At this very moment, two high schools are locked in a battle on the Vocabulary Bowl leaderboards that's one for the ages.
With just two weeks to go in the 2017 - 2018 season, East Early College High School and Elise Buckingham Charter High School are tussling for the title of Division III Champion. Only a few hundred points separate these schools — a slim margin when you consider that each school has surpassed the 125,000 words-mastered mark. What's at stake? A glorious green Division III Champion banner and, well, pride.
Culture of Word Learning Becomes a Catalyst for Growth
As thrilling as it is to watch their neck-and-neck race to the finish, it’s even more exciting to see a culture of word learning take shape in these schools. What’s a culture of word learning? In many schools, Vocabulary.com has become a catalyst for positive outcomes that go beyond our most basic function — to teach words and improve literacy. We see it in the hallways, the libraries, the classrooms and the pep rallies — vocabulary learning has become part of the culture, the identity, of these schools.
We had a chance to talk with Buckingham Charter HS’s Ryan Price, the veteran English teacher who introduced his students to Vocabulary.com, about the creativity and the competitive spirit that have ignited their passion for vocabulary improvement and their quest for victory.
Vocabulary.com: What subject do you teach, and how many years have you been teaching?
Ryan Price: I’ve been teaching for thirteen years and am currently teaching English 11 and AP Language and Composition (juniors and seniors).
V: How did you first get started with Vocabulary.com?
RP: It was actually my AP class that first led me to Vocabulary.com. At the beginning of this year, I had my class take a practice AP Exam and, guess what? They did awful. Like, really bad. Anyhow, we reviewed the test and it dawned on me that the number one thing standing in their way was the vocabulary.
I’ve always prioritized vocabulary, but I don’t think my methods have always been the best. Up until this year, it’s pretty much just been your typical memorization type stuff: Here are your words, make flashcards, study the flashcards, take a test on the words. Bada bing, bada boom, that was pretty much it. I tried to spice it up with another website, but it still just came down to memorization and old school flashcards.
So, after the infamous practice AP Exam disaster, I just started Googling different Vocabulary development options and stumbled across Vocabulary.com. As soon as I saw the map with the schools highlighted..., I knew it was what I wanted to use and immediately informed my classes that I wanted to see our school on the map. Honest to goodness, it was the map that hooked me before I even tried the program.And then I tried it. And LOVED IT.
I’m a big fan of gamifying education when possible, and that’s exactly what you have done with Vocab.com. I love that it keeps track of your progress, rewards your achievements, and lets you compare your progress against others. Additionally, kids love to be competitive, but sometimes they forget that academics are competitive, as well; not just sports. Vocab.com allows me to tap into their competitive spirit, which really motivates them to master the words. In fact, it took very little motivation and encouragement from me to rally my students and inspire them to do well; the real challenge was getting the kids on campus who don’t have me as a teacher to participate.
V: Who / what is a “verd”?
RP: I had a huge cork board installed in my room a couple weeks ago and it is now my official “Verd-of-the-Week” board. Every week I choose a new verd (a vocab nerd) who has been crushing words on Vocab.com and splatter pictures of them all over the board, along with some of the words they’ve mastered. Additionally, the Verd-of-the-Week gets to create a vocab list for the rest of the school to master.
V: How did you ever come up with Larry Lexicon?
RP: I was wracking my head trying to figure out ways to excite my entire school to participate in the vocab bowl when it suddenly dawned on me: Cal Dinger. Yup, Cal Dinger was the answer.
I’ve played on a slow pitch softball team called Those Guys for most of my adult life. A few years ago I got the idea to create a fictional slowpitch softball beat reporter named Cal Dinger and started interviewing players after games. They’re always absolutely ridiculous interviews, but presented in a very serious manner. Cal Dinger slowly caught on, we got a bunch of followers on YouTube and Instagram, and it became this thing that players seemed to look forward to every week more than the game itself.
Anyhow, I realized that I could take the same concept and apply it to the Vocab Bowl to generate buzz around campus. And Larry Lexicon was born.
I started by introducing Larry to the campus with a YouTube video that I asked teachers to show during 2nd period and encouraged students to follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Additionally, I sent out emails to the student body as Larry Lexicon encouraging them to create accounts, master some words, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Lastly, I got my admin team on board and convinced them to allow me to offer an incentive: an extended lunch and barbecue if we could finish the first month of the Vocabulary Bowl in first place.
Next, I started interviewing my own students whenever they made a notable achievement. For example, sometimes a student will just suddenly yell out something like, “I just got 25 in a row!” and I pretty much tell everyone to stop what they’re doing; we have an interview to do. Or, I’ll just casually ask a random student what their favorite word was that they learned that day. Once they tell me, I say, “Sucker!” and pull them over to do an interview. Lastly, I keep track of who masters the most words every week and try to get an interview with the leader at the end of the week.
Once I had the social media engine revving, I sent out a blast to my friends on Facebook explaining what I was doing, how we are hoping to win a Vocab Bowl Division III championship. Before I knew it, I was overloaded with support. It’s actually been incredibly satisfying and rewarding for me to start something here that everyone has been excited to rally behind.
V: Tell us about how you use Vocabulary.com — how you integrate it with instruction, for homework, and so on.
RP: As for how I actually use Vocabulary.com, I create lists with vocabulary from the literature that we’re reading in class and assign it as homework. Additionally, whenever there’s a holiday, national event, or anything notable, really, I create a vocabulary list (or use one that’s already been created) and send it out to the entire school. I’ll include some background information on the significance of the event (for example, I did this for Dec. 7th, Pearl Harbor Day) and challenge students to master the list.
Lastly, we have an advisory period here at our school and I realized it was something I could really capitalize on for the Vocab Bowl. I made an advisory class for every teacher on Vocab.com and had them all invite their students to join, which means I was able to get the entire school signed up and participating. Every week we have a different focus for our advisory classes. For example, this week we’re going to be discussing “goal setting”, so I created a list of vocab that relates to goal setting and completing the list will be part of the lesson that all students on campus will be completing; there’s also be a Larry Lexicon video that relates to Goal Setting that teachers will show during advisory, which just helps me get buy-in from students.
V: How do you find Vocabulary.com in terms of reaching / supporting / engaging individual learners?
RP: I do have several students that struggle with vocabulary. I’ve done a couple things to help these students:
If I have a list of, oh, say, 20 words, I’ll break it down into smaller lists. It makes it much more manageable and less daunting for some learners.
I’ve done my best to find out what interests students who really struggle and to make lists that reflect their interest. For example, I have a student who can tell me everything about chickens. She loves chickens. So, boom, special list of chicken vocab just for her! I have another student in a similar situation who just loves basketball, so I’ve made several basketball lists just for him.
V: What else do you have in mind in terms of getting creative with Vocabulary.com?
RP: A great question. Here are a couple things that I’ve been chewing on:
I recently introduced a new character in one of my videos: Lucy Lexicon. With that in mind, I’d like to do more videos like that where I introduce new characters. Specifically, I would love to get other teachers involved in creating some ridiculous characters, as well. My thought behind this is that I can get more buy-in by involving more of my colleagues in these videos. Not only does it make the staff here feel like they’re involved with our Vocab effort, but I’m also hoping it will inspire students that may have a connection with particular teachers to login and do some vocab. So, with that in mind, I’m going to have a math teacher here appear in my next video. He will, of course, appear as his alter-ego: Dewey Decimal.
Another idea is one that I actually got from Vocabulary.com: an Eat-Your-Words Power Lunch. I’m hoping to do this in the near future and to setup a projector in the cafeteria so students can watch the leaderboard while they eat and vocab it up.
Now that I have almost all students signed up for Vocabulary.com via their advisory classes, I plan on making things competitive among advisory classes. For example, next month the advisory class that masters the most words will win an ice cream party.
After that, I plan on having the senior, junior, sophomore, and freshman classes compete against each other.
Creating a Culture of Word Learning at Your School
Here are a few takeaways from the Buckingham Charter High School story that you might want to try with your students.
Classroom bulletin board: Even someone tech-savvy like Mr. Price makes heavy use of the good old-fashioned bulletin board. Post students' gains to celebrate effort. Display daily or weekly leaders to incent more learning. Chart intra-school competition as classes within your school try to best one another.
Project the leaderboards: Long before Buckingham Charter was vying for a championship banner, they just wanted to do well in October. Mr. Price often projects and Tweets results from the daily leaderboards to keep his students focused on what they can accomplish short-term. Over time, that strategy has translated into 125,000 words-mastered and counting.
Get creative: For inspriation, check out Buckingham Charter HS's videos featuring their vocabulary prowess (and creativity) on Twitter @BuckingVocab.
Spread the word(s): First, articulate the need ("Folks, we have a vocabulary problem here!") and your goals ("So we'd like each student to master 15 words a week on Vocabulary.com."). Then, get students, teachers and parents onboard using your class / school website, your newsletter, and social media.
We're Rooting for Everyone.
Here at Vocabulary.com, we often say that the more you play, the more you learn, so everybody wins. When a student masters a word, it's more than just a point for their school. It's measurable growth that adds up over time.That's why we root for everyone to keep mastering more words. We're thrilled that so many students at East Early College High School and Buckingham Charter High School have embraced the Vocabulary Bowl as a catalyst for this level of investment in their academic success. We will be glued to the leaderboards until the Vocabulary Bowl ends on April 30th.
It's never too late to get your school involved in the Vocabulary Bowl. Here's how to start.
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