You Shall Pursue

January 18, 2013

A Tool for Teaching Big Scary Concepts to Kids

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:57 am

There is this nifty new tool called the Up-Goer 5, that forces a person to write using only the 1000 most common words in the English Language. A favorite feminist blogger of mine, Ozy Frantz, has used this to write easy-to-understand definitions of some complicated social justice topics. I may use this as a classroom tool to help my kids process some of the topics (like mitzvot, prophecy, and God) that we’ve been working on this year. I may also, when I’m done with my series on Reconstructionism, use the tool to define difficult theological and religious ideas.


  1. XKCD is an amazing comic. I’m kind of happy this concept is being taken and used by people, because especially for those of us used to working in a world of academic writing, it’s often far too easy to fall back on language that for most people tends to obscure and alienate rather than communicate. A very healthy remedy for Rconstructionists in particular 😉

    Comment by Leiah Moser — January 18, 2013 @ 11:40 am

  2. The program won’t let me use the word “fish.” I submit that it is a lot more straightforward to say “fish” than “water animal.” Esp. since “scales” and “fins” are also forbidden (sorry, “not allowed”), so I don’t actually know how I can differentiate (sorry, distinguish, err, explain the difference, err, explain how not alike, err, explain how not similar, err, explain how not the same) between fish and other “water animals.”

    I agree that one ought to present ideas as clearly and simply as possible. Clear and simple language ensures that a concept is comprehensible to as wide an audience as possible. It also helps prevent people from using essentially meaningless catch-phrases that don’t actually make sense. Sometimes, though, the clearest and simplest way to present a concept IS to use the proper vocabulary. If an intended audience doesn’t know what a “fish” is, start by teaching them the word fish. Contorting sentences in order to semi-arbitrarily avoid basic vocabulary such as “fish” obfuscates more than it clarifies.

    Also not allowed: bird, chicken, tool.

    Comment by Dan — January 18, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

  3. Yeah, I’m trying to read the feminist definitions you just linked to. I think I actually understood those concepts before I read that post, but now that post has made my head glaze over and I can’t think anymore. That is not how people talk; presenting ideas that way is funny for a joke but it does not clarify concepts. I’m not saying don’t explain concepts such as “othering” or “ally,” and I’m not saying don’t use straightforward language. But judging by these results the “1,000 most common” criterion is far too limited. If you can’t explain a concept without using only those 1,000 words, then don’t teach that concept yet. Back up and teach the intermediary concepts. Hell, just reading a lot of books ought to teach more than those 1,000 words, if those 1,000 words don’t even include “fish” and “bird.”

    Comment by Dan — January 18, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

  4. I’m seeing this less as a tool that should be used to teach complicated ideas all by itself, and more as a word puzzle to facilitate internalization. I would want to get my students involved in trying to generate definitions using the program. The limits will force them to think creatively and more deeply internalize the material that they are learning. Which is the whole point of pedagogy.

    Comment by marleyweiner — January 18, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    • See, I think the tool has the opposite effect. Thinking clearly requires precision. Excess verbiage and jargon that is more trendy than meaningful reduce clarity and precision. But so does the inability to talk about fish rather than mollusks.

      Comment by Dan — January 18, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

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