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March 11, 2021

Teaching for Civic Engagement: Vocabulary for Action

See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action

In order for students to engage in effective civic engagement, I fundamentally believe that they have to master the vocabulary to identify and analyze problems in our society, plan an action step, and reflect on their work. With this goal in mind, I attempt to plan specific vocabulary lists each week that build on each other, both within a unit and across the year, to accumulate into a complex database of language that students can use to analyze and change their world.

In this post, I’ll describe some of the weekly routines I use to support vocabulary development, then explain some specific vocabulary sets and the civic engagement learning goals I’m trying to accomplish with those specific words.

Each week, except when we’re working on a larger assessment, I collaborate with my partner teacher to develop a list of six vocabulary words for the week. The goal in choosing six specific words is that at the end of the week, students can use those words to describe a major concept from the week.

I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful to frame my planning around focal vocabulary words because it helps ground my instruction in specific content goals. I often find myself overwhelmed with content learning goals and excited to go in a number of different directions. Having the vocabulary as an anchor helps me focus my teaching and make sure that students are learning a few key concepts well, rather than trying to cover too much superficially.

Diversifying Student Vocabulary: Variations and Visuals

After passing out the vocabulary list for the week on Monday, I go over word variations on Tuesdays. I used to just give out the list, which only had one part of speech listed, and I found that students often only used the word in that one form. To help them develop a broader vocabulary and craft a variety of sentences, it’s necessary for them to know all variations of a word.

So on Tuesdays, I incorporate word variations into our warmup. The warmup begins with images. For each word, I display a set of images that show what the word means. Students then write down their inference about which vocabulary word is being represented, and then a few students share their inferences and justifications aloud. Sometimes there are multiple vocabulary words that could fit with the images, so I really encourage students to share their inferences and I emphasize that their thinking is more important than the answer.

After talking about the pictures, I post all the different parts of speech for the word and students take notes on a chart. While this can be a bit time consuming, it saves students the time of looking up all the words in the dictionary themselves and it provides me a chance to say each word aloud and use a variety of sentence constructions. During this think-aloud time, I’ll craft sentences about the images on the board, prior concepts we’ve covered in class, or upcoming ideas for the week.

After looking at the images, students are more prepared to complete their “word maps” for each word. This weekly homework assignment asks students to write the definition of each vocabulary word in their own language and then list a few synonyms, examples, a drawn picture, and use of the word in a sentence. The “word maps” are due each Friday, when we also have a vocabulary quiz.

Practice Makes Proficient

Throughout the week, we practice the vocabulary words in a variety of ways. The most concrete way is in warmups, where I’ll write sentences with one of the vocabulary words missing. Students then have to infer the missing vocabulary word and provide a justification for their thinking. These warmup sentences also provide me with an opportunity to review key concepts from earlier in the week, as well as make connections to upcoming ideas.

I also use the vocabulary words as frequently as possible in the handouts and discussions for the week. At first, students are hesitant to use the words, and I often have to ask after an idea is shared in class, “What vocabulary do we have to describe that idea?” Students will then volunteer their ideas and I’ll write both the original idea as well as the one with the vocabulary word on the board. Finally, on Fridays, I ask students to describe what we studied that week using at least one vocabulary word.

As an example, my very first vocabulary list this year was:

  • Subjective
  • Objective
  • Inference
  • Justify
  • Analyze
  • Identify

While students may know some of these words, each one is vital in laying the foundation for the type of talking and thinking we’d be doing in class all year. By the end of the first week, I want students to understand that historical narratives may appear to be objective, but are in fact subjective, which they can see after careful analysis. In order to understand and create our own arguments, whether historical or literary, we must carefully identify evidence, make an inference about its meaning, and then justify our thinking using careful language.

Another example that’s more directly linked to preparing students for civic action comes in my fourth unit. The unit is centered on the theme of narratives and counter-narratives. We begin with a dense but valuable reading I modified from some academic journal articles to introduce the main idea that there are dominant narratives in our society, which are told by people with privilege and power, and there are counter-narratives, which are told by marginalized individuals and groups. Counter-narratives fill in the omissions and correct the distortions created by the assumptions and stereotypes that are often created and perpetuated by hegemonic narratives.

Even as I write this, I’m using previous vocabulary (stereotypes, perpetuate) as well as the core vocabulary list (marginalize, hegemony, distort, omit, privilege) for the week we study the counter-narrative reading. Without the vocabulary list, the reading would be a lot less approachable and understandable.

I build on the reading by studying current and historical examples of the narrative/counter-narrative framework and the unit concludes with students telling their own counter-narratives. This act of storytelling is a powerful form of civic action, where students put themselves out there to combat stereotypes and false representations of their identity. This sharing of personal narratives can be empowering for both the listener and the speaker. The speaker has ownership over how they present themselves, and the listeners are pushed to develop their sense of empathy and challenge some stereotypical viewpoints they may have held.

The creation and sharing of counter-narratives also opens the door to potential student action projects. In fact this year, one group created a website to share the narratives of survivors of physical and sexual harassment. Another group, all composed of young men of color, shared their counter-narratives with the local police department. These action steps all begin with a grounding in language and vocabulary instruction. Once my students have an understanding of the vocabulary words, they’re able to see the narrative/counter-narrative structure throughout their lives. Furthermore, they’re able to specifically name it and analyze it. With this increased consciousness, brought about through vocabulary development, they’re better equipped to understand the world we live in and to take action.


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