An annual project for the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club is to give dictionaries to all of the third-graders in the public and private schools in Bemidji plus St. Mary's Mission and all of the third-graders at Red Lake and Ponemah Elementary schools. A colleague, Charlie, and I passed out dictionaries to the Red Lake schools.
You might be asking yourself, what is so special about a dictionary, especially a dictionary made of paper when most kids today, if not all kids, have access to an electronic tablet, computer or iPhone? They can just say “Siri, how do you spell ‘rotary’ and what does it mean?"
There is something magical about being around kids, especially third-graders. Third-graders are curious, happy, energetic, courteous and appreciative. I didn’t encounter any that seemed to be turned off by school. They were all ready to learn something new. It was as if their brains were telling them, “Give me a dictionary.”
They were especially interested in the model brain that I was carrying. All of them knew what it was. “Your brain is just a little smaller than the brains of us older folks in the room. Do you know why?”
“Your brain is bigger because you are older,” one student said. I said, “Bingo.”
“Your brain grows when you learn new things. If you don’t learn your brain doesn’t grow. Where do you think you learn new things?”
“In school.” “Bingo, again,” I said.
All of us have taken some kind of knowledge test during our lifetime. The most challenging part of those tests for me was the vocabulary part. I never did very well. Today my dislike of vocabulary has turned 180 degrees. Kathy and I love to do crossword puzzles and doing the Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz. I keep index cards for new words I need to learn.
Learning words is one important way of making our brains grow. I told the kids that it would be interesting if they wrote in a tablet all of the words they know and every time they learned a new word, they would add it to their tablet. This would also include any Ojibwa words.
English and Ojibwa dictionaries, of course, contain all of these words. A paper dictionary is special because you can hold in your hands, you can touch it, open its pages and you can smell it. “Smell the book,” I said. “Don’t you love the smell of new books? Be sure and write your name in it. It’s yours forever.” It’s important to be able to learn how to use a dictionary when you need to. Daniel Webster had a good idea.
So we talked about the dictionary and we had them look in the back to find the longest word in the English language and if I had to write it for you, I would use up the rest of this column. It was some scientific word containing over 1,900 letters — really! I told the kids there was a rumor going around that their teacher was going to have them memorize the word and then have them spell it when they returned to school.
Then we said that there was an even longer word in the dictionary and they could find it on such and such a page. This was a riddle and I had to point out to them that the word was “smile” because it had a mile in it — a classic riddle, one that all kids should know. Some got it, for others we had to explain it and then they got it. “Be sure and tell the riddle to your parents tonight.” Riddles make you think, they make the brain grow.
Even though the kids were all different in their own unique way, they all had one thing in common. They were all capable of graduating from high school. Although graduating from high school wasn’t quite on their radar screen yet, we did figure out what year they would graduate (2029), who they were going to invite to their party and what word they would say when they received their diploma. You might say, the Sunrise Rotary helped plant a graduation seed into all of the third-graders we met.
Think about this. If that seed were purposely and relentlessly planted every year by their teachers and by their family and by all of us, we could graduate 100% of the third-graders in Red Lake and Bemidji. I say this regardless of what school they attend and who they have for a teacher. I have absolutely no doubts about this.
I was especially impressed with all of the teachers in the classrooms. Even though we were there for just a short time, you couldn’t help but feel that the kids were in very capable hands. Do you know why? Because all those teachers know the value of a dictionary and they know words have power and it is this power that teachers give kids. I also enjoy walking in a classroom and instantly knowing that I am in a place where learning occurs. Yes, every classroom smells but it’s the greatest smell in the world.
Kids who know a lot of words are better readers. Kids who know a lot of words are better writers. Kids who know a lot of words feel better about themselves. Words are found in dictionaries. Dictionaries have power.
(Note: I commented to my wife before I sat down to write this column that before long we will have a school closing because of the coronavirus. Before I finished this column I heard on the news that two schools were about to close in Oregon and Washington. Wash your hands everyone and tap elbows instead of shaking hands.)
Riddle: What pen should you never use for writing? (A pig pen.) I always like to use a favorite pen when I write down a new word. It makes it that much more pleasurable.)
Thanks to Benson’s Lakeland Auto Sales we now have 370 businesses and organizations that support 100%. Mark April 16 on your calendar for the “Helping Kids Find Success” conference at Seven Clans Casino. The 2017 Teacher of the Year will be speaking.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.