experiencing language

I didn't really understand the concept of pi until I was in my mid 20s, long past the point where I was actually using it. I knew pi was roughly 3.14, and I knew how it fit into the formulas for finding area and circumference, but I didn't get the concept. In one of my teacher training courses, somebody did a sample lesson in which we measured the circumference and radius of several round objects and found the ratio each time. I was amazed to find that they were all the same! Suddenly I had a practical understanding of the concept of pi. It was an important learning moment for me as a teacher.

I am currently doing a fairly abstract topic in my grade 10 English class: we are looking at the history of the English language and identifying concepts about language use and change that apply to their own language experience. The facts of the history are less important than the concepts. I have devised some easy texts for them to experience Old English and Middle English on a manageable scale, and I wanted them to have even more hands-on experience with the reality of language change.

I devised this Google presentation. (If I have the whole class using the same Google doc at the same time, I tend to use slides. It's less distracting.) Slide 4 shows what they all looked like when we started.  It took me a little while to find appropriate lists of synonyms, but they did a great job with the etymology dictionary, and they were able to identify the differing levels of usage compared to the source of the language. They also were able to connect these words to the historical events we had studied. Yes, I could have handed them the concept that words that came into English through Latin and French have a higher status today than those that came through Old English and Old Norse, but because they discover that themselves, it creates a sort of mental muscle memory, to kill the metaphor.

I will teach the same unit to another class next semester, and I will probably adjust this a little to formalize the report of their conclusions. But generally, I was very happy with how this went.