The alphabet tree (1968) is one of collage master Leo Lionni’s delightful children books. It’s about a bunch of letters that live on the leaves of a tree. The letters discover that in order to be stronger and avoid getting blown away in the wind, they can form words. They’re then taught that they can make sentences which have important things to say. The final poignant wish made by the leaves is for there to be “Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men”, a message that gets carried to the president.
Indeed, the ability to write and the alphabetic scripts that later emerged with the Sumerians have given humanity the abilities of specialization, expression, and even devastation. Writing allowed for record keeping, fact-checking, and the eventual growth of the scientific enterprise. It’s incredible that all of our knowledge, expressed in English at least, is made with some combination of 26 letters that most pre-schoolers have memorized. Combine those letters in the right ways and you can get war. Combine them another way, and you pave the way for peace. Don’t combine them and risk getting consumed by fear. As Pi Patel speaks in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, “You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”*
I have my own vocabulary tree in the corner of my classroom. The leaves are made up of coloured construction paper with vocabulary words the students have learned written on them. Green for nouns. Red for verbs. Yellow for adjectives, and orange for adverbs.
My process has been to have the students add vocabulary words on their own time. They pick up some blank leaves from one basket, and then, after writing their words and names on the leaves, deposit the leaves in another basket. In this way I can check for errors and identify misunderstandings of word types before stapling them to the tree branches.
I’m not sure what exactly I had in mind when I set up the tree, but I do like the idea of having a visible and tangible reminder of student progress. I think visually, and I love organic imagery, especially as it relates to learning and knowledge acquisition. The constructivists build, or rather, construct knowledge. But I prefer the ambiguity surrounding the origins of what has come before, the mysteries of biogenesis and the evolution of language. So instead of saying we build on the previous learnings of our students, I think it’s more aesthetic to say we assist in growing out those understandings. We work with something, to develop something greater.
I feel that language can be conceived using this kind of organic metaphor. My students can hang new words on the language trees in their minds, but in order for those words to become more deeply embedded, time is needed, and so too are opportunities for the formation of new connections. Words need to be grafted on before they become fused. Chaos before order. War before peace. Fear before light.
My inorganic paper tree is just a tangible metaphor for what we EAL teachers are involved with.
*Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Knopf Canada, 2001.