The Work Around

I embrace mistakes. I do.  Really.  I don’t mind making mistakes.  I always think of creative ways to fix them.  I’m not sure how I developed this mindset.  Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family.  I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece?  How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right?  I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity.  It will be a success not a defeat.

Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead.  On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness.  Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.”  And I teach this to children.  No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block.  Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes.  Don’t be afraid.  Create something new.

I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom.  I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate.  It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine.  And they did. The space was loud and messy at times.  Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning.  It was a true play space.  No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design.  When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken.  From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun.  Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!

I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities.  The Wonder Lab started to remedy that.  We were just beginning.  But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton.  However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play.  They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets.  As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands.  This space was necessary.  It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around. 

For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air.  It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened.  There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office.  It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials.  I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter.  It would make a great wonder space for a small group!  I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building.  This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts.  When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head.  I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?”  She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up.  You are always thinking of another way to do things.”  I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them.  I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids.  I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!

One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative.  She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison.  A bison?  Yes, a bison.  Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison.  I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison.  Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned.  We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions.  During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play.  Simone asked for another big box.  I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.”  It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with.  Looking back, Simone has had a rough year.  COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated.  She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments.  But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus.  She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her.  She thought of a work around.  That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear.  I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.

During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately.  We talked about the obstacles she faced this year.  We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year.  As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head.  I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling.  Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity.  Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.  

Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg

Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Was That on Purpose of by Accident?  By Janelle Fenwick

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.

– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo

Word Play

Laughing Elbows

Last week, I was reminded of all the ways kids play with language.  They are not bound by grammar or convention.  They use their imaginations to express what they see and feel.  I read a recent post by fellow SOS blogger, Ramona. She wrote about her recent trip to the Oregon Coast with her grandsons.  At the end of the trip, she told her grandson Jack, “You make my heart happy!” Jack replied, “Grandma, you make my elbows laugh!”  This memory made me smile, and I was reminded of how wonderfully bright children see the world.  I guess that is why I have been a teacher for so many years.  I love to witness the wonder that little children experience every day.  I don’t want to let go of that. I am holding on tightly.

A Little Orange

At the beginning of my teaching journey, I worked at a nursery school.  I taught a mixed class in the afternoon of three to five-year-old children. It was a play-based cooperative school, which meant parents served as assistant teachers in some classes.  My afternoon class was wonderful because of the students’ mixed ages.  The younger children learned from the older ones, and sometimes the older ones learned from the younger ones.  One day, one of the girls, Anna, was sad and missed her mother. I put my arm around her and consoled her.  Fat teardrops ran down her face.  Just then, an older boy, Henry, came up and asked me why Anna was crying. I said, “She’s okay, Henry, she’s just feeling a little blue right now.” Immediately, Henry went over to Anna and patted her shoulder. He said, “Don’t worry Anna, I’m feeling a little orange myself.” I laughed.  “What does it mean to be a little orange?” I asked Henry. “It’s a little angry and a little sad mixed together he said matter-of-factly. I pulled Henry close and hugged him too.  I just loved how, without thinking, without knowing the conventional idioms, Henry was able to communicate and create his color code of feelings. He didn’t need permission, he just created on the spot.

Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown

When I taught 2nd grade, we would study a new artist every month.  We would read about each artist and then try out an art project in that same style or with the same materials. During one of these classroom studio sessions, I set out a still life with colorful flowers and a deer skull since we were exploring the art of Georgia O’Keefe.  I set out pots of paint and paper, encouraging students to create what they saw.  One of my students, Matthew, who had limited experience with mixing paint, became engrossed in the activity. He dipped and blotted moving from one pot to the next, eventually announcing that he had discovered a new color. “Look everybody!” he shouted excitedly, “I made Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown!  He was so excited by his discovery that he gave each of his classmates a sample of his new color, and they in turn added his color to their palettes. That day, Matthew began to see himself in a new light, as someone who could create art out of simple materials.  He was the inventor of Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown!  That free exploration and the process of reading, writing, and making art, allowed the children to think of themselves as creators of both art and language.

Looks Like Mashed Potatoes

This past Monday, I got to spend recess time with our Junior PreK.  Every time I walk out into the playground, three-year-old (now four-year-old) faces run up to greet me with shouts of: “Look at me! Let’s play catch! Tag! You’re it. Come on, RUN!”  One of the boys, Ian, ran up to me and said, “It’s sunny.”  Ian is an English language learner.  His vocabulary has grown tremendously this year.  He is now ready to take more risks, reaching out to teachers and peers to express what he is thinking.  I wanted to extend our conversation, so I said, “Yes, it’s warm today and look at those big white clouds.”  Ian looked up and said, “Clouds.”  I replied, “That one looks like a turtle.  And that one looks like a pirate ship.”  I exclaimed.  Ian kept looking quietly.  Emma heard our conversation and looked up at the sky intently. “I see a big doggy and a fish over there,” she said, pointing.  Emma and I kept looking and listing all we saw in the clouds: a castle, a banana, a tree, a giraffe, even an elephant!  Ian looked up watching the clouds.  Then Brittany came over and looked at Emma and me.  She looked up at the sky, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “They all look like mashed potatoes,” and walked away.  I laughed.  There has to be one practical one among the dreamers, I suppose.  The children played for the rest of recess, running, skipping, digging, and sliding. As we were about to go back inside, Ian tugged at me and pointed at the sky, “Dragon,” he said with a smile. I smiled and looked up into the sky, “Yes, a dragon,” I said. There stood another dreamer, who skipped happily inside.

As the school year wraps up, I have been thinking about how important imagination is for learning.  I think about how we don’t so much need to carve out time for play, but just need to step aside and trust the children.  They know what they are doing.  They can take simple items – a stick, a rock, a box – and create a whole kingdom. They can take simple words and create a language that is expressive, creative, and unique.  They can build messages that surprise and inspire.

Five Books to Uplift Your Imagination

  • Chimpanzees for Tea by Jo Empson
  • It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Max’s Castle (and Max’s Words) by Kate Banks
  • Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer
  • The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak

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.

Room 109                                                                                                                                                by Joanne L. Emery

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Being Present to Joy

My colleagues worry about not having time enough to teach.  They have so much content they need and want to cover.  As a curriculum coordinator, I create tons of documents – benchmarks, scope & sequences, lists of standards by grade level to make sure we don’t miss teaching one single skill or strategy.  This is all well and good.  In fact, this is our job: to give our students a quality education.

However,  as I observe many classrooms, I’m realizing that we certainly cover lots of material and teach a myriad of skills, but we often forget the joy of learning.  Often, we cannot find time for stopping and laughing and celebrating what we’ve accomplished.  Many of us squeeze in as many skills and strategies as we can and are grateful that we complete them so we can check them off our lists, our every increasingly long lists.  We’ve forgotten how to be present to a children’s sense of wonder, a student’s newfound knowledge, someone’s struggle with a difficult concept and then – click – her instant understanding.  When we are in a constant hurry, we miss these things.   This view was noted in an October 12, 2013 blog post by Pernille Ripp: “I stopped telling them what to do and waited for them to figure it out.  Sure I ended social studies 4 minutes before I normally do, but we still got through it, they still had the time they needed, and at the end of the day we walked out as the first group in our building with smiles on our faces.”  It is crucial that when students and teachers walk out of their schools that there are smiles and a feeling of achievement – a day well spent.”

Recently,  I was witness to classroom joy during an activity I designed.  Every November, we read aloud Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet to our 2nd grade students.  The book is about the work of Tony Sarg, who was the first person to create the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. After the students listened to the story and watched a slide show about Sarg’s life and accomplishments, the girls were tasked with creating their own parade balloons using paper, glue, scissors, and lots of imagination.  Each year,  I marvel at the ingenuity of these young students as their balloons take shape: unicorns, pandas, a cube, floating ballerinas, griffins, and more imaginative creatures.

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During our balloon making workshop, as the girls were cutting, glueing, and revising their designs, they spontaneously broke into song,  singing in harmony “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. No one told them to start singing.  They just were happy creating their balloons and began to sing as they worked.  Their classroom teacher and I smiled at each other and watched as they continued to work productively.  It’s in these moments of joy that children truly learn.  There were so many skills and strategies that the girls were applying and using.  They were right in the midst of what Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” It is this optimal condition that we want all students to attain for it promotes independent thinking and motivation.  As Ellin Oliver Keene notes in her book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8, “Engagement…  is characterized by feeling lost in a state that causes us, on one hand to forget the world around us, to become fully engrossed. On the other hand, when engaged, we enter into a state of wide-awakeness that is almost blissful. We want to dig more deeply into our reading or listening or learning or taking action; we allow emotions to roll over us; we’re eager to talk with others about an idea—we’re even aware of how extraordinary or beautiful those moments are.”

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I urge all teacher to be open to those joyful moments.  Embrace them, make time for them, and realize that within joy lives true engagement, motivation, and life-long learning.

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Books for Teachers:

Mindfulness for Teachers by  Patricia A. Jennings

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

Practicing Presence by Lisa J. Lucas

Teach Happier by Sam Rangel

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Books for Children: 

All My Treasures: A Book of Joy by Jo Witek

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke

Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling

Every Little Thing by Bob Marley

Happy by Pharrell Williams

If You’re Happy and You Know it by Jane Cabrera

Joy by Corrinne Averiss

100 Things that Make me Happy by Amy Schwartz

Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Taking a Bath with the Dog: and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows

 

 

 

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!