The Joy of Birds (not directly about words)

It’s been a good bird week. In our yard alone, in addition to the brown-headed cowbirds, chipping sparrows, house finches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, Northern cardinals (There is the most gorgeous male I’ve ever seen that comes to the backyard feeders.), tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, Eastern bluebirds, American robins, blue jays, mourning doves, and Northern mockingbirds, I’ve seen American goldfinches, a rose-breasted grosbeak (a few times!), ruby-throated hummingbirds, brown thrashers, Carolina wrens, an indigo bunting, a white-crowned sparrow, an Eastern meadowlark off in the field behind the house, and just this morning, a pileated woodpecker held us captive at the window as it went after the stump in the backyard. We didn’t dare move so no photos. It was fascinating watching it chip away and insert its beak and then, not in our sightline, extend its tongue to get at the termites or other insects living in the rotting wood. It angled its head this way and that. It was there a good long time before it lifted its head, sounded its Woody Woodpecker call, and flew off. It was an awe inspiring way to start the morning.

Since Ken is working from home, he’s been creating scads of wonderful nature and conservation education videos. Sometimes I get to help, either with my photos or holding something. Occasionally, I spark an idea for a video. The biggest benefit for me is I get to accompany him as he obtains video footage and photographs. Yesterday, we were recording a skit to help people identify birds. At the end, the bird is identified as a blue grosbeak. We finished recording and within two minutes, I spotted a blue grosbeak just a few yards away. It was as if it heard us talking and came by to lend a hand with the video. As we moved on through fields of wildflowers, I took pictures of butterflies and bumblebees. I saw an Eastern kingbird, another blue grosbeak, a white-crowned sparrow, a red-tailed hawk, and a great blue heron’s tracks in the mud. Also I took photos of barn swallows and ruby-throated hummingbirds at his center. (We aren’t allowed in, but we can observe the outside.)

I’ve heard plenty more birds recently, too. There’s an Eastern phoebe somewhere nearby. A pair of Bobwhites call to us from the field. Ken can whistle and elicit a call from them. We heard a whippoorwill last evening. And of course, there are bird calls I hear that I can’t identify, but I’m working on learning them. Audubon offers online help with that and the guide books describe the various calls although I don’t find that as helpful as actually hearing the call.

I derive so much joy from watching and listening to birds. With so much uncertainty and hardship surrounding us all, I feel fortunate to be able to sit on the front porch swing and take in the beauty of the nature in front of me. I encourage you to find that joy, that beauty in nature, too. As Ken says, “Be outside often.”

Words’ Worth

I didn’t go to kindergarten. It wasn’t mandatory then. I had a stay-at-home mom and both of my parents read to me. My dad used to read bible stories to me before I fell asleep. I don’t remember deliberately learning the meanings of words. I suppose I asked what a word meant if I didn’t know. Once I started school, I practiced reading with a speed reader machine. I was good at it. Phonics was a daily occurrence as was the pledge of allegiance and the routine fingernail check. We recited the long and short vowel sounds: a, aah, e, eh, i, ih, o, aw, u, uh. We studied word families. I learned all of the ate family words, for example, and then moved on to the ite family. As I moved up in grades, I began to learn root words and their meanings via spelling lists. I was expected to know how to spell the words as well as define them and use them in sentences.

My learning shifted from memorizing words out of context to knowing and using terms (the word for the words even changed) in specific subject areas. Science, math, and social studies were loaded with their own language. English, too, had grammar, sentence, literature, and literary terms. And of course, the better reader I became, the more words I learned from books.

I’ve spent much of my teaching career helping kids better their vocabularies. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time researching methods meant to make that an easier job than it usually is. I discovered there is no single way to teach vocabulary effectively. The whole language movement swept in early in my career, shoving phonics to the background and in some instances, out of the classroom all together. It became not only acceptable, but kids were encouraged to invent their own spelling of a word. The important part was they felt free to write, to get their thoughts down on paper; the fact that few could understand what they were trying to communicate was insignificant. Spelling and vocabulary lists disappeared. Students created their own lists of words as they needed them. My students had words on index cards connected by a ring with them as they wrote. (This method from Sylvia Ashton Warner, I learned when getting my masters.) They learned Greek and Latin word parts, too, because I remembered how much knowing those roots and affixes helped me in the upper grades. We spent time figuring out words from context. Mine was a multi-pronged approach. Some might say scattershot. Kids increased their vocabularies and that was what mattered most.

I am strolling you down my memory lane because I am curious as to how you learned your vocabulary. Were you a whole language kid or were you a vocabulary list kid?

I love crossword puzzles and have done them as long as I can remember. I owe a lot of my vocabulary knowledge to them. I’ve always been a writer, seems like, so words are my jam. I’m a poet, too, which means spending hours with a thesaurus in search of the perfect word. Being a life-long (at least so far) learner means new words present themselves frequently. Studying birds and mammals of Arkansas or the night sky has garnered me at least five new words (crepuscular, dimorphism, bolide, extirpated, melanism). I read a ton and that pastime is still a great source of new vocabulary as well. I think it is important to have the right word for whatever thought I want to express. (Another article regarding this is forthcoming.) How about you? What is your thinking on the importance of vocabulary? Are you still picking up new words? If so, how are you going about gaining them? I’d love to hear from you.