09 September 2008

An Ah-ha! Moment on Reference Materials

Last week my AP World History students were reading an article with difficult vocabulary. When asked which words were unfamiliar, they came up with a list of 30 words as quickly as it took me to write them on the board. We discovered the meaning of most of the words through context clues, but we also talked about using a dictionary when the going got tough. The bell rang and the students filed out to the next class.

Much later that night it occurred to me that if all of them wanted to use a dictionary I was out of luck. I did a mental inventory and realized that I have three collegiate dictionaries that technically belong to the yearbook staff, one hardback so old and used that I'm not even sure what it is, two paperbacks that have some pages missing and a hard back middle school dictionary that I got for free at a conference more than ten years ago. I have no hope of getting more dictionaries unless I buy them or find a dictionary fairy under a portable classroom someplace.

What's a teacher to do? That was when I smacked myself in the forehead and said "DUH." Students should Google their definitions. But wait! I only have ten computers in the classroom (which is a good sight more than most other teachers at my school). Yes, Google will still save me. I quickly planned a demonstration.

The next day, I had three volunteers. One had the middle school dictionary, one had the collegiate dictionary, and the third had her cell phone. The first word was 'ubiquity.' The collegiate dictionary won in three of the four classes. However, when we got to a political term, 'swiftboating,' the dictionaries were dead in the water. Neither volunteer could find the word (because the word is relatively new and the dictionaries are old). Google, however, zipped back the definition lickety-split. The students were in awe. So, how did we do this?

Google allows SMS messaging for some of its services. The dictionary is one of them. So, if a student texts the message 'd swiftboating' to 466453, she will get the definition back as a standard text message. Google offers additional SMS features as well. Visit their 'how to' page to get all the instructions. As Google says, while they don't charge for the services, your cell phone carrier might and standard text messaging rates probably apply.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see how this works out. I wonder if students will want to use "I don't know this word" as an excuse to get out their phones and text their friends. However, it is nice to have freed them from having to have a dictionary at school.