Mnany, Mnany Mnemonics

shutterstock_389332456Our department read the wonderful The Skin That We Speakby Lisa Delpit, a couple years back, and while every chapter of that book could be its own focal point for an entire department overhaul at most high schools, we committed ourselves to addressing the challenges of code switching for students in their writing. It turns out kids are pretty much naturals at code switching (switching between various dialects or other linguistic patterns from one context to another). But they have to know a code and its corresponding context before they can “switch” into it.

Maybe that’s why it was such an epiphany the other day when two of my “besties” (code switch!) at work had a rather funny exchange regarding a co-curricular writing assignment. In the midst of explaining the organizational structure of their work, my friend was suddenly bombarded by the students shouting: “Dorito of Tension! Dorito of Tension!” All to her understandable confusion, of course.

It didn’t take long for her to figure out that her co-teacher over in the Social Studies department had his own name for the structure of their writing. Later on she texted him (with all their pals cc’d for laughs), “What the heck is a ‘Dorito of Tension’?” She knew, of course, that it’s a mnemonic device, and a right funny one at that.

But the minor incident does bring up a broader issue.

A Thesis by Any Other Name

We all find ways to help kids wrap their heads around dense concepts and structures and nuances. In some sense one might even argue that it’s the core of our work–finding effective ways of getting some really complicated ideas to make sense for a LOT of kids in a VERY short time window.

The trouble is, the more individualized these efforts become, the more we create discrete, isolated dialects and vernaculars within our own classrooms, PLCs, grade levels, buildings, etc. Our department has been lucky enough to be gifted some time to work on vertical alignment between grades. But even with those efforts, we’ve discovered just how much we confuse kids with language barriers of our own making.

Let’s take the example that I think is most likely to be present in most districts: the language we use to discuss writing. To a professional in our field, a thesis is a main idea–is a topic sentence–is a claim.

To a kid? You might have just laid out four different tasks for her with no sense that they’re interchangeable. If this happens from grade to grade, the language transition may very well be guided–eventually a kid learns several terms for the same writing construct and is better prepared for the diversity of college professors.

But quite often it doesn’t happen that way at all. What happens, for example, when a kid has an English teacher who calls it a “thesis” and a history teacher the next hour who calls it a “claim”? I know the easy answer feels like, “Uh, he learns to read directions and figure it out.” But let’s imagine for a second that this student also has a history of struggling with writing. He isn’t great at organizing his ideas, he doesn’t always get how to choose the best evidence, and he tends to stray off topic.

Now multiply this sudden code-switching by all the other elements of a writing piece. Are they “examples” or “supporting ideas” or “quotes”? Is it a “conclusion” or “synthesis”? Do you offer “counterpoints” or “alternate perspectives”?

You get the idea. And none of this terminology is wrong! It’s the transitioning between several names for the same concept that I think is killing some kids.

My Mnemonics

Which brings me to the problem. I don’t have a solution to this one. We all get very attached to our mnemonic devices and cleverly named assignments and graphic organizers, and well we should! These are a part of our classroom culture and that’s really important!

And yet, kids understanding the complexity of writing and other concepts over time is also important. If we aren’t creating a cohesive enough narrative for them over time to internalize all of those intricate ideas, then I think we also have to stop asking ourselves why our seniors so often still lean so hard on those same graphic organizers and goofy mnemonics that we all thought they’d leave behind much earlier in their writing careers.

Perhaps it’s no wonder so many of our writers tell us that when they have to write they always end up feeling a bit salty (code switch!).

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Notes from the Classroom

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