Teaching Vocabulary 101

Harpy is a very old term based on legend.

A little advice on teaching vocabulary:  Don’t interrupt a story to do it.  

               Introduce words before or after the reading—maybe both—but while reading the story, enjoy!  Don’t make a story into some vocabulary medicine unless you want your students to dread it.

               I have had seventh graders listen to a recording of Call of the Wild by Jack London. Some kids didn’t know 10-20% of the words.  Yet, they loved the story.  They took away what the author intended—a tale of adventure and hardship and devotion and nature.  

               Imagine how different that would be if we’d stopped and analyzed the meaning of each sentence—or even each paragraph or page.

               But learning vocabulary gives one confidence and useful knowledge.  So introduce some words before—particularly those that the reader may think they know, but get wrong.  Make it clear that a character’s “bowl cut” has nothing to do with football and a person riding a “charger” is not in danger of electrical shock. (I went for years myself thinking “as was his wont” referred to what someone wanted to do.)  

               Have students look up words afterward when they know how the word was used—give a page number and the phrase that was used.   Without context, kids will report on the shortest of the available definitions—which is preferrable to picking the first five words of the first definition.  You don’t want them reporting that incubation as “the act or process of incubating.”

               Remember that few people can remember more than seven new items at one time.   If you can group words together, you can add more.  For example, you could count stallion, charger, and steed as one item.  But, generally, plan on learning a few new words each session. 

               Encourage use of the words.   Providing sentences with blanks is OK, but then all the creative fun is yours.  You save your time—and challenge your learners—by listing three or four words and asking students to use them all in one or two sentences.  See what they can do with permeated, premonition and premeditation or harpy, contorted, and turmoil.    

               And, enjoy the sound of long and strange-sounding words.  Kids love knowing them!

Knowing We Will Never Know

Chora Church in Constantinople (from Choramuseum.com)

               Richard Winston’s Charlemagne is educated and politically savvy.  Charles Russell’s is more open and emotional.  William Manchester’s is an illiterate warlord. 

               Considering the range of interpretations of Obama and Reagan, it is not surprising that historians would have different views of a man who ruled forty-seven years.   

               Did Charles connive to seize the lands of his cousin Tassilo or did the Duke’s behavior leave him no choice? 

               Was Charles’ second wife angry about leaving a marble castle to live with a pigsty out her window or was she really half-witted and boring? 

               Did Charles invite 4500 Saxons to dinner and have them slain suddenly or did he conduct a court, gathering evidence of sedition, and then order executions?

               Learning to live with uncertainty, knowing one will never know, is an important lesson of history.  I never had any interest in textbook history—all those names, dates and places, the provable stuff.  It was only when I read two accounts of the fall of Byzantium did I become hooked.  One said that Constantinople fell because the overly-naïve residents trusted to God for their defense and gathered in churches to pray.  The other said that the people held out bravely for months of seige and, finally—hungry, weak and diseased—they gave their warriors permission to stand down and gathered in the churches to await the invaders.  The first said that we are smarter and will never have to worry about such a fate; the second,that these people acted with grace and civility in the face of defeat.    

               Later, I was researching Chile when my professor advised me to read one book first and then an article. The book by the wife of a U.S. ambassador during World War II told of great parties and the embarrassments of living among a number of German sympathizers.  The article analyzed the the extent of malnutrition among the Chilean work force.  It hit with tremendous force.  Both accounts were factual—the great parties and the malnutrition existed side by side—but the generalizations readers might take away about Chilean society would be vastly different.      

               I know the point Professor Johnson was making; historians perform a valuable service in giving substance to those who never had the leisure to write.  I think he would have liked to see me doing serious research on woman’s history—perhaps even women in Latin America.  I had no concept, however, of where one found the money to do such a thing—and I was meant to teach.

               My writing about the age of Charlemagne allows me to continue my teaching, to encourage understanding of an age largely forgotten to America—a time in the early Middle Ages when neighboring nobles did not fight one another and education, art and music flourished. Yet, for all its parallels with today, still an age of conflict and uncertainty.

Charlemagne and War

 Why do people go to war?   Will we ever see the end of it? 

From Carolingian Cavalryman AD 768-987 by David Nicolle (ISBN:1-84176-645-3

History offers patterns, but never answers.  Charlemagne fought continual wars with one of the greatest army’s the world had seen–and many lived in peace as a result.  With so many men fighting on the eastern border of his kingdom, there was less chance for internal fighting–and little doubt that an army would show up if a noble did start an armed dispute.  

Charlemagne’s wars of Christian against pagan unified the home countries.  Christian against Christian threatened division.

Besides, the pagans had the best plunder.  Much of the real advances of Charlemagne’s age were financed by stealing Saxon and Avar offerings to their nature gods.  (Would there have been war if they had offered primarily burnt offerings as the Hebrews did?) 

And Charlemagne had no power to tax–his income came from his manors and his plunder–but he did have the right to require labor on roads, bridges, and canals and warriors to protect the borders. 

From Desiderata–


At dinner one Sunday evening, Desiderata asked Pepin-Peter if he expected war with the Avars.

“Both Avars and Carinthians wish to fight more than they oppose it. They foresee only victory and plunder.” He looked to both Desiderata and Trudy, then continued.

“I told an Avar leader that Karolus had defeated the Saxons three times. After the first time, he’d baptized them and left teachers. After the second, he’d massacred their noble class. After the third, he’d taken their lands and dispersed the people.

“The Avar replied, ‘First he must defeat us.’

“Sometimes,” Pepin-Peter added, “I believe defeating the Saxons gained us nothing but trouble. We won territory that was wild and distant and hard to manage and lost more Christians in the fighting than we gained among the Saxons. But we built an army with a taste for victory that continues to grow.”

Desiderata told him of seeing the Saxons being sent into slavery and of the young woman she could not forget. “What harm would follow from letting her and her baby be free, even if they were pagan?”

“Don’t doubt for a minute that the Saxon women fought us—and, if free, the child would also. We have not cowed the Saxons as much as most believe.”

He had not seen the girl, Desiderata thought.  He would not feel that way if he had seen her.  Still, the proud set of the woman’s jaw and the defiance in her eyes took on new meaning for Desiderata.

Why Charlemagne?

     Many prospective readers ask  “Why Charlemagne?”   I find it puzzling myself.  I studied 20th Centurty American History in college–social, political, economic, international.  I wanted to understand the world I lived in. 

    I read a lot of other history–American, English, Roman, Egyptian–but somewhere along the way, I got interested in Charlemagne.  A friend loaned me a 1930 book by Charles Edward Russell and I knew I would someday write about this man.

     He is simply the greatest king that ever lived. He governed much of Europe for 47 years at a time when even cities were apt to have their own laws and languages.  He needed the laws in writing–but few could read and write.   So he recruited teachers in Italy and England and established schools.  He established scriptoria in Europe where even pagan books were copied.  He refused to appoint priests who didn’t know the mass.

     A champion of education.  But that wasn’t all.  When a teacher was available, Charlemagne insisted that everyone who could be spared from work attend classes.  Everyone included girls.  Legend says that even the cook’s daughter attended classes with his own children.  We’re talking the 8th century here–800 years before the Renaissance.  

      The scholar who acted as Charlemagne’s minister of education–Alcuin–is the second best-known name of the century.  He had real power in the administration for it was the men he trained that represented Charlemagne through much of his territory.