My niece is becoming something of a celebrity among students. I wrote a few days back about how students see her picture and get all gooey-eyed. But then I made the mistake of actually telling a story about her in class. Now kids I don't even teach are coming into my classroom and talking about her.
When I started teaching, I made this solemn statement and vow: I hate teachers that spend class time talking about their own children and/or pets. I will never become one of those teachers.
Well, as in most things in life, never say never. I don't have any children, so I can't talk about them. I do have a cat, and I have mentioned her from time to time. But here's what used to bother me: I could make a tiny little mention about my cat, and then months later students would still be asking, "So, how's your cat?" But I think I've figured this out: Having a child, or a niece, or even a cat, makes the teacher a little more human to these students. And they are desperately looking for some kind of human connection.
Anyway, as most English teachers, I have a Word Wall up in my room. It's a place where we can hang newly learned vocabulary. To introduce my Word Wall and to get them to do some creative thinking, I told this story:
"I was talking to my niece recently. She's about three and a half. And if you have any young kids around you, you know that little kids just love to talk. But they sometimes don't know the right word, so what do they do? They tell you the story anyway."
As I'm talking, I can see most kids listening, smiling, making some comment, like: "Yeah, I've got a little brother. He just won't shut up." Things like that.
I continue: "Well, my niece was telling me about some movie, I think it was Cars."
Half the students are now chattering about Cars, about how they've seen it and think it's great.
"I asked her when she saw it, and she said, 'I saw it yesternight.'" I pause. "Now, is that a real word? If I open up ... this dictionary, will I find yesternight?"
We discover as a class that "yesternight" is not in our dictionaries, even though we can find it online, but it's not in common usage, so we can't say it's a real word, but we conclude that we don't care, because it makes sense, we understand what she meant, and in fact, we like it because it's specific. "She didn't see the movie in the day, when the sun was out," one student sums it up nicely. "She saw it at night. So, it wasn't yesterday, it was yesternight!"
This leads to a discussion about how little children are often smarter than teenagers; well, maybe not smarter, but definitely less afraid of making mistakes.
"When you're older, you're afraid of what people are going to think when you make a mistake," one tough-looking dude says, and I wonder if this guy is really afraid of what anyone else says about him.
"Well," I say. "Today, I want you to make mistakes. Retreat back to your childhood, and make something up. No one will laugh." The assignment is to create five new words in English, words that aren't in the dictionary but that make sense anyway. The best ones will go on the Word Wall.
After school, I'm hanging out with a student I taught last year, and he's telling me how much he loves A Clockwork Orange, and I'm wondering if it was really a good idea to tell high school juniors about that movie. One of my homeroom students comes in with two friends. I did not tell my "yesternight" story to my homeroom students, so she doesn't know about my niece, but her friends want to see my Word Wall anyway.
"There it is," one of the girls says, "yesternight!"
"Oh, I know," the other one says. "Your niece was talking about a movie, and you asked her when she saw it, and she said, 'yesternight.' See? And I'm not even one of your students!"
"I'm impressed," I say.
"I'm going to be in your class next year," she says.
"Yeah," I say, thinking, wow, some stories travel fast. "And I'm going to have to come up with new stories about my niece."