September 24, 2021

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Making Vocabulary Instruction Active With Language Field Guides

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One of my former students, Michelle Kirchner, is a Ph.D. student in entomology and biology at North Carolina State University. Her specialty is ants.

Whether 70 feet up in a tree or digging a hole to find them, Michelle learns about ants by taking careful notes in her field notebook, building a record of her discoveries — precise GPS measurements of each habitat’s location, the weather (including humidity and temperature), the type of tree or plant on which an ant is found, neighboring animals that are present, interesting ant behaviors, pictures from the field and her hypotheses about the species of ant she is collecting.

These field notes, created through an alchemy of persistence, patience and wonder, construct new understandings of various ant species, how they interact with their environment and how human development affects them.

“My field notes are valuable to me because they’re the record of all of my work,” she said, “and while they are very useful to me, the notes may also be useful in 100 years for future scientists.”

With naturalists as our mentors, my students have been creating their own field notes to record their discoveries about words in their natural habitats — words we find in our reading, but also words they are learning in history class and geometry and music and at dance rehearsal and baseball practice. Collected together, these notes construct students’ understanding of language, how it works, how it evolves and how they can tap into its power.

Each “note” is essentially a one-pager, exploring a single word from myriad angles. It relies on a combination of words and images to explore the nuances of a word’s ecosystem. When we compile these over the course of the year, we have made a field guide for language itself.

Like notes about a rare species of ant, language field guides help readers and writers better understand how words behave: how they work in authentic sentences, where to find them, what other words or phrases they hang out with, what they sound like and how to use them.

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