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A Quotation a Day:
Just What the
Language Doctor Ordered

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Many teachers have discovered the power of famous quotations. Such quotations can be used to develop students' writing and critical thinking skills. Included: "Why use quotations?" plus a quotation a day for 180 days of school.

Last year at P.S. 209, a K-8 school in Brooklyn, New York, principal Howard Leibowitz asked each teacher to select a quotation that would be printed in large type, laminated, and hung over the classroom doorway. "Initially, many teachers thought this was a hokey idea," teacher Elyse Hunt told Education World, "but it caught on quickly. Teachers -- and students -- eagerly read and sometimes pondered the meanings of those quotations."

Leibowitz encouraged teachers to initiate discussions about the quotations, added Hunt. Teachers reinforced them in a variety of ways. Hunt even created hidden-message word search puzzles using the Puzzlemaker Web site. The hidden message was a well-known quotation.

Among the quotations that were hung over doorways, Hunt recalled, was the one that hung outside her classroom: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Others included "Winners never quit, and quitters never win" and "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right."

QUOTATIONS FILL THE BILL!

Nancy Crossley starts each day in her sixth-grade language arts class with a notable quote.

"When I switched from teaching tenth grade to teaching sixth grade, I soon learned that sixth graders' thinking capabilities were more concrete than abstract," said Crossley, who teaches at Aledo (Texas) Middle School. "I had a whole set of quotations that I just laid aside until spring. Even then, I needed quotations more basic, preferably centered on self-esteem, desire to learn, and treatment of others. I typed the quotations I found onto transparencies so that I could use them as board work at the start of class. The kids are very active and the notable quote exercise -- complete with lowered lights, silence, and a serious discussion -- helped cool the classroom atmosphere."

Crossley distributes to each student a form that includes spaces headed Quotation (for copying the quotation), In My Own Words (where students can rephrase the quotation), and For Example (where they can give a concrete example of the quotation's meaning).

"They love having a form," Crossley told Education World. "As they enter the room, a day's new quotation is on the overhead. Even if they don't understand it, they can at least copy it, so the room does get quiet. I tell them it's OK if they truly don't understand the quotation, that they can fill in the rest of it as they hear classmates' explanations. Then I call on volunteers to read to us whatever they choose to share."

"I've learned to ask whether anyone had a different interpretation," Crossley added. "The participation level in this activity is high. It is one of the few times that they want to talk so badly that they actually bite their lips and wave their arms around in the air. I usually have to move on to the lesson, leaving some to groan that they didn't get to read theirs."

What do students get out of their daily notable quote exercise? "Knowing what lies ahead for my students in high school, I recognized this as an educationally sound exercise in many ways," said Crossley. Among the skills this exercise helps students practice are

  • paraphrasing, a critical language arts skill;
  • using synonyms, a skill that appears on every standardized test with a verbal section;
  • giving examples, which is a useful skill for supporting opinions in persuasive essays.

Crossley also noted that in the new End of Course (EOC) exam, required by Texas for sophomore English credit, the essay prompt is very different from the persuasive one on the TAAS. It is a quotation! The student must explain the quotation and support the explanation with examples!

WELCOME TO THE LAND OF ABSTRACT THINKING!

Crossley recalled the first quotation she uses with her sixth graders: "A teacher can open the door to learning, but only you can enter." Yes, she admitted, she usually gets her share of literal thinkers whose interpretations begin and end with "The teacher should open the door to her classroom so her students can come in." Why would a quotation like that become famous? she challenges her charges. Ah, it must mean something else. What other kind of door? How do you enter?

"They came with me to the land of abstract thinking!" proclaimed Crossley. "I had not realized what an adventure this would be for them, what new territory!"

Another memorable quotation was Eleanor Roosevelt's "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

"I had my most poignant responses from my poorest students, who finally had a forum in which they could respond to the cruelty they encountered in an affluent school as well as recover some dignity by simply reclaiming their right to self-esteem," said Crossley. "What a terrific moment for me as a teacher!

Students started bringing in quotations they like, and we write them on large index cards and post them around the room," Crossley said. "One boy who was a football player brought in 'Even a blind dog finds a bone some of the time.' In explaining it to the class, he told them it was like being the worst player on the team, but every now and then you fall down and get in the way of the other guys.

"I added 'Even the weakest member has value, even in a class,'" noted Crossley. "I love briefly expanding on their observations. I get to say very thought-provoking things that just sort of hang in the air. Then I move on."

Here's another favorite of Crossley's: "Choose your socks by their color and your friends by their character. Choosing your socks by their character makes no sense. Choosing your friends by their color is unthinkable."

"After we get past the interpretation that this is about character socks -- like Bugs Bunny! -- we are able to discuss racism and true character," said Crossley.

"The greatest value I see in this project is that it encourages deep thinking in children who are already grappling with complex issues," Crossley concluded. "Maybe by tackling tough issues in middle school, we can avoid a Columbine incident. I doubt that we touched on the three 'basics' -- sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- but it seems even more basic to me to teach them and walk them through abstract, evaluative thinking that encourages them to solve problems as individuals. ... For some, this is their first exercise in wisdom."

WHY QUOTATIONS? A FEW MORE THOUGHTS

Quotations are a great way to get a dialogue going with students, added Elyse Hunt. That's just one of many possible benefits.

  • A daily quotation can be a great way to start the morning -- or the afternoon. The activity can help settle and focus students first thing in the morning or after lunch recess.

  • Daily quotations can be a wonderful exercise for stretching students' minds, for challenging students to think critically. Students will discover that most famous quotations have much deeper meanings than a quick surface read reveals. (You can quote me on that!)

  • As the year progresses, as students think and talk through the meanings of quotations on a daily basis, their insights are sure to grow. Their thought processes and writing will mature too.

  • Start simply! Especially if you teach younger students, you might look through the quotations that follow and choose a few with meanings that might be more obvious to your students.

  • Start the year with a handful of quotations you select because they reinforce powerful messages -- your classroom "golden rules," for example -- for the school year ahead!

  • Challenge students to apply the quotations to their own lives -- at home, in school, or with friends.

  • Ask students if the quotation reminds them of an experience in their own lives. Many of the quotations were chosen because they might jar personal memories.

  • If you use a daily quotation as a writing activity, offer students an opportunity to share their thoughts or writings. This "show-and-tell" time will help students get to know one another, and it will model the kind of critical thinking that you want students to use as they write about each day's quotation.

NOW FOR THE QUOTATIONS -- ALL 180 OF THEM!

Drum roll! So here they are -- 180 quotations, one for each school day! Just click here to view the entire list. These quotations have been drawn from numerous sources. Those sources include the Web, teacher listservs, quotation dictionaries, and many others. The list that follows is a "starter list." To supplement these famous quotations or to personalize the list for your students, pick up at a local bookstore any of the most popular quotation dictionaries, search the Web for one of the many online quotation sources, or invite students to bring in their own quotations!

Related Articles from Education World

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor in Chief
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 06/18/2002
Last updated 09/22/2009

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