Success Story: Mr. Terrell

Mr. Terrell is using Vocabulary.com to make texts more accessible to his students. He also leverages the power of competition to build confidence and camaraderie. We visited his classroom and sat down afterward to talk shop.
Subject:History
Grade Taught:10th - 12th
Years Teaching:5
Using Vocabulary.com for:1 year
  • ... they rise to that challenge, and they do so with a decorum that is of the highest degree you could possibly expect of kids their age.
    Vocabulary.com: We want to start off by saying how much we enjoyed being in the presence of your students today. There was so much energy in here! Tell us more about them, and the Nimitz High School student body.
    Mr. Terrell: What we have here at Nimitz is a massive population that gets bussed in from up to 20 miles away. Because of that, we get a mixture of kids from every background that you could possibly think of in an inner city. We bus kids in who are waking up at 4:30 to 5:00 in the morning. And they're expected to perform at 6:50 in the morning. It's hard — it's challenging, not just for the teachers but especially for the kids. Nonetheless, they rise to that challenge, and they do so with a decorum that is of the highest degree you could possibly expect of kids of their age. We’re preparing these kids for higher education, but I think a lot of them have long term goals that they probably in their own heart of hearts don't really believe can come to pass. And I think that's a harsh reality that a lot of teenagers all over this country have to deal with on a daily basis.
  • What we're doing now is figuring out: How do kids of this generation learn? And how do they learn well?
    V: They’re facing so many challenges. Can you talk about some of the challenges that Nimitz High School is facing — and overcoming? As you’ve said, Nimitz is a school moving in the right direction.
    T: Each state has its own accountability rating that they have to meet or exceed in order to be accredited by the education department, and Nimitz was considered an “improvement required” school, so they put together a 2-year plan. When I came in, we started these massive transition and improvement projects. So we've seen massive changes, and not just what we do as a district, or what we do with our assessments, but going back to the fundamentals of learning. What we're doing now is figuring out: How do kids of this generation learn? And how do they learn well?

    The Aldine School District brought Dr. Watson [principal] into our campus, and lo and behold, what she's been able to do with this school is transform it. It's just hard to really put to words, but you feel the atmosphere in the classes. You feel this positive, very nurturing nature in the hallways, you feel like we're all part of this one team now. I like that she drives us to actually change, to improve — not just our craft but our students’ outlook on the world, on what they can do in their community here, and most importantly what the school could be. I think she gets a lot of that energy from the team that she’s built around her, from the teachers, to the admins, and our paras — just fantastic people.

    There’s a feeling that the sky’s the limit. And I think every few months more people buy into that idea and start to believe, and they start to realize that we’ve got a really good gig here, and it could be even better. So that team building that she's brought is moving our school back to where it ought to be.
  • I started to realize, well you know, if this is challenging me, I wonder what it would do for our students who are significantly lower on reading levels than I am?
    V: Dr. Watson has been very supportive of your initiatives and innovations in terms of curriculum and instruction, including integrating Vocabulary.com with your history classes. How did you get started with bringing literacy improvement into your teaching?
    T: My students are in the more advanced classes, yet a lot of them were having a hard time writing at that level. I was thinking about this while looking at some of their essays, and I was starting to realize that there's just a real lack of fundamentals in the English language itself. So I took it upon myself over Thanksgiving break to figure out some way to address that. I thought, I don't really have the time, especially in my limited time with them every other day, for a massive project on learning the English language — learning some of the nuances, and the different terms that they should be able to cite off the top of their head. But I stumbled on Vocabulary.com because our district had gotten all teachers access to it. And as it turns out, all the students with our Google emails were also already in the system. So I'm sitting here thinking, That's great, that saves me a whole lot of time from having to enroll a couple hundred kids in a matter of a couple hours.


    First I got into practicing on my own, and lo and behold, an hour had gone by and I had a couple thousand points!. There were words that I hadn't seen since I was preparing for my GRE exam that were popping up again! I started to realize, Well you know, if this is challenging me, I wonder what it would do for our students who are significantly lower on reading levels than I am? So tested it out and I started to see that kids were really into this, they're liking this.
  • What Vocabulary.com has done is working, and it's actually getting kids out there engaged with something that used to be used for punishment!
    V: Yes, you’ve talked about the level of student engagement being really high. What are your thoughts on that, why they’re so into it?
    T: Vocabulary.com has actually answered the needs that we had: How do you make vocabulary words an engaging assignment? How do you make it something a lot more entertaining to do than flipping through a dictionary or a glossary at the end of a textbook, and writing down the definition? What Vocabulary.com has done is working, and it's actually getting kids out there engaged with something that used to be used for punishment! You know, for my generation you’d be told to copy a dictionary! And nowadays vocabulary or dictionary skills tend to be one of those things that's treated just as busy work. But now, Vocabulary.com has actually transformed that “busy work” into a game for learning.
  • Even the lowest performer in other areas of class could become the class vocabulary champion for any given day.
    V: What do you like about how Vocabulary.com has structured competing?
    T: I like the leaderboards, which actually give a measurable way for these kids to look at their progress. The excitement these kids have when they break a million points! That aspect of competition is key for their ability to improve. So embracing games, which these kids love to do anyways, and finding a way to turn it into actual learning, is an amazing thing to do.


    Also, there is a levelling factor inside Vocabulary.com as a game. Even the lowest performer in other areas of class could become the class vocabulary champion for any given day. There's some of our kids who were on my own personal at-risk list, and when they see their name on top of a daily leaderboard, all of the sudden and it's something that they're obviously very proud of — to be called out in class about that — something they’re good at. It's a whole change in the atmosphere for a lot of these kids. On a personal level, that's a really big achievement for them, and it's definitely worth acknowledging and celebrating.
  • The camaraderie you see is pretty cool.
    V: Can you describe how you’re using Vocabulary.com in the classroom? It was so cool to see how you connected the word learning to the content you’re teaching.
    T: They really needed to work on the language skills so they can read the texts and do the writing, so for the first 10 or 15 minutes of class, they do vocab and they work on the words I’m about to teach. I simply set up a list, and I simply project the leaderboard so they can see how they’re doing. The camaraderie you see is pretty cool. And I do like to engage with them. I say, “Oh, look at him, he's got 10 words! Look at that, that's one a minute!” But as you saw, they can do it all on their own once you get them in the groove of things, and you teach them what they can do with it.

    And there’s more than the competing. Now they know how to see what words they're having trouble with, how to make their own list with it. Now I have them actually working on their own pace with it, and letting them work with their chosen topics, whether it be a current event, or a chapter from a book that they have to read for class.
  • You can see the evidence of their working with vocabulary in their writing, in the speed at which they take their standardized tests, and their ability to actually communicate with you.
    V: Can you talk more about how you’ve encouraged students to do more on their own?
    T: I like to have them make their own lists so that they're actually holding themselves accountable, and they're learning how to actually discern what the words mean in the texts that we work with every day. In today's class they were working with some news articles, and then they’ll write an opinion piece and then stage a debate on it. Then we talk about the vocab terms they’ll be able to use so they sound like they know what they’re talking about! The kids like that, they really do enjoy being able to go to other teachers — especially their English teachers — and talk a little more authoritatively on their topics. And you can see the evidence of their working with vocabulary in their writing, in the speed at which they take their standardized tests, and their ability to actually communicate with you.
  • This is a way to bridge that gap and the ability to learn, and it raises the ceiling for them.
    V: How do you see this improvement fitting into the bigger picture? Your students are getting college credit, they’re juniors and seniors. The stakes are pretty high for these kids.
    T: What we're really doing is preparing them for what comes in higher education. I can't even imagine what it would feel like to be the one person in a room of maybe a thousand kids in a lecture hall, and you are the only one that does not know what the professor just said, simply because you don't have that vocabulary. You know, it's one of those things that if you don't have the vocabulary utility in your toolbox yourself, you won't be able to engage on a higher level. This is a way to bridge that gap and the ability to learn, and it raises the ceiling for them.
  • It's showing them that they can excel at whatever they really want to put their minds to.
    V: That idea seems connected to the belief that these kids can accomplish great things, like Nimitz’s two wins as Vocabulary Bowl monthly champion. What did that mean to you?
    T: I figured it wouldn't be that big of a deal, like “Hey, kids! Here’s a banner.” I've won a lot of things in my life, and a lot of the other teachers here have most certainly as well. But these kids at Nimitz High School, I don't think they're used to being recognized for doing something and being the best at it. And then when they got called in for a pep rally the day Vocabulary.com presented the banners, that was something to behold. The band was playing. Dr. Watson gave a speech. That's when it became real. It's showing them that they can excel at whatever they really want to put their minds to.
  • I don't think you could put a dollar tag on what it actually offers these kids.
    V: Looking back, what else would you say about your experiment with bringing Vocabulary.com and the Bowl into your classes?
    T: I don't think you could put a dollar tag on what it actually offers these kids. It's a dream to be able to find a new tool that you can use for teaching that the kids like. I like seeing these kids actually gain confidence, and in their own heart of hearts to know that they can do whatever they want. On the surface, Vocabulary.com may just seem like a dictionary replacement software. But it's something a lot more for kids who aren't used to getting higher grades, who aren't used to being able to go through a standardized test and know every word that they see on there. When you see just a little glint of success from the kids, especially for the ones who aren't used to it, that's a pretty cool feeling.