Monthly Archives: August 2014

Sneaky Old Grouch

For those who actually read our entire “Orthographic and Mathematical Inception” post, and for those who didn’t, I challenge you to also read the comments. They’re actually listed under “replies” just under the title of the post. Hopefully you’ll feel compelled to add your own reply…comment…question. Old Grouch and Pete Bowers are two of our biggest fans, and avid readers of this blog will get to know them well.

Don’t let the Old Grouch moniker fool you. Michel is a dear friend of mine who enjoys following our scholarly pursuits and, perhaps more than anything else, subtly weaving a multitude of orthographic hints in each of his comments. This most recent one was no exception. Can  you find all of his clues? Words related to <inception>?

I challenged the students to find them all. As the school year is still young, I only once and very briefly demonstrated how Etymonline can help us find meaning connections between words – their entries must share the same etymological root. As you’ll see in the long and unedited video below, the kids are just getting used to this type of detective work, but it’s hard to deny the enthusiasm several of them display when ‘spelling instruction’ is presented not as a low-level memorization task but rather an investigation, a hunt for clues, a pursuit of understanding.

Orthographic and Mathematical Inception

A bit of a pompous title, I know. But I went with <inception> because, at the end of this post, dear reader, I want you to analyze that word, to determine its structure and identify its parts, its morphemes, its origin, and of course, other members of its family (words that share the same root).

Still with me? Intrigued rather than terrified by that opening challenge? Read on.

Last week, while talking about fuzzy bunnies, rainbows, and unicorns – among other less interesting topics – we encountered some wonderful and quite common spelling errors.


Excellent! After a quick chat about when and why we use an apostrophe (never for plurals!), we focused on suffixes. A few students provided the correct spelling – <bunnies> – and, while boring (mistakes are much more fun!), many seemed to understand something about “changing a <y> to <i>.” But what about that <-e>? Is it part of an <-es> suffix? Why not just <-s>? An orthographic word sum – (a tool we use to hypothesize word structures) – of <bunny + s> would seem to make sense, but then the odd-looking *<bunnis> is obviously hinting at a convention, a rule that has developed over time, that would prevent such a spelling, even if we don’t know it yet.

We then did what all scientists do when pondering a question – we gathered evidence, in this case, a bank of words. Students happily offered examples that seemed to follow the same pattern – buddies, fuzzies, responsibilities, tries, cries. We noticed that some of those are plurals, like <bunnies>, but some are verbs, like <tries>. Cool. And it this point…we stopped. That’s right. We moved on to something else. The kids were, collectively, done…over it…ready to do something else..and besides, I think we had to go to lunch. And those types of interruptions are OK. They’re actually more than OK. They’re necessary. I want the kids to observe, analyze, compare, and debate, all in an attempt to make their own conclusions, but sometimes they just need to go outside and run around, or read a book, or play with friends…or eat lunch! We will revisit that evidence bank in pursuit of patterns later.

Yesterday the students were provoked by a single statement in math. “It is possible to draw five line segments in such a way that five triangles are formed. Prove it.” Everyone was engaged and busily working and chatting, and eventually a few kids said, “Got it.” And yes, they had. In fact, there were several possible constructions and the kids enjoyed sharing these with me. But then that was it. “I’m done, now what.” No one actually said that, but the sentiment was there. Teacher gives me a question, I answer it, or I don’t, he helps me, or says “Good job”, and that’s the end of math time. Perfect opportunity for the big “Math is not about answering questions; it’s about ASKING questions” speech. Shortly after said speech Edward chimed in with, “I think using five lines I can actually make ten triangles,” followed by a similar claim from Thea, both starting with the beautiful words, “I think…”

“WHOA!” I screamed. Children literally jumped in the air, frightened by their loud teacher being louder than normal. “Everyone,” I continued, “Edward and Thea are being mathematicians. They aren’t simply answering my question and doing what I told them to do…they’re asking their own questions. In fact, they each just made a conjecture.” We then talked about what that means and how everyone is capable of “throwing out” such claims, and then other students, realizing that asking questions makes Mr. Allen exceedingly happy, joined in, offering conjectures and attempting to prove them. What if I only draw three lines? What about four? Is there a pattern? How will we know if we have “seen” all the possible triangles? Woo hoo! That’s math!

At some point later that day I asked the kids to spell <conjecture>. “Uh…Mr. Allen…it’s on the board.” Right, they don’t know what I mean by “spelling out” words yet. I explained that the word was complex, that it consisted of different parts called morphemes, and that by spelling it out, pausing between “parts” (the morphemes), I could see what we needed to talk about next. Several hypotheses were offered.

con + jec + ture (Ritvik explained that he thought this because of “breaking it into syllables.”)

con + ject + ure (Alice)

con + jec + t + ure (Emma)

I explained that when hypothesizing a word sum, the orthographer must offer examples of the various morphemes in other words. So, in this case, can we find <-ure> as a suffix in another word? Yes…<failure> and <departure>. And what is the common string of letters in the suffix for both of those words? Yes, <-ure>, not <-ture>. Similarly, <con-> is a common prefix found in words like <conclude> and <construct>. So that leaves <ject>, and since the other elements are affixes, and since every word cannot consist of only affixes, the remaining morpheme must be the base. In this case, it’s what linguists call a “bound base element”, a base that does not function as a word on its own…it must “bind” with other elements to do that.

What does <ject> mean? What other words share that base? Good time to introduce some of our online scientific tools. The first, Neil Ramsden’s brilliant Word Searcher. By entering <ject> into the search field, we can see lots of words that share that letter string j-e-c-t, 74 to be exact. But that doesn’t mean all 74 share a common root. Further investigation required! We can take any of those words, <adjective> for example (that jumped out at us!), and determine if they are part of the word family by searching on Etymonline.

So let’s start with <conjecture>.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.45.06


I gave a brief introduction of Etymonline to the students, and we then focused on the Latin root iacere – “to throw.” If the other words, like adjective, share that root, then they are in the same etymological family. Let’s see…

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.48.51


Yep…there it is. The connotation of an adjective is a word that is “thrown to” or “placed near” a noun to help describe it. Cool. That means we can include the word <adjective> as we use another of our tools, the Mini Matrix Maker, to help organise the various related words we’ve discovered, and to demonstrate their meaning connection. The students and I have made a couple of these on the white board in recent days, but this was their first exposure to the handy electronic version. This is what we came up with.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 21.01.26


There are other <ject> words, but matrices do not need to be exhaustive. They simply help us visualise the morphological structure of words, and they also reinforce what an actual “word family” is…nothing to do with rhyming!

OK, so how about <inception>? I bet you already have a hypothesis, and if it conflicts with your belief that <-tion> is a suffix, I urge you to follow your instincts. (Because it isn’t!)

New parents, consider this your first lesson in orthography. Congratulations if you made it this far! If you’re intrigued, which I hope you are, click on the Language/Spelling/Word Study category over to the right. LOTS of posts from past investigations.


Crazy Teacher, Room Parent, iTime, and Class Photos

Thanks to all the parents who endured my tangential rantings and ravings at yesterday’s Meet the Teacher evening. I know I was incoherent at best, talking way too quickly, but I wanted to share as much as possible, and I know that getting all the parents in one place at one time is rare, and there’s so much to say, and…and…maybe we should have just done Speed Dating like Mr. Kirkwood’s class!

I do hope that you, the parents, are able to make connections and get to know each other better. To help make that happen, we need a…trumpet, trumpet…Room Parent! Someone who can organize occasional get-togethers for parents, and help with a couple of school events. And as we said last night, the Room Parent gig in Grade 5 is super easy. Typically the only requirement is helping with Book and Bake Sale and Grade 5 Celebration at the end of the school year. If you are interested…even just a little bit, please email me. Thanks!

After last night’s “clear-as-mud” explanation of iTime, I’m sure you’re all still wondering what to expect. So let met try to clarify things. I will be meeting with each of the students in the coming two weeks to discuss interests and formulate a plan for their initial project, which, at least for this first one, will not be done in groups or with a partner (unless that ‘group’ or ‘partner’ is family). The first part of this meeting is simply brainstorming – what do I want to do? what will it look like? We will record our thoughts from the session, and then, eventually, come up with a central idea, key concepts, an action plan – specific investigations and actions that will be completed along the way – and an eventual “presentation” date. As stated last evening, this presentation can take many forms – some are of the traditional, PowerPoint variety, while others require audience participation. It was amazing to watch students’ presentation skills improve over the course of last school year, our first with this type of home learning approach. Almost all of the work/learning/organization will be done at home, but we will devote some class time, Friday afternoons (starting next week), to iTime research, planning, creating, refining, etc. You should expect evidence of this process on your child’s blog (regular blog reflections, updates, etc. are required for all projects).

And finally, class photos! These will happen for us next Wednesday, September 3rd, at 9:40 in the morning.

All for now!

Week One Done!

And I am happy to report that this group of students has impressed me already – eager to learn, energetic, and friendly. I look forward to Monday evening’s Meet the Teacher Night when I will meet the people responsible for bringing these wonderful children into the world.

Many of you are aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It was only a matter of time before I got called out. Good opportunity for the students to learn about a devastating disease…and to dump cold water on their teacher.

Day One is History!

Hello parents!
As the school year commences, you may have noticed a lack of email alerts from ZIS signaling new blog posts from the teacher, Mrs. Stiebert, etc. That’s because you are no longer automatically signed up; you need to do that yourself if you enjoy the incessant barrage of information overload…errr…if you like to be informed. And I hope you do…sign up that is, particularly for our class blog. It provides an opportunity, especially for those who actually read the posts and leave comments, to grow with us, celebrate with us, question us, and, more than anything else, get a genuine sense of what our classroom is all about. Those who don’t want to commit to regular blog readings may want to get that sense as well, so I’ll attempt to provide a glimpse below.

What is the blog about? What is our classroom ethos? What do we do all day?!
Anyone who has explored our blog would probably say “spelling” or “word study.” And yes, a majority of our posts are indeed related to how we analyze word structure. In fact, most of our regular readers and most prolific comment providers are not affiliated with ZIS. They are a merry band of orthography enthusiasts from all over the world, a group of scholars who, together, celebrate and analyze the incredibly tidy nature of English orthography. (For more on that claim, and what ‘orthography’ even is, read the blog!) Yes, I am passionate about words and spelling, and yes, one of my hopes for students is that they gain a better understanding of English orthography. But that’s not all, and it’s certainly not the primary motivation. So what is?

That’s right. All of our language activities, and definitely all of our math activities, evolve with the scientist in mind. My job is to pique student curiosity about words, sentences, electricity, numbers, sustainability, shapes, stories, etc., and hone each child’s natural inclination to explore. Then, together, we wonder, we investigate, we look for patterns, we make conjectures, we build evidence banks, we test, we debate, we interrogate sources, we adjust hypotheses, and we share (to name a few!)…all in an attempt to understand. I am much more concerned with your child’s ability to think scientifically – to wonder, to analyze, to test – than I am with his/her ability to spell words correctly or memorize meanings of Latin roots. Less emphasis on compliance, more on individual scholarly pursuits.

Embrace challenges and celebrate mistakes.
‘Memorization’ and ‘speed’ and ‘correctness’ are not priorities in our class. What are? Learning how to form reasoned questions, engage in scientific inquiry, and pursue understanding. Fortunately, mathematics, science, and English orthography, each replete with beauty and order, are ideally suited to these endeavors. I’m not knocking ‘memorization’; it will happen and it is a useful skill. But it is not my goal, and neither is ‘speed’. We will often discuss efficiency, but we will place more value on thoughtfulness and, you guessed it, understanding, regardless of the time required to pursue it. And finally, your child will soon become well aware of my disinterest in ‘correctness’. I’m far more interested in mistakes. That’s how we learn! If we want our children to embrace challenges, to be flexible, to always question, to be creative, then they need that freedom, that ‘green light’ to take risks, try new things, offer new opinions or ideas, and make mistakes.

It’s what I do. Lots of videos. Sometimes just because we’re feeling silly, but usually to share our learning journeys. The first of the school year is below!

The question is more important than the answer! Looking forward to an exciting year learning together!

Students who have instruments…don’t forget to bring them tomorrow AND Thursday.