“Choose one of the provided options to best describe yourself,” I read aloud to the class. “If neither adjective pertains to you, choose the one you’d most prefer.”
The students skimmed the worksheet before them, muscles remembering their test-taking posture.
“So this isn’t being graded?”
“No,” I smiled. “It’s a way for me to get to know you.”
Shoulders sighed, pencil boxes opened, and within seconds, hands were raised in the air.
“Ms. Weisinger,” they called, holding up the worksheet. “All of these questions are the same: ‘Are you playful or silly?’ ‘Are you prideful or stubborn?’”
“Yeah,” another student accused. “Don’t playful and silly mean the same thing?”
I tried not to smile.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said to the class. “But if you’re worried, just try your best. It’s a very important lesson we’re learning today.”
I watched from behind the blue-painted podium as students gave each other panicked looks.
“So let’s continue: ‘Are you playful or silly?’”
Pencils hovered as if the wrong answer would doom them to a parent phone call. Reluctantly, crisp #2 pencils circled.
“‘Are you prideful or stubborn?’”
Some glanced at their neighbor’s desk.
“Are you,” I continued, walking the perimeter of the desks “more lazy or unmotivated?”
The questions continued for the next two minutes, asking them to clarify personality traits from athleticism to creativity. But eventually, students were choosing words with swifter ease and the deer-in-a-headlights look vanished.
“Thank you, everyone, for that seemingly torturous worksheet,” I grinned. “Next time, I will be sure to begin class with Othello.”
“Are we going to go over everyone’s answers?” a boy couldn’t wait to ask.
“Oh, most definitely. Is there a question you’d like to go over first, however?”
With a cheeky smile, he said, “Question 12.”
‘“Would you rather be attractive or cute?”’ I laughed. “Good question indeed. How many of you chose ‘attractive’?”
Hands raised and the boy’s mouth dropped. “Bryan. You’re telling me you’d rather be cute?”
A student on the opposite side of the room nodded. “Of course. I don’t want girls thinking I’m some weird, grown-up man.”
“Bryan, cute is like… baby-ish.”
“But I would rather be called cute,” a girl interrupted.
And so it began. Adamant answers. Passionate rebuttals. Students tearing words apart and inspect every connotation that dripped from one word.
“Dude. There is no way that it’s better to be ‘educated’ than ‘intelligent.’ Educated requires years of schooling.”
“But if you’re educated, then you know your intelligence is factually supported.”
Cue eye-rolls and more raised hands.
But I didn’t interfere. I let them wander along with the worksheet questions and refused to play judge. I watched in amusement, rerouted the microphone to quieter students, and asked them to turn in their worksheets to the front. It wasn’t until their backpacks were zipped did I sit on my stool and explain the day’s events.
“At the beginning of class today, you told me that there wasn’t a difference between these words. That synonyms didn’t hold much value in their differences,” I said.
“But I think we can all agree now that every word holds some weight. And in English 3, I want you to learn that. I want you to learn that word choice matters. That intentionality is work, but communication is worth it and you matter enough to be properly understood.”
“When I ask you to defend a word, I want you to be prepared. I want you to use this careful consideration in all of your writing decisions. Don’t say she’s ‘kind’ when you really mean she’s ‘genuine,”’ I said. “Don’t tell me your brother’s an athlete when he’s really more of a jock.”
I held the worksheets up with one hand. “Only you can tell me what you mean. So make sure to make it count.”
Featured Image by Anastasiia Kamil