Back in September, the teachers at North End Middle School in Waterbury, Connecticut hoped that their students could master about 80,000 words on Vocabulary.com by the end of the school year — nearly double what they'd accomplished in the prior year when they adopted the platform.

As of mid-April 2019, the Rams have mastered more than 105,000 words and are the odds-on favorite to become the new Vocabulary Bowl Connecticut State Champion when the final buzzer sounds on April 30. Connecticut is a relatively small state, but these staggering stats should put North End's stellar season in perspective: the school is currently in the Top 10 on the Middle School leaderboard and the Top 5 on the Division II leaderboard, where tens of thousands of schools across North America are competing.

We recently had a chance to talk with proud North End English teacher Ryan Carpenter about his students' success, and soon learned that going above and beyond expectations is just how these kids (and their teachers) do things.

Take vocabulary homework, for example. As an 8th grade ELA teacher, Mr. Carpenter expects his students to put in about an hour and fifteen minutes each week on Vocabulary.com, completing assignments given by their teachers and playing The Challenge to master the words in their personal learning program. Carpenter said that when he checks his teacher dashboard to monitor his students' progress toward that goal, he routinely sees that kids are putting in three, four, even five hours a week — way beyond what's expected, and often without even realizing it. Why? "On Vocabulary.com, they're never bored," quipped Carpenter.

And while student engagement is certainly a motivating factor, so is winning. "I coach baseball, and being the city champ is a big deal. So I thought we could be the champs on Vocab.com," Carpenter explained. He had already been using the class leaderboards to motivate kids to beat their own personal best and outdo one another — a strategy that really worked last year. So this year, Mr. Carpenter and his colleagues in the ELA department decided to up the ante and take it school-wide.

North End's student body is divided into different houses — Red House, Gold House, Blue House, etc. — a structure that's perfectly suited to a little friendly vocab competition within the school. And since the Rams like to go above and beyond, rather than just using class leaderboards to reveal a winner, they got math teacher Mrs. Rosa involved. She devised a formula that takes into account all the different ways that kids can put in effort on Vocabulary.com: words mastered, points earned, and time spent. Why the special formula? "So every kid can contribute in their own way. Everyone has their own thing, and they know they're a part of this, whether it's mastering words or racking up Spelling Bee points," explained Carpenter. At the end of each month, the competition culminates with a school-wide Vocabulary Jam where the houses go head-to-head, and those points get factored into the formula, too.

Then they crunch the numbers, and the 6-foot-tall North End Middle School Vocab Cup is ceremoniously rolled down the hall to the winning house's wing — a smooth procession made possible thanks to shop teacher Mr. Napoli's handiwork.

All that friendly intra-school competition that began as a way to fuel student learning at North End has also propelled the school up the state and division leaderboards, and now the school is on the Bowl map at a national level. When asked to walk us through how his school went from just-getting-started to the leaders they are today, Carpenter said that he stumbled across the platform two years ago after he identified a pervasive vocabulary gap and searched for a solution that he could use with all his students. He found Vocabulary.com, got himself up and running, and his students "bought into it right away." In addition to the differentiated learning and the connections to curriculum, he liked that the leaderboards offered a way to motivate his kids. They started with small goals, and built momentum from there. Word spread, and use of the platform grew organically within the ELA department.

Carpenter said that he and his colleagues really appreciate how they're all on the same page when it comes to vocabulary instruction. Many have their students chipping away at 100 Words Every Middle Schooler Should Know, and are using the SBAC test prep lists, as well as lists that connect to their curriculum. And while it's the kids who are doing all the work to master the words, he readily acknowledges that North End wouldn't be as successful as it is without so many teachers on board and so many new teachers stepping up each month. Now there are close to twenty teachers at North End using the platform with their students, including several who have really gotten into the action: Lindsay Parisot, Jen Rosa, Adriana Terenzi, Lucille Spinelli, Myra Lopez, Miriam Wilson, Adriana Quinones, and Brandy Cook, and many more.

Mr. Carpenter added that they're hoping that Waterbury's other two comprehensive middle schools will implement Vocabulary.com to enhance the local competition and to put the whole district on the Vocabulary Bowl map.

He also expressed his appreciation for Principal Jackie Gilmore, Superintendent Dr. Ruffin, Mayor O'Leary, and school board members Jason Van Stone, Elizabeth Brown, and Melissa Adorno for supporting the adoption of Vocabulary.com. 

We asked Mr. Carpenter how he is using Vocabulary.com these days, and he talked about how he's learned to customize existing lists to support the literature that he teaches, such as Bronx Masquerade, and how this year his students got into making their own lists. He also pointed out that despite the big year North End is having in the Vocabulary Bowl, "playing Vocabulary.com is not all all-day, every day thing." Students may spend some class time working on their words when they've finished other work, but the bulk of what they've accomplished happens on their own time, outside of school.

Now that North End has such a thriving culture of word learning, we were curious to know what the students have to say about improving their literacy skills with Vocabulary.com. Many students responded, and here are a few of the comments that really stood out:

“Vocab.com has made my writing more articulate and has improved my linguistics drastically.” — Sarah S.

"Every time I master a new word it gives me confidence that I am learning new things that I've never known before. I also like to do Vocabulary.com when I'm bored because even when I'm not at school at least I am learning something." — Walter Q.

"One of my favorite quotes that fits Vocabulary.com is: 'Don't underestimate the seductive power of a decent vocabulary.'" — Gio D.

"Say goodbye to pen and paper and writing notes with old-fashioned, obsolete methods for new words; Vocab.com is new and better." — Mike E.

"Vocabulary.com is truly an incredible website. It will improve your jargon (or your vocabulary, for those who don't know what jargon means)." — Josh T.

Clearly, the kids at North End Middle School have a way with words. To get inspired about how you can create a culture of word learning at your school, check out this article from the Educator Edition section of Vocabulary.com.

We'd also love to hear about the creative ways that you, your colleagues, and your students, are building a culture of word learning at your school, so keep us posted. Email your anecdotes, ideas, and questions to support@vocabulary.com.