My favorite lessons are nowhere in the district curriculum. (Don’t tell anyone.) Each year, I pull out some things to teach not because they are required or standards-aligned, but because they are really, truly, deeply interesting.
We learn about phenology, Native American burial practices, and why and how Western time became organized. We explore basic engineering and how to take field notes. We read sonnets and analyze their structure. All of this is great, but my absolute favorite thing to teach is etymology.
Last week, I started by holding up a river stone and asking, “Why do we call this a stone?”
“Because someone else called it a stone,” was the first answer, followed by a hesitant, “English?”
I challenged them. “But why did your parents call it a stone? Who first called it a stone? Do you think someone walked around the world pointing at things, and what she called them is exactly what we call them now?”
Kid curiosity is a powerful thing. Once I asked, they had to know. (Christopher Danielson, on his fantastic blog, refers to this as creating the headache for which only learning can provide relief.) They murmured at each other. For a couple of them, these first few moments were deeply discomfiting. We were about to destabilize something they’ve always taken for granted, and it made them uneasy. But this is the best part about teaching, because learning happens here, in this place where all of a sudden what you know no longer explains the world.
We started with history. I pointed out Europe and sketched a very basic Proto-Indo-European to Germanic to Old English to Old English + French to Middle English to Modern English. “English is a hot mess,” I told them. “It’s Germanic and Italic languages mashed up together. It borrows from practically every major language in the world. There’s a reason you have to spend half an hour every day just learning spelling when kids who learn other languages don’t. But the cool part about it is that if you know where to look, each word has a little history. That’s what we’re going to do in etymology. We’re going to learn the stories of words. And when we’re done, I guarantee you’ll see things in the language you never noticed before.”
“So wait,” said Carlos. His eyes widened. “How do you know where words come from?”
“You trace them back,” I said. “It’s like historical detective work. A lot of words you can recognize. Like in Old English, there’s a word: brōðor. Any guesses what it means?”
“Brother,” one of them said. I could practically see the lightbulbs.
That stumped them until Sara lit up and said, “Tooth!”
“Right on. And some words we use all the time connect to stories or legends.” With that, I gave them one of the best introductions to etymology I’ve found: pulling apart the days of the week. They sat with partners, murmuring over the days. They all found “sun” immediately, of course, and most found “Saturn.” They noticed that each day ended with “day.” When I prompted them to think about what day might pair with Sunday, they chewed on it for a while before noticing “mon” was just “moon” missing an o.
Then, we got to the fun part. “Here’s your hint: the days were named by people who believed in Norse gods,” I told the kids. “We’ve found the sun, the moon, and Saturn. What are the rest?”
They got back to work. Tuesday and Wednesday are tough, but suddenly, Aiden shot up in his chair and yelled “Thor!” Everyone turned to look at him as he explained: “Thursday! It’s for Thor! Thor’s day.”
I picked up my D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. “Now we’re moving.” I showed them the fantastic two-page spread of Norse gods, projecting it up on the screen. “Any other familiar names?”
At this point, rolling along, they identified everything except Wednesday. To be fair, that one’s tough. I explained about Odin and Woden, though, and they eagerly finished their annotations.
“That’s it for today, investigators,” I said. “Pack it in.”
The class dutifully put away their work and lined up for recess. As they stood in line, I eavesdropped on their conversations. Often, this is my best feedback on a lesson: no commentary, and it wasn’t sticky. If they’re still talking about it afterwards, we’ve done something right.
Every one of those kids was talking about the lesson. They shared who they wanted to tell about it. They asked each other questions: What about months? What about words like “yes” and “no”? What about words that are spelled strangely, like rhythm?
The bell rang, and they streamed out to play. I wandered the room tidying, and spent just a moment unhassled by educator evaluation or Common Core Standards or state test scores or school improvement progress. Just a moment loving that every day, I get to broaden minds. I mean really, how amazing is that?