Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth planted an inspirational seed in 5th grade teacher Francesca Leibowitz's mind: "What if our class were to grow a Word Orchard by planting roots and affixes? And what if the fruits of our labor (pun fully intended) were those morphemes' derivatives?"

Like most English teachers, I have always loved words. If I were to make a movie of my childhood, the opening credits would roll out to the sweet rhythm of Boggle dice. There would be a mid-film montage where I'm scouring the dictionary for ammunition.  (In an ongoing effort to confound my mother, I say things like, "I did not eat all the cookies, mom; I stopped after the penultimate Oreo!")  The film's director would have to capture the heady power that comes when a kid adds new linguistic specimens to his or her collection— especially fancy and potentially irksome specimens, like penultimate.

If I were to make a movie of my adult life, words would play no less a role. This time, though, the mid-film montage would show clips of my extolling the wonder of vocabulary study to a class of fifth graders. Shots of my hyper-animated face would be spliced with shots of the kids' faces… blank, numb and thoroughly not buying it.  This seems almost unfathomable, but judging from their stupor, it would appear as though many of my students consider growing one's vocabulary to be akin to growing one's molars: an unremarkable, passive process. What happened in the space between searching for multisyllabic ways to drive my mom nuts and where I am now — a teacher, boring to distraction a group of normally inquisitive, creative kids?  How did I manage to kill the joy and excitement inherent to word study, and what can I do to resurrect it?

Last year, I taught Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time.  Juster delights in language's idiosyncrasies, and his words are strung together with fanciful magic. It is a good thing, too, because fanciful magic is precisely what it would take for me to figure out how to teach vocabulary well.  At the book's opening, the protagonist reaches Dictionopolis and learns that all words are grown on trees within the city's orchards. In reading this, it was as though Juster's hand reached across fifty years to pull the light-cord languishing above my extinguished teacher brain… What if our class were to grow a Word Orchard by planting roots and affixes?  And what if the fruits of our labor (pun fully intended) were those morphemes' derivatives?

The next Monday, I armed students with a handful of word parts and a chart to record derivatives and their definitions.   I instructed the kids to spend the week prowling the internet, dictionaries, and everyday conversations to find words containing our morphemes.  I also mentioned that rare strains of words (the lexical "broccoflower," if you will) would earn extra honors. A week later, our class was overrun with giant paper tree trunks, glue sticks and hundreds of paper cutouts of apples, leaves, bananas and peaches. Each homeroom compiled a list of words found by their section, and then they compared their lists to those of the other homerooms.  In the hallway, we set the confines of our orchard under a banner which read, "Merri(am Webster), Merri(am Webster), How Does Your Garden Grow?  With…  Root Words!!!"  A paper tree was tacked up with a root or affix at its base, and the derivatives the kids found were pinned to the top.  If only one section found a particular derivative, then that class's symbol (apple, leaf or banana) was used to record the derivative and definition. If multiple sections found a derivative, then it was written on the peach. These particular trees had a three week life-cycle, and kids could continue to add more derivatives during that time, even though they were given new roots and affixes each Monday. After three weeks, older trees were felled to make room for new saplings with their roots and affixes.

While some aspects of the project were unwieldy (lots of lists and cross-referencing to manage), the results were truly astounding. Students hoped to provide their homerooms with unique words, and so they were on constant high-alert when watching TV, sitting around the dinner table, reading their science textbooks, and listening to song lyrics. Words stopped being desiccated relics and suddenly came alive. What's more, they were ubiquitous, and students were awakened to their presence with new consciousness—within the classroom and without. From a practical perspective, I will concede it is unlikely that graphospasm (best derivative EVER — a hand-cramp from writing too much!) will show up on the verbal section of the SAT.  But, also from a practical perspective, I know that the meaning of graph will always be at my students' disposal. Along with the other morphemes we study, graph will hang there like a shiny golden key, helping to unlock all the mysterious words that await.


Francesca Leibowitz teaches fifth grade English at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow, where she taught high school English in Brooklyn and Manhattan public schools for several years. Interested in various phases of literacy development, Francesca has been teaching middle school English for the past four years, and she loves the excitement and challenge of learning to work effectively with younger students.