One of the things that amazes me about children is how much they want language. They like to know words. They like learning words. They like naming things. They like naming things so much that they do it wrong alot, they generalize and make connections or associations that we as adults see as incorrect, but are generally quite intelligent in their path.
The other thing that I've noticed, that has been driven home to me again and again this year, is that if children don't have the language they need to describe something, they will make it up themselves.
In first grade, we've been focusing on Geometry. A lot. We've found shapes, we've touched them, we've played with them until our minds are so steeped with triangles that we see them everywhere!
And, yet, six year olds don't typically don't have the words that we all find later in life: equilateral, isosceles, acute, hypotenuse. Yet, they are holding in their hand actual examples of each of these things, and they need to find words to describe them. It's fascinating to watch.
Alejandro described (an equilateral) triangle to our class not too long ago. He touched each side and said:
"It goes: corner, slide side, corner, slide side, corner, slide side. Then that's the end."
Several of the students nodded, several just looked at him, and six more were already raising their hands to share their own ideas about a triangle.
I didn't pay too much attention to Alejandro's definition at the time; I had also nodded at him (encouragingly, of course), but I hadn't understood what he meant and didn't take the time to probe further. I should have.
Well, Majid did that for me instead.
The next day, Majid was using our Power Polygons and touching each of them, paying particular interest to the triangles. I went and sat down next to him, just watching what he was doing. At the time, he had an isosceles and a right triangle in front of him.
"Are those the same?" I asked.
"They're a little the same," he said. "But they're also different."
"How are they different?"
He took the isosceles triangle and said, "This one goes: slide side, slide side, slide side." Then he picked up the right triangle. "But this one goes slide side, straight side, then straight side again."
The straight sides he talked about were the two sides that formed the right angle.
"Why are those 'straight sides'?" I asked.
"Well," he said without hesitation, "see that part?" He pointed to the right angle. "It's different than the other parts because it makes the sides straight."
During this time, I noticed that he used the word straight to describe something and wondered if he also knew the difference between curved and straight (ie, was he choosing the word "straight" because he didn't have another word to use it -- or was straight v. curved something he didn't know yet). I made a note to ask about the curved vs. straight thing later, but didn't want to interrupt the flow of the conversation.
"So this corner," I said, pointing to the right angle, "is different than the other corners?"
"It does have a special name, actually, do you want to know it?"
He nodded vigorously.
"It's a right angle, or a square corner."
"Oooh!" he said. "Square like a square!"
"That's right. Can you find a square?"
"Put the square on top of the triangle and match up the corners."
He did and noticed that the right angle of the triangle was the same corner that was on the square.
Then Majid started looking for other right triangles and matching them up with the square. He tried other triangles, but realized that the angles didn't match up.
So, the thing that struck me -- apart from just the brilliance that children can have when they're allowed to just mess about with something -- is that Majid understood Alejandro's use of "slide side" from days before, then made his own interpretation of it and put his own name onto another kind of side on the triangle -- the "straight" side.
Now, other students haven't messed about enough with the shapes to be able to really see and describe the difference between the other triangles, but Majid not only saw it, he wanted to name it. He took the language that someone else had given him, and then added his own. What I see is our class developing our own vernacular to describe what we're learning. It's such an interestingly organic process to be a part of.
I have an amazing job.