teacher Showcase: Talking to a Thesaurus with Holly Welsch and Diane Long

Teachers Holly Welsch and Diane Long have built a strong co-teaching bond over years of teaching English at McCord Junior High School, but today, their relationship seems to have broken down. The women are insulting each other in front of their students, with Holly calling Diane a “fossil” and Diane shooting back with “antique.” They point at each other and turn their backs in disgust. Of course, the students barely notice. They get the joke. Holly and Diane are merely having some fun with synonym brainstorming.

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Diane and Holly model the development of synonyms for their students.

Today’s lesson in seventh grade English focuses on a couple of dimensions of language: synonyms and connotations. Holly and Diane want their students not only to be able to substitute overused, vague words with powerful, precise ones, but they also want them to grasp the fine distinctions among those words. The little faux fight staged at the beginning of class prompted students to consider synonyms for “old” and which of those synonyms is harsher than the other.

The activity runs pretty simply: Students review a homework assignment on language. Next, Holly and Diane model the act of synonym finding and connotation ranking. Then, students gather into groups with an assigned word to do the work themselves on assigned words. Finally, they present their results to the class. It’s a straightforward lesson plan.

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Holly talks with a student group.

But what’s really cool about the activity today are the little touches that make it more engaging, fun, and modern. Holly and Diane ask students to find synonyms in three ways, and none of those ways requires a paper thesaurus. First, they brainstorm among their group. Second, they consult Echo. Third, they check the online resource of thesaurus.com.

Right now you’re thinking, Wait. What’s Echo? Echo is the new voice-control device sold by Amazon. Connecting Echo to a device allows you to use that device with your voice. You can walk up to it (or near it), say “Echo,” and give your command. So, if my Echo is hooked up to my smartphone, I can ask, “Echo, what’s the weather like today?” A soothing female voice will let me know the day’s forecast. Most people are using Echo devices at home to enable voice command around the house. Diane saw a demonstration for classroom use and bought one for her room. Today, when the students need a synonym, they approach the device and ask, “Echo, what are some synonyms for ‘hot?’” Echo replies, “Here are some synonyms for ‘hot’: ‘blistering,’ ‘scorching,’ and ‘on fire.’” The students copy the words onto their worksheet.

 

After collecting synonyms from the three sources, students pick their top nine and add them to the original word. So, those words blistering and scorching are added to the hot list, which also includes words like boiling and thermogenic. Students then rank the words from most to least powerful and write them in order on paper towels (Yes, paper towels. This brilliant touch gives students a presentation list they can unroll.) and present them to the class.

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Students copy synonyms given to them by Echo, sitting on the table to their right.

So, what’s the value here? Why bother spending money on a device like Echo and integrating it into traditional learning? Our students are preparing themselves to live and produce in a world mediated by digital technology. They will rarely (if ever) consult limited paper resources to find definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or etymologies. They’ll consult Internet-based resources. Even more, they will probably consult mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and every major technology player, from Google to Microsoft to Apple to Amazon, is pushing hard into voice integration. Our students will talk to their phones and their cars and soon their homes. They will learn to enunciate for greater efficiency and to call up a library of command words and phrases. It’s the world of the future, but it’s happening around us right now. Holly and Diane have brought that glimpse of tomorrow into their McCord classroom today, and each student in that classroom has learned a little more than the standard lesson on language. They learned how to use the Internet as part of their living, breathing, and speaking world.

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A student group consults thesaurus.com and prepares to write words on their paper towel roll.