Why This Digital Teacher Loves Paper Dictionaries
A MiddleWeb Blog
The topic of dictionaries came up in assorted conversations in the past few weeks, reminding me both of the power of those esteemed books of words, as symbols of thought and scholarship, and the ways in which technology is completely altering the ease and means of how we find information when we need it.
This latter point is no doubt obvious to anyone who spends time in a school or is at home with a child of a certain age. My sixth grade students rarely reach for the pile of dictionaries that I have in my classroom anymore, unless instructed to do so. They itch to use the computer to look up words.
So I — the word nerd that I am — was pleasantly surprised the other day when, as we were working on some poetry, I witnessed a handful of students in each of my classes wandering over to use our bound, electricity-free, no-tech thesauruses and dictionaries as they were seeking “just the right word” for their writing.
To be honest, we don’t have easy access to computers in my classroom (teachers have to sign up for a rolling cart that gets shared by the entire school), and so a class discussion soon ensued about whether the paper-and-ink dictionary is more effective than assorted websites that allow you to search for words with a click of the mouse.
While most students agreed that, given the choice, they would first reach for technology if it were available. But there were a few passionate defenders of the dictionary as an honored book on the shelf, including one young writer who noted that she liked to “stumble across words, and you can’t do that with a website.”
Words with the Mothers’ Club
Interestingly, another conversation about dictionaries took place during a recent presentation I gave about digital citizenship and Internet safety with a Mothers’ Club in the small town where I teach. This group of mothers and grandmothers is very active in local politics, and its members have been strong supporters of our school.
Before I began my talk about youth and the digital world, I thanked them for a gift they give every year to all of our sixth graders as they leave our elementary school to move on to the regional middle and high school: a Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.
It’s a huge, thick, red tome that is presented each year to every single sixth grader during our Recognition Night ceremonies in June. The Mothers’ Club covers the cost of the dictionaries (which, as you can imagine, is quite a bill when there are 80 dictionaries to buy each year). Each student’s name is elegantly printed on the inside of the book.
It’s quite a sight to look up on our stage at the end of the night, seeing all those students in their fancy clothes carrying dictionaries as tokens of their time at our school.
But, as you can imagine, there are discussions ensuing among us teachers and, as it turns out, among members of the Mothers’ Club, about whether dictionaries are still an apt parting gift for student scholars who are more likely to turn to their cell phone to find the meaning of a word than they are to open up their shiny red book. Some wonder if a flash drive would be more relevant? Or some other book? Does the dictionary still have meaning?
What would Mrs. Granger do?
In the end, I made the argument to the Mothers’ Club and my colleagues that the value of the dictionary itself goes beyond the words it contains. The gift of a dictionary is a visible and tangible symbol of learning, as well as a show of the support each and every student receives from the community and from the school.
Yes, it might not get used all that often. It might sit there on the bookshelf for long stretches of time. It might collect some dust. But the dictionary is a solid reminder of their educational journey at our school, and, as Mrs. Granger — the fictional teacher in Andrew Clements’ wonderful book about the invention of words, Frindle — notes, words have power. The dictionary is the place that holds those words together as common knowledge. We should cherish the way a dictionary documents our language and stories.
The Crazy Collaborative Dictionary
Finally, not long ago, as we were studying the origin of the English Language, my students were learning about the development of the dictionary from a historical perspective. We studied where words come from, how they stand the test of time, and how modern culture always impacts our use of language.
Students then contributed their own invented words to an ongoing venture called the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary. This wiki-based project allows for cross-year collaboration of sixth graders, and demonstrates how dictionaries are continually in the midst of change over time. Each year, they add new words to the list, and the dictionary project now totals more than 800 invented words over a nine-year period.
Yes, the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary is online. But who knows? Maybe someday, one of my students will be looking through a physical dictionary and “stumble upon” one of our invented words that took hold and become part of the lexicon. It could happen, right? One can hope.