Tennyson Street School: terms

Terms: (n) words or phrases used to describe something or to express a concept, especially in a particular language or branch of study; expressions, idioms, names, titles, labels, designations, appellations, monikers, descriptors
(n) fixed or limited periods for which something lasts or is intended to last; time, stint, spell, duration, run
(n) periods in the year, alternating with holidays or vacations, during which instruction is given in a school, college, or university, or during which a court holds sessions; semester
(n) stipulated conditions or requirements under which an action may be taken or agreement reached, as, “come to terms”


All I had to say was, “Remember when we didn’t do our words?” The first graders, still drunk on fresh air and playground mayhem, would sober up instantly. That memory would live forever in six-year-old infamy.

On that day of reckoning, they had arrived spoiling for a fight. When I collected them for Lab, I always picked them up on the playground, sometimes literally, like when Espe was chasing a boy through the climbing towers and launched herself from the final platform, crashing into me as she tried to land and turn simultaneously.

They squirmed and spun and jumped down the hall. Maybe they were late getting out to recess. That happened frequently. Or maybe this day, discord waited, inevitable; maybe the unseen stars burned in their galaxies, poorly aligned.

“I don’t want…to do…words,” Espe slowly intoned, stretching disinterestedly in her chair.

“Yeah! Can’t we just read now?” Angus asked plaintively.

“Yes, yes,” Sunny nodded eagerly.

How to read without words. I typically reviewed a few terms in their next book before handing it to them. New vocabulary can be tricky, and downright frustrating – so frustrating that some kids will just throw the book down in defeat. The program’s vocab support step was supposed to ease that aggravation.

“You want to read first, or do words first?”

“READ!” all three voices chimed.

“All right – here you go….” I passed out the tiny picture books with one line of repetitive text per page.

Then I sat back and watched.

They immediately flipped the covers open and dug in. Dug in hard. Lips didn’t just move – words were whispered, harshly, becoming louder as they tried to talk through each unexpected road block. It reminded me of people talking loudly to new English speakers, as if volume were the obstacle.

The boggy ground under our tiny Battle of See-Bull-Run was littered with discarded words.  All three digressed into swampy territory until, mired and exasperated, they began calling for help.

“What’s THAT word?”

“I don’t know this one….”

“Ms. Barbara, I can’t read it!”

I helped them laboriously sound out words and fed them the beginnings of answers. Reading took twice as long as usual, and their brains were more than twice as muddy from the relentless effort. We didn’t have any time to write or color. They’d been routed from the field, and I dropped them off to their classroom exhausted.

We forget how much work children do each day at school, how much of life they have not yet experienced and for which they have no words. My grandma, home on the farm, saw her own children’s curiosity and tenacity tested and strengthened daily. She wrote sweet poetry about her days with them, noticing their engagement with the world.

“Mother, won’t you come and see?”
Says the toddler with much glee
As he tugs at my finger and I go along,
Wondering at his hurry. What could be wrong?
Then he drops to his knees at the edge of the grass
And watches with rapture as a worm crawls past.

— from “Mother Won’t You Come and See,” Florence Jensen, 1979

How much these first graders would have preferred to learn from watching that worm’s battle through long grass, instead of hacking through their underbrush of unknown vocabulary.

The next day, I’d held one copy of that same book in front of them. They all moaned.

“Yesterday, I was planning to tell you some of the tricky words in this book, before you started reading. Who can tell me: why do we look at the words before we start?”

Hands shot into the air.


“So we will know how to say them.”

“Yes. And? Espe.”

“So we can read our book easier.”

“Perfect.” I looked to my left. “Angus?”

Angus scowled. “I can’t read it.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “I can’t read.”

“You got stuck on that one word, over and over, didn’t you,” I clarified, nodding.

“It’s not fair! I don’t know that word!”

I looked at him, waited a beat, and smiled broadly. “Exactly right, Angus!”

His surprised face followed me as I turned to the other two. “You’re all right.” I held up the offending book again. “Yesterday, I was going to show you that this word – “ and I opened the book and pointed – “is ‘smooth.’ And this one – “ I turned the page – “is ‘rough.’

“And this one, Angus,” and here I turned the open book to him, so he could face his nemesis. “This is the one that wasn’t fair, huh. This one.” I tapped the horrid word. He nodded miserably. Then I showed it to the girls.

“Jill.” We all nodded solemnly together.

“A person’s name, Jill. And you’re right, Angus – you’ve never seen that name before, have you? So you wouldn’t know that word.”

I sat up taller, showing them how we steel our resolve toward mastery over all the Jills of this world. “So – since that’s not fair,” and I made sure I had eye contact with each one, “THAT’S why I show you the tricky words each day. To make it fair.”

I held up yesterday’s book. “Should I put this one away now?”

“YES!” They hated Jill for how she’d made them feel and never wanted to see her again. I unceremoniously dropped it into a book bin.

“So today, I have a new book: A Surprise. I wonder what the surprise could be? Before you start, let’s look at some of the words you will read.”

Negotiating at our tiny treaty table, three little heads bobbed and nodded, leaning forward, ready for their vocabulary review.