Success Story: Ms. Campbell

Ms. Campbell is using Vocabulary.com to make challenging texts more accessible and to cultivate an appreciation for the nuances of language. She has also spearheaded her school’s quest for Vocabulary Bowl glory. We visited her classroom and sat down afterward to talk shop.
Subject:ELA / Rhetoric
Grade Taught:6th
Years Teaching:13
Using Vocabulary.com for:3 years
  • We were, I think, 56th in the nation — so I just threw it out there that if they could make the top 20 this month, I’d get them pizza.
    Vocabulary.com: You were one of the first teachers at your school to try Vocabulary.com. Tell us about getting started, and how Margate got to be one of the top schools in the country three years later.
    Ms. Campbell: Well, first our principal Mr. Toliver sent me an email and said, “Check this out, Ms. Campbell.” Not long after that we were using it in class, and this one girl asked, “Can we do the Vocabulary Bowl?” I said, “Sure!” I remember we had a little bulletin board here. We were, I think, 56th in the nation — so I just threw it out there that if they could make the top 20 this month, I’d get them pizza. I didn’t think! They ended up at number 2. Mr. Toliver said, I’ll help you with the pizza!
  • There’s no tryout, you never get eliminated. It’s an all-in kind of competition. Anybody can do it, we all work towards the same goal.
    V: So your students were pretty competitive from the start? Was it everyone, or just a few?
    C: Mr. Toliver and I were talking about this yesterday — how kids get so motivated because any student who is enrolled can play, can learn, can help their school. There’s no tryout, you never get eliminated. It’s an all-in kind of competition. Anybody can do it, we all work towards the same goal. When I was doing the ELL camp after school a few weeks ago my ESOL students logged in, they’re getting it done. They are very low in terms of emerging English language, but they were going for it. I can really appreciate a program that just makes vocabulary accessible. My favorite movie growing up was My Fair Lady — my grandma used to play it for me all the time! But it’s so true — the way you speak grants you access, whether it’s fair or not. I wish I had Vocabulary.com way back when I studied for my GRE! I still play. It’s a lot of fun.
  • Vocabulary was just not fun. It was boring. Vocabulary.com just made it something kids wanted to do.
    V: I know you really encouraged your students to believe that they could win their first monthly Vocabulary Bowl champions banner this year. How is competing connected to student engagement — not just to winning but to learning?
    C: I really like being an English teacher, but finding a way to teach vocabulary was always a struggle for me. Vocabulary was just not fun. It was boring. Vocabulary.com just made it something kids wanted to do. I use it for both remediation and enrichment. We had to do a common assessment on Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, and it was a difficult passage. So I copied and pasted it in VocabGrabber™ (before I discovered it had a list already!) And it helped in because Winston Churchill’s language is not going to be the same as theirs. Now I have a direct way to say what I am doing for remediation in this class - I have Vocabulary.com.
  • You could tell by listening to their performances at the end of the year that they knew what they were saying, they understood it ...
    V: Tell us about what you’re teaching — it’s a little different from a traditional 6th grade ELA class.
    C: Well I teach Speech, as in the rhetoric meaning of speech, which is for high school credit. I focus a lot on poetry because they students are comfortable with poems. They’re short, so the kids usually memorize a poem for their final. Last year they had to choose between Brutus or Antony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Vocabulary.com helped because they practiced the lists for the play beforehand. So a lot of times when they wanted to get to the good stuff if I would pause and start to say, “Well, this word means…” and they were like, “Keep it rolling. Ms. Campbell! We got it!” You could tell by listening to their performances at the end of the year that they knew what they were saying, they understood it, so that part was really great.
  • V: So, did they use the pronunciation feature?
    C: They do. It helps if they tend to put the wrong emPHASis on the wrong sylLABle!
  • ... it makes it easier because they’re not memorizing all thirty words from the list all at once. They work on them for a while.
    V: How does exposing them to the words by practicing a list before they encounter them in the text make a difference in their learning and your teaching?
    C: When we read Shakespeare, they didn’t know what a dagger was! It’s just not a word people use today. So they practiced it, and now they know you can use it as a verb, too. It’s those little nuances like that that they just don’t know. And the way they practice, it makes it easier because they’re not memorizing all thirty words from the list all at once. They work on them for a while. Then in context it’ll be a little clearer when they’re reading, or when I mention a word they say “Oh, right. I remember. Phantasm, got it.” It’s building that familiarity with the language.
  • V: What kinds of changes do you see or hear with students who have done a lot of vocabulary study?
    C: It depends on the group of kids. Last year my kids would try to use the language in class — correctly or incorrectly, but they got the gist of it! I remember hearing one of them describing someone’s inappropriate behavior and saying, “Oh, that’s crass!” This year’s group of kids they try to use the vocabulary a lot more in their written assignments. They also notice word choice more. We were studying Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est and one line is “guttering, choking, drowning,” and they appreciated that — they noticed that it wasn’t just “dying”. They pictured this staggering soldier, so they are starting to notice the power of word choice.
  • Vocabulary.com is sometimes a big part of my class, but sometimes I also do it as homework.
    V: How much class time do you you spend on Vocabulary.com?
    C: So, Vocabulary.com is a sometimes a big part of my class, but sometimes I also do it as homework. If we are doing something like March Madness or a big challenge maybe we will spend some more time, but I don’t feel like it takes away teaching time.
  • V: Your classroom and your school are full of beautiful student work. Not just nice to look at, but really meaningful, high-quality projects. Tell us about this one.
    C: It’s called “blackout poetry” or “found poetry” where they get text and they blackout the words they don’t want and leave the ones they do want to make a poem. They’re really afraid with language — they don’t like to move things around and they don’t like to try new things. I mean, I’m a language arts teacher by certification, and in language arts students are taught to write one way. The rules. But real writers take liberty. They put a dash, they have a word dangling, all for effect. So I find that this project allow them to play a little bit with words.
  • So they’re just really enjoying learning and playing with language ...
    V: You and your 6th grade teaching team have also done some really great interdisciplinary units of study. Can you tell us about Ocean Week?
    C: So we’ve been working with Mr. Bass and his biology class on Ocean Week. The students had to research a reef fish, then draw it. For the creative ELA part, they used Vocabulary.com to find a Tier II word to describe the fish. One girl drew a koi fish and decided to make her koi fish boisterous. She said, “Ms. Campbell, it’s a joke. I know that coy means kind of shy and boisterous is the opposite. I thought it’d be funny to have a boisterous koi/coy fish!” Another student chose a queen fish, which is actually the smallest fish on the reef and she called it majestic to fit the name queen yet also to be ironic because of its small size. So they play with words more in that way. Another Ocean Week activity we did was the found poem activity with a passage from The Old Man and the Sea, and then as a spin-off we learned nautical terms. So they’re just really enjoying learning and playing with language, and they see it as connected to all these different things. And can I just say, my team — they are great supporters of Vocabulary.com.