Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Obfuscate Clearly

One of the lessons I really love to do with my kids is to work with them on clarity.

Introducing the concept of clarity is fun in and of itself. I begin by asking what they think clarity means. Of course, while I am asking, I have a webpage up on the board with a quick thumbnail definition.

Then we listen to Abbott and Costello doing their famous Who's on First? routine. I am always amazed by how many of them have not heard of this routine. It is a classic and needs to kept alive. Then we disect why there was a breakdown in communication. It is fun and I can direct them to Youtube for more Abbott and Costello routines.

Then I read from Running from Safety by Richard Bach. On pages 210-211 he describes what it was like to be a technical writer. During his time there, a plane crashed due to a mistaken word in a checklist. I feel it is a good real life example of why clarity is so important.

Then we move to the concept of pretentious/overblown language. I want them to get a feel for it--to see why it is counterproductive when trying for clarity. I follow that talk up by having them complete a worksheet titled "Rules to Live By" from the book Basic Skills/Reading Comprehension 6-8.

As they work on that individually, I wander around and help where I can. I do not answer questions the way they want: I don't tell them what to write. Instead I ask a lot of leading questions and try to lead the Socratically to the correct answer.

After we finish that up, I call on them randomly to translate for me. They are translating from overblown English to regular English. In fact, to ease them into it, this worksheet has the answers below and they just need to match them up.

Then on to the next segment. I pass out a handout with ten Obfuscated Proverbs on it. These are not mine. They have been floating around the Internet for years and years. I just use some of them as an object lesson. I start by taking them step-by-step through how to "translate" an obfuscated proverb. The PowerPoint I use for that is below.

I let them work together in pairs as I wander around again. Again I try to lead them Socratically to the correct answers.

I am told that the exercise is hard. It is too much. It makes their brains hurt.
I am asked why we need to do this in a writing class. And whined at occasionally that I expect too much from them.

I don't. I know the exercise is challenging for them. It is not a word for word translation, but a getting a sense of where a proverb is going and jumping to a guess. They hate to guess for the most part. They want something that they can figure out and prove to be the way it ought to be. But life isn't like that. Sometimes you have to figure things out. Sometimes you won't even have a partner to work with or a mentor/coach to ask for help.

They will finish with this tomorrow. I look forward to more of what I saw today: kids who "get it" lighting up as they realize they figured out something they thought was too hard.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Hey I found this neat website with teaching supplements and some fun activities for students. Thought I'd share...