Sometimes the best techniques come from preparation.

While my sophomores were reading Zakaria and Alter debating whether or not America should pull out of the Opening Ceremonies I realized they wouldn’t know a few words in the article. More than a few. A lot.

Immediately, I had a vision of students whining, or finding excuses, or even legitimately pretending to do the work without understanding.

I don’t understand this.

What don’t you understand?

Anything.

This time around, I headed it off at the pass. I announced that if they don’t know a word, they should write it on the board. I will define it, and without a dictionary.

Not immediately, but eventually, I had students challenging my vocabulary, taking ownership of their learning and finally understanding what the Newsweek guys were saying. They recognized, then chose to write the words they didn’t know on the board, in front of the class. This is authentic learning at its best.

I excitedly told one of the teachers in my department this story, and she immediately recognized the technique.

Oh, so a Word Wall? Nice. They work pretty well.

Yes, they do. Bashful students cajole their friends to put up the word on the wall, or just see it. Rowdy students — who I’ve never been able to get to work, anyway — actually do the writing, harnessing their energies for the light side of the Force. All students have a first reference to go to when they don’t know a word or concept, allowing me to define the words on my own time, or at least while I’m not helping another student.

As I’ve thought about it, there are three specific qualities of my brand of Word Wall.

1. I tell students that I’ve written up a vocab quiz already, and that any word in the article is fair game. This is motivation to write it up on the board. This quiz thing isn’t integral to my method.
2. I specifically avoid content-related words for the word wall. I’m looking for overall vocabulary gain, here. “Palestinian” and “Darfur” are about as close to content-related as I’ve gotten with the vocab I use on the quiz.
3. Students write the definitions. I’ll just call it out from across the room, so that all students hear the definition, all can actually read the definition and at least one at-risk student actually writes the definition.

This teaching stuff is easy — he said, well aware that he isn’t the greatest teacher in the world.

Now all I need is a job. But that’s what tomorrow’s for.

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