Friday, November 28, 2014

Vintage School Desks


We all went to school and we all sat at school desks.   We sat at school desks for hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months, and years and years.

We started sitting at school desks in kindergarten and sat at them for the thirteen years of K-12. I added four more years sitting at school desks for college and then two more for grad school.

Schools desks come in many shapes and sizes.  An amazing moment for many adults is when they visit a kindergarten and they see the teeny tiny little desks. It's hard to imagine how tiny we once were.

One thing that all the school desks seem to have in common is how industrial strength they were.  Strong enough to stand up to years of leaning and banging.  In the old days, they were attached to the floor. I have several in which the back of one row of school desk is the desk for the row behind them.

Contemporary School Desk
When I think about school desks, I remember an odd but true story.

Rural Classroom in Sangmelima, Cameroon, Africa
When I was in my early 20s, I lived in a small town in Southern Cameroon called Sangmelima. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.  There was another volunteer in my town who was friends with a local carpenter who we called "Uncle."  Uncle was a little less than responsible and he had a few kids and a wife with a very sharp tongue. One day as we stopped by, we heard her chewing him out for failing to come up with the money for the school fees, apparently their boy had just been sent home from school since the fees were overdue.

Vintage School Desk
Vintage School Desk 
The other volunteer and I quickly loaned him money for the fees and walked with him and his son back to the school to sort things out.

It turns out the problem wasn't just the fees but as the teacher explained and pointed out, she had thirty desks and thirty students. Although he now had the cash, the seats were quite literally, all full.  So Uncle turned on the charm and she finally agreed that if she had more desks and chairs, she would accept the boy back into school. So we went back to Uncles house and it only took him a few hours to build another four school desks. We marched them over to school, set them up, and she accepted him back into school.

When I was young, I went to school  in London and one of our subjects was penmanship.  We had fountain pens that we would fill up with ink from the ink wells and try to carefully copy over our lessons. I was terrible. Ink would blot, I'd have ink all over my hands and sometimes on my desk and clothes. And that was on the days when I was trying not to make a mess, not counting the moments when they would leave us alone and we would flick ink at each other.




Thursday, November 27, 2014

School: a noun and verb but not an adjective?

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking and talking about the word 'school.'  In a meeting , I insisted that the word 'school' could be used as an adjective. (BTW, I run VocabularySpellingCity where I have also blogged about School: Can it be an adjective?)
What sort of bus? What describes the bus?

I was in disagreement with a language arts teacher with close to three decades of teaching experience who was arguing it could only be a noun.  She had set up a multiple choice question asking what part of speech "school" was. I argued that there were three right answers and that it was archaic form of question (It should only be asked about a word where it is shown used in context and even then, it's ... well, that's another topic).

I spoke with some confidence: "What about school days, school bus, school boy, school books? What sorts of books would these be? They are school books. And besides, lets pull up Merriam Webster and I'll show you....Wow, I'll be....Merriam Webster lists 'school" as a noun and a verb but not as an adjective!  OK, lets try another..."  The same thing!  I was stupified, stumped, flummoxed, and dumbfounded.

The first two dictionaries that I pulled up online both listed 'school" as a noun or a verb, (ie "Would you like to be schooled in the use of dictonaries?); but neither acknowledged the use of 'school' as an adjective.
Dictionary.com Entry

Finally, I found dictionary.com which mentions the use of school in three ways: noun, adjective, and verb.  This seemed obvious to me but I was now aware that there was room for disagreement.

What to make of Merriam Webster? What do they think about the 'school bus'?

Merriam lists 'school bus' as a noun. ("School Bus." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/school bus>). In this format, they presumably consider it to be an open form compound word. Open Form Compound Word? VocabularySpellingCity explains half-way down the compound word page (BTW, I might have had a hand in writing the page, I don't really remember): 

Open form Compound Word: The words are open but when read together, a new meaning is formed. EXAMPLES: post office, real estate, full moon, half sister.

Which brings me to the point: 

When is a word a compound word and when is it just an adjective with a noun?  
School Desk, a type of desk?


The answer lies in this concept of whether a new meaning has been formed.

Real estate. I would agree that real when used with estate forms a new meaning that is not clear from just thinking of real as an adjective.

Post office is not really a type of office at all, it's a type of retail outlet so it's clearly a compound word and not an adjective noun combination. 

Full Moon?  But could full be an adjective describing the moon?  For me, the answer is no since the moon does not fill up at all like a glass or gas tank. Fullness, in this case, is a weird metaphor so for me, there's a new meaning when the words are combined. Hence, full moon is a compound word. Still, this one is a little gray since there are degrees of fullness of the moon which in my mind, tilts it back towards being an adjective with a noun.

Post

So, back to school:

Is a school bus just a type of bus?  IMHO Yes.
Is a school book just a type of book?  IMHO Yes.
What about a school desk, is it a type of desk?   IMHO, Yes.
Is school work just a type of work?  IMHO Maybe.
Is a school house just a type of house? IMHO NO, it's not a house at all. 
Is a school boy or a school girl (btw, that's one of the most searched terms on the internet....don't ask...uhg) just a type of boy or girl?  IMHO Maybe.
School day? A type of day? Maybe
School half day? This is an expression we throw around. Is Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a school half day?  Is half day a single open form compound word? What about school half day?

So there's some black and white cases of school being used as an adjective such as with bus or book. There's some definite compound words made with the word school such as school house. And there are some gray areas where I'm not sure and I'd have to consult greater authorities.  But, if Merriam Webster is unwilling to acknowledge that school could ever be used as an adjective then I (the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity) am getting a little unsure of who this greater authority will be.  Maybe my Mom or brothers, all of whom seem to know grammar so much better than me. 

Of course, none of this matters. As the Common Core implies, students can become great writers and readers without knowing how to categorize parts of speech or diagram sentences.  And since teaching semantics and grammar does not really seem to be lighting up the student population or improving literacy, lets try de-emphasizing it. I'd agree that only the word nerds among us would care about the above discussion and so trying to teach it and get students to care about it is not the future of education.    

Or...maybe...there's other views.  Anyone?

About this blog. This blog is a personal blog of John, the founder of VocabularySpellingCity. Currently, this blog highlights vintage educational technology which have been collected in the VocabularySpellingCity office such as school desks, Golden Books, Dictionaries and Encyclopedias,  mimeograph machines, and film strips (is it just me or does every title in that list taunt me to classify it as to whether it's a compound word or not).  This post is a throwback to an earlier era on this blog when Miss Suzy, a colleague wrote about language with popular article such as:  S.O.S. -- Abrasion vs. Cut vs. ScratchAre you Prominent, Eminent or Either or Neither?Estimate and Esteem, and Clean Up Your Use of Guest.