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Words, Wonderful Words

Updated on December 10, 2012

The Beauty of Our Language

Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, on Fresh Air, December 10, 2012, and the questions turned to language. Gross mentioned that Handler revives old slang in his books for kids. She identified specifically roadster, ruffian, and gimcrack. Handler laughed at one point and said "if one child refers to the car in his/her carpool as a roadster, I will have won." Handler and Gross went on to discuss the language that children pick up from the Lemony Snicket books.

Their discussion of words made me think of ones I like. I went to college at Louisiana Tech, Ruston, LA, at a time when women students met their dates in the parlor of the dorm. Parlor is an old fashioned word that has fallen out of fashion. I have revived it somewhat! I teach Comp I and II at Tulsa Community College. My classes meet in a large computer-equipped classroom, but one side of the room forms an ersatz parlor or living room with three mini-couches and two matching chairs. By taking chairs from the computers and placing them with the couches and chairs, the class can discuss assigned readings comfortably. When I ask the students to move to that section of the room, I call it our parlor.

Before long in a class, I notice that even the fresh out of high school students are calling our informal seating area "the parlor." In several of the evaluations for the course, students mentioned their enjoyment of our discussions in the parlor. I think the students enjoyed the fact that we all sat together, no one standing as in a lecture and no one taking a lead--we were equal in our opportunities to share ideas about a given assignment. If the discussions should lag, I have questions prepared to use, but I have found that I rarely have to resort to my questions. Because I have created the informal atmosphere, students feel safe in voicing their opinions and enjoy asking their own questions. I do not have to answer the questions either; their fellow students are eager to answer.

Occasionally, during some of our discussions in the parlor, I use some discussion toys that add a bit of fun to the sessions. I have a set of foam objects that lead to ideas in discussion: a heart, an eyeball, an ear, a question mark, a brain, and a light bulb. I am always pleased with the creative ways that students can use these objects and relate them to an assigned reading. Also, we pass the items around so that everyone has an opportunity to use the object to relate to the reading. They always rise to the occasion and each person comes up with something new--none of the "what he said" or "I agree with her."

My train of thought about the parlor started from hearing the interview with Handler. I'd like to return to that interview because Handler and other children's writers gently nudge children into learning and using new vocabulary through the books. Handler told about hearing children use ersatz and penultimate correctly. When I hear people say they don't read fiction because they want to learn something when they read, I point out to them they are learning from reading fiction as well as nonfiction. Daniel Handler just proved it!


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