Friday, September 23, 2011

The power of words

Excuse me...*clears throat*... moves soapbox into position....

Words have amazing power.  They have the power to lift us up or shoot us down.  They bring warmth or freezing cold based on how they are spoken.  Words can teach and words can exasperate.  Words matter.

When my 8 year old came home with a math worksheet we reviewed it like all parents do.  Here is one of the math problems:

Bianca is playing Close to 100.  She makes the number 57 with her cards and says, "I can get to 100 exactly."  What 2-digit number will she make to get to 100 exactly?  Explain how you know.

My son responded with:

"It is 43.  I used the thing called brainpower."

Okay, first of all I have to admit, we totally cracked up over his answer.  Brainpower!  That's so funny.  Where does this kid get this stuff?  But then I wasn't laughing anymore.  He got the answer right but the teacher took off a point for the explanation. 

That's right.  The question asked for him to explain how he knew the answer.  He did explain.  He said he used his brain.  That is not the right answer!

The teacher writes a comment, "This means write the addition problem or explain your strategy."

Now, he still got a good grade, so I'm not going to harass the teacher but I was pretty irritated.  Our kids have to decipher what every person says when they don't say what they mean.  To me, and maybe I'm wrong here, but EXPLAIN means use words.  If she wanted the equation or wanted him to show his work, why didn't she ask, "Show the equation or show your work"?  I mean, the kids in the class are only 8.  Say what you mean!

This reminds me of a blog I read today about the superfluous "that".  Most of the time you can take out extra words like "that" without changing the meaning of the sentence.  We scrub our ms's until they shine and only the necessary words are left on the page.  If we've written our story well, the reader will understand what we are trying to communicate.  We need to say what we mean, no more, and certainly not less.  And we can't say the wrong thing because the reader definitely catches us when we make mistakes.

We explained (with words) to our son that the teacher wanted the equation, not a sentence of explanation.  We shared with him that the teacher needs to know that he knows the math tools and isn't just guessing.  So, we reinforced the teacher's point, because we back our teachers.  We also agreed that he did use his brainpower and he got the right answer.  So we backed our son too but  told him next time to also show the equation.

I am proud that my son knows what the word 'explain' means and has not been shoved into the conformity box yet.

Have you ever had a situation where what was said/written wasn't what was meant?  Share your story in the comments section.