Getting Wild in the Wonder Lab

 

I don’t think I have a very wild life, but I do have a wild mind.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to create a hands-on maker space in my school called the Wonder Lab.  It is a place where elementary students come to work on independent projects and make stuff out of recycled materials.  It has been my dream to be able to create this space.

Now that we are remote learning, the Wonder Lab lies dormant, but my mind is still wildly imagining.  I’ve created lots of Wonder Lab ideas for remote learning these past 3 months.  This weekend, I tried my hand at building a cereal box vehicle from an idea I got from this Ultra Creative – General Mills video.

Step 1: Okay, so what if you don’t have a cereal box?  Use what you have!

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I used 4 small boxes:

1 cracker box

2 tea boxes (1 tea box is inside the cracker box).

1 oatmeal box (cut in half and slid together so it is the same width of the cracker box).

I stacked the boxes on top of each other and taped them together with clear tape.  I made a basic truck shape.

Step 2: Building my Monster Truck

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I needed axels for the wheels.  I didn’t have any wooden dowels, so I used 2 unsharpened pencils.  I punched holes with a sharp pencil. I made sure they were in the place I wanted them to be before I punched through to the other side.

Step 3: WHEELS!

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I needed wheels!  And it’s a good thing that my husband likes to eat a lot of oatmeal.  I had an empty container of oat and grits.  I took the tops off and had 2 wheels.

But wait!  Don’t truck have 4 wheels.  I cut the bottoms off both containers and made another 2 wheels. 2+2=4 wheels!

Step 4: Two Types of WHEELS

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The narrow wheels would be the front wheels and the wider wheels would be the back wheels.  Then I punched a hole with my pencil in the center of each wheel.

Step 5: Try, Try Again!

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I slipped on my wheels and tried them out.  My back wheels were too wide.  The truck did not run smoothly. The back wheels kept getting stuck on the truck body.  So I took the back wheels off and trimmed them.  There are the trimmings under the scissor.  I had to trim a couple of times until it was just right!

Step 6: Wheel Caps

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Here you see that I took the wheels off again to make sure they fit just right.  I added caps to the end of the pencil, so the wheels did not fall off.  I had lots of little water bottle caps.  I poked a hole into the caps with a pen and then pushed a pencil through the hole until it was just right.

Step 7: Designing the Cab

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The tea box on top is the cab of the truck.  I drew a diagonal line across the front of the tea box and then I cut it off.  I made a hood from the cut piece and added aluminum foil headlights and cut a small rectangle from a plastic baggie for the windshield.

I LOVE MY TRUCK!

 Step 8: Ready to Roll!

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WHAT I LEARNED:

Making vehicles out of boxes is fun!

I had to try again and again to get it to work.

Making wheels is harder that I thought.

Next time, I will create all the body first BEFORE I make the wheels.

I want to make another one!  I must start saving more boxes!

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Magic in the Middle

 

I am in love with words.  I don’t know when it happened.  It might have started with “Mama.” Words held meaning, and I was eager from the beginning to express myself. Writing is like breathing to me – I cannot differentiate one from the other.  When I go long period without writing, it’s like I’m holding my breath and turning blue.  And I am.  I am literally turning blue.  I am suffocating.  A little piece of my spirit dies when I don’t write.

Here are fifteen of my favorite words right now:

  1. Aquamarine
  2. Acrobat
  3. Always
  4. Breath
  5. Curious
  6. Journey
  7. Lopsided
  8. Magical
  9. Mud-luscious
  10. Perpendicular
  11. Puddle-wonderful
  12. Puzzlement
  13. Serendipitous
  14. Tangential
  15. Whisper

Number 9 and 11 are words invented by the poet E.E. Cummings in his poem “in just,”which is one of my favorite poems because it is clear that words are Cummings’ playground, and he loved swinging and sliding from one to the other. I’m intrigued when poets/writers create new words to show unique images.  As I grow older, I sometimes forget a word I need for a moment.  I start thinking and thinking and thinking. And I come up with a word, but it isn’t the word I intended.  Then all of a sudden, the right word pops into my head and I realize that both the right word and the wrong word rhyme.  I chuckle instead of becoming upset, because I take it as a sign that I am a true poet and words matter, even – especially the wrong words.

Ruth Ayres wrote recently, “Finding magic in the middle of living.”  When I read her words, I said aloud, “YES, YES, YES!  That is what POETRY is to me!” It is pure magic and it begins with stringing words together: working and playing and putting them together like an intricate puzzle. You set that last piece in place, sit back, smile, and see the whole wonderful image before you.

Number 14 – TANGENTIAL. I have so many thoughts in my head at the same time that sometimes I think I may explode.  Nothing is tangential in my mind, but to others it may not appear so.  Everything, for me, is connected to something else.  This is a wondrous world, and we are connected in ways that are both mysterious and serendipitous.  When we least expect it, someone reaches out – a stranger, a poet, a friend, someone you knew long ago – and steps into your story. Words are the placeholder, the keeper of memories.  They allow you to make sense of your surroundings and uncover the magic.

 

Invitations to Wonder…

Last week, Ruth Ayers invited her online writing group (SOS: Sharing Our Stories) to write about 7 small things.  Instead, I chose to write about anger.  Anger is not a small thing.  Anger is a big thing, an explosive thing.  It starts small and then grows.

As I read some members’ blog posts this week, I was reminded about the importance of simple joys.  All week, I  kept turning lists of small things over and over in my mind.  I have always been attracted to the small seemingly insignificant things: stop to notice the dandelion blooming between the cracks in concrete.  I’m a photographer, and so as I make my way through a mountain pass or a city street, my eye is always on the small things that most people would miss.  Those small things aren’t always aesthetic or beautiful, they were just common, ordinary things.  In their ordinariness lies their unique importance.

Poet, Valerie Worth, wrote a book for children called All Small.  I’ve used her poems to teach children to notice the wonders of small things.  Small IS beautiful.  The world consists of countless small things and those small things are what what makes the world an incredible place of wonderment.

As I made those lists in my mind of small things, as I reflected on a selection of small items, I thought about the work of Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet who was a master of haiku – the 3 line poem of 5-7-5 syllables.

                                                  The old pond.                                                                                                                                           A frog leaps in.                                                                                                                                        Sound of the water.

                                                   **************

                                              Their own fire                                                                                                                                          Are on the trees,                                                                                             the fireflies Around the house with flowers.

 

I decided to try my hand at some haiku for this last week of April, focusing on the small all around me.  I offer these seven small things to you now.

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Apple blossoms pink                                                        Branches tap on my window                                        A burst of bright spring

 

 

 

 

 

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Here pinecones scatter                                   

Among the gray-green bracken                     

Thorny and silent

 

 

 

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Petals on petals

Circular meditation

Center holds beauty

 

 

 

 

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Salt, sand, surf meets shore

Shells in pink light perfect                                         

Curves – one to another

                                                                                                             

 

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Perfect sculpted fur                                            Squirrel’s not camera shy                                   Swishes his puffed tail

 

 

 

 

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Egret stands alone

Graceful curved neck – peaceful

Alert – swish of fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ming Tao Xuan or How to Relax in Old Montreal

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”          – C.S. Lewis

This summer I was fortunate to spend a week in Old Montreal, one of the most beautiful places in the northern hemisphere: cobblestone streets, majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, quaint shops and restaurants nestled on the St. Lawrence harbor.  It is really a delight for the senses.  My husband and I walked all over the city exploring all the different neighborhoods in Montreal. For me, Old Montreal is a respite from the world, a solace for my busy soul.   We’ve taken many trips to Montreal in the past five year, and so I’ve come to know this historic part of the city well.  I love exploring all the shops, tasting culinary specialties at the various restaurants and cafe, but the place I go to treat myself, to take a mindful breath in my day is Ming Tao Xuan Tea House on the corner of Rue de Brésoles and Rue Saint Sulpice in the shadow of Notre Dame Basilica.

Pushing open the heavy glass door, I am immediately transported to a realm of beauty and quietude.  It is a small space filled with wood and glass.  There are floor to ceiling cabinets filled with teapots of all shapes and sizes: iron, clay, and porcelain. Huge colorful porcelain urns sit atop the cabinets like peaceful, sleeping sentinels. There are only four tables in the tea house.  They are study, square, and ornately carved. I take a seat at one table in the back of the room near the small marble fountain. I look out the window at the crowds and city traffic, but cannot hear a sound.  This is truly a sanctuary.

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The proprietor comes to greet me,  a distinguished gentleman with dark-rimmed glasses.  He hands me a thick, celadon-colored menu.  The food offerings take up one page while the next twenty pages are filled with teas of every color, aroma, and taste imaginable.  I become a bit overwhelmed by the choices, but finally choose one that I think will sooth my stress away.  After sipping and savoring, I meditate on this beautiful place and write a poem to commemorate this moment.

 

Ming Tao Xuan

Glass and dark wood,

The sound of trickling water,

People whispering tales

Around heavy square tables

Carved with flowers and serpents.

I take a respite here –

Set down my bones, and books,

and heavy backpack.

A tall, old man in dark-rimmed glasses

Brings me a thick, celadon-colored menu,

Six items: mango salad, tofu envelope, steamed buns,

Chicken skewers, cookies, and cheese cake.

And pages and pages and pages of tea:

Black, green, red, yellow –

There is such a thing as yellow tea?

Yes – aromatic buckwheat.

I choose the tofu envelope

And the Jasmine Pearl tea,

Because if I had had a daughter

Jasmine Pearl would have been

A beautiful name for her –

Jasmine Pearl – lavender and green,

Delicate and sweet.

 

The waiter returns unrolling

A red rattan mat,

Places the teak tray on top,

Arranges the tiny porcelain tea set:

The tiny teapot with a lid

Etched with a bamboo design,

The rounded pitcher with the graceful handle,

And a small white bowl from which to sip.

He prepares the tea,

Allowing the buds to open,

Pouring the first cup

And emptying the water through

The slats of the teak tray.

Now it is ready,

Now it is time for me

To sample and savor,

Relieve my mind,

Release my imagination,

Among the iron, clay, and porcelain teapots

of the Ming Tao Xuan Tea House.

 

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Poet Found: Ross Gay

Back in February, I bought a slim volume of poetry because I loved the cover – a bright floral abstract and the title, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay.  I flipped to the first page – a poem about figs.  Figs – my Grandpa Charlie’s favorite and my favorite too.  I often splurge and buy a basket of them when they are in season, slice them in half and enjoy them twice as long, not sharing a single one of them with anyone!  All to myself – those figs are my treasure.  So yes, I knew I would love this book.  But of course, in my true inconsistent fashion, I forgot about the book before I read all of it, and it became wedged between my countless notebooks on my my bookshelf.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Last week, as I was ready to go off on vacation, I was looking for a sweet summer read. I pulled out the book, returned to the figs and was mesmerized. I read on and on trying to uncover the rhythm, welcoming the repetition, wondering how this young, gay, Black professor from Youngstown, Ohio composed words in lines I wished were my own. I invite you to dip into the nectar of his words.

Gay takes mundane things: buttoning his shirt, sleeping in his clothes, drinking water from his hands and creates a cadence you can’t help but read aloud and wonder: “How does he do that?” Something about the arrangement of his words and the sounds he created encouraged me to read his words aloud.  There is something so powerful – not just in the images, but in the sounds in composed. I read the book cover to cover, and over and over, trying to get his genius to repeat in my brain. Rereading his words opened the floodgates of sorrow and beauty, and I began to write poetry again. For this, I am grateful.

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The hotel used to be a sturdy and elegant bank,

On a street corner in Old Montreal:

A historic landmark, a fortress now for art:

Warhol, Indiana, Hirst, Magritte, Miro –

And there in the gilded frame

Against the pale yellow wall,

Monet’s garden peaks out:

Corner of Garden at Montgeron

Peaceful greens and blues,

Speckled pinks and dappled yellows –

Century-old paint

Brushed into being

To soothe me as I sit

In the yellow chair by the window

Anticipating sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

Write What You Notice

I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development.  I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes.  Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves.  I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark.   This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry.   However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years.  What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school?  Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry.  That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.

And of course, Penny had much to share.  She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it.  Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry.  I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me.  One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true:  Don’t write what you know – Write what you noticeAs a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment.  In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft.  I didn’t want anything to escape my notice.  I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.

Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.”  I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that.  I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father.  Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice.  Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone.  Who could I share this poem with?  I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen!  Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet.  I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand.  And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants.  Small world, indeed.  And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.

I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect.  I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share.  One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature.  This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary.  She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions.  My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts.  This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!

Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes.  Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry.  Here, she shows  pathways between the outside and inside world.  Here, there is a place for inmates to  explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption.  And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.

A Time for Apples

I don’t know whether it’s because my mom was a teacher or because I became a teacher and have been doing this for the last forty years… but I LOVE apples.  I keep an apple collection: marble, ceramic, crystal, brass – all kinds of apples to remind me that school has just started and like the crisp, fall apples – the year is full of sweetness and possibility.

One of my most favorite things to do in the fall is bake with children: picking, washing, peeling, slicing and incorporating apples into pies, cakes, and muffins.  It is not fall to me until the classroom is filled with that apple, sugar, cinnamon scent.  And it’s those memories students are fond of the most, the ones they want to repeat no mater how old they become. As the years pas, it has become important for me to provide apple memories to our Kindergarten students by reading the book, Apple Pigs by Ruth  Orbach, and making the aforementioned apple pigs.

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The book was first published in 1978, the year I graduated college.  When I became a nursery school teacher, I read the book to my young students.  They loved the rhyming text and the multitude of creatures who came to the apple feast.  At one point, Apple Pigs went out of print, and I couldn’t find it anywhere!  Even my local library had lost their rag-tagged copy. However, last year I decided to try one more time to find a copy. I was happily surprised that Apple Pigs had been reprinted in England. I quickly bought a copy and read it aloud to the Kindergarteners.  They loved the story and rejoiced in making the pigs.   Throughout the week, many children would find me to thank me for reading. They’d ask me when I was coming again and what we were going to make next.  Even older students, remembered the pigs and asked to make them again. It always amazes me how important good stories and good food stick in children’s memories.

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I think this activity is so appealing to children not only because they get to eat marshmallows, but because they take simple ingredients are able to quickly make something beautiful and delicious.  They want to make it again.  They go home and tell their family and friends.  Apple pigs  has become a tradition.  It is a tradition I gladly share now with generations of students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year

A New Way of Seeing

I am an educator, writer, and artist-photographer. All those disciplines hold at their core visualization. For the educator and student, it is the ability to visualize the possibilities and set a course to invent and re-invent oneself. For the writer, it is to find a way to communicate ones’ visions to others. And for the artist-photographer, it is to take what is seen and create a new figurative language that goes beyond words.

This summer, I visited Montreal. It is a place of juxtapositions, which I love so much:   French/English, old/new, tradition/experimentation. As I traveled the city, I looked for new ways to express this city’s heart. It is so different from New York, the city I know the best. In New York City, everyone rushes. You have to pull yourself back to truly notice the details of a cornice with squatting gargoyles sticking their tongues out at you. But in Montreal, the pace invites one to linger, to notice, to be attentive.

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During the summer I’m lucky enough to be able to travel to take a break from work allowing me to reflect on my teaching and the teaching practices of my colleagues. And this summer, I began to reconsider the importance of visual literacy. As a society, Americans rush around – DOING. Doing is paramount. If you are not busy doing something, then you are not worthy of success. However, it is those slow, thoughtful moments when people create the best. There can be no true creative expression without purposeful reflection.

Here are some easy ways in which to make visualization an important part of your teaching practice. You will be surprised by your students observations, some of which might have escaped your adult perception!

Guided Imagery: Listening and Imagining

download.jpgGuided imagery is one technique for bringing ideas to life.  Richard De Milne, in his book Put Your Mother on the Ceiling, offers teachers many imagery scripts, which he calls “games” to develop students’ visualization ability. When done systematically, visualization exercises increase student awareness and helps them create deeper understanding using one’s own “mind’s eye.”  Students begin to understand the many perspectives people can have when they visualize the same scene Teachers can further develop visual acuity by asking students to look closely at paintings and photographs, noticing everything they can.  Regular practice viewing art enhances analytic skills. Students need time to consider questions such as: What do you notice? What makes you curious?  What can you conclude? They need space to share their wonderings with their classmates to develop deeper understanding.

Looking Closely 

Now, instead of creating the image in their heads, encourage students to look closely at an image.  It can be a painting or a photograph.   Have students pair up, sitting eye-to-eye and knee-to- knee, to discuss what they are noticing and wondering about the photograph.  Then, as a whole group, discuss what the children noticed and wondered, making a chart of their responses.  Done regularly, this activity gets students to really tune in to detail and this skill begins to transfer their reading. It strengthens their observation skills.

Every Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I love to collect old photographs, beautiful art prints, and funny images that make me laugh and make me wonder.  I keep a box of them in my office and add to the collection periodically.  I often forget what I’ve collected and am pleasantly surprised when I sort through the box looking for some writing inspiration.  Students love looking through the image box too and it is amazing how many different stories, poems, and wonderings they written using the same photograph or painting.  They love sharing their stories and realizing at one picture can mean so many different things to different people.  That is the true essence of imagination!

Constructing What is Imagined: Exploring Place

A collection of doodads, gadgets, small everyday items people toss out: pen tops, springs, and plastic bits and pieces can lead to some unique explorations. This collection of recyclables can become a treasure trove for children tasked with constructing a sculpture, an invention, a bridge, or other edifice. Ask children to think about what they want to construct, visualizing what they need and how they will go about creating their structure.  Place all the materials at their fingertips and then stand back and watch them create what they have imagined. This exercise strengthens problem-solving skills, spurs children to be flexible in their thinking, and gives them a great amount of pride and ownership in completing their construction.  This is very similar to the experience young children have when they build with blocks, but in this activity the structure is  long-lasting and serves as evidence of their imaginations.

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Words

 

Some words feel wonderful in your mouth: benevolent, pashmina, Constantinople. They roll right off one’s tongue and into one’s imagination.  Words hold meaning and are the building blocks of all human thought. When I began teaching thirty-eight years ago, I marveled at my preschool students’ curiosity about words and how they could understand and use words far above their age and grade level.  One boy was so enamored with geology and dinosaurs that his vocabulary in these areas far surpassed mine, affording him the opportunity to be my teacher, and I, his attentive student!  I believe that spark of curiosity and imagination in learning vocabulary ignites the power to explore a universe of ideas and concepts.  Teachers consistently embed vocabulary learning throughout the day.  Word learning is not compartmentalized into the teaching spelling or phonics or reading.  It is integrated into all content areas.  For example, the word “boundary” may be introduced as a geographic word in social studies, but then used in physical education to describe the limits of a game, used in art to mean a shift in color, texture, or shape, or again in mathematics as boundary lines on a graph. This deep learning allows students to remember and recognize the new words they are learning and apply them across subjects.  Students at all grade levels are encouraged to use new vocabulary as they speak and write, constantly building their knowledge.

At the school, where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, we celebrate the love of words as a whole community by learning a new word each week. Every Monday, I post the word of the week, its meaning, and a sentence containing the word.  Teachers reinforce the Wonder Word throughout the week, and it often is added to class word walls or vocabulary charts, gradually becoming part of a student’s personal vocabulary bank.  Many of the words I choose coincide with a current theme such as “wisdom” in September to begin the year, “gratitude” in November to acknowledge Thanksgiving, or “absurd” in March to celebrate the work of Dr. Seuss. Those connections allow students to associate and visualize, helping them put new words into their long-term memory. At the end of the year, older students work together to create a vocabulary quiz show that incorporates some of their favorite words, and the whole school participates during our final school assembly. In this way all students celebrate the wonder of the words they’ve learned throughout the year. At the core of vocabulary learning is the love of words, the pure joy of expressing yourself with wondrous words that roll off your tongue!