Keywords, Week 1

This semester, I'm going to be experiencing a lot of keyword writing, as defined by Raymond Williams and adapted by Rebecca Luce-Kapler. Basically, the idea is to write from a keyword, construct, or quotation in an anchor text (in this case, an academic chapter or article assigned for class), using that word as a jumping off point for critical inquiry and personal reflection. I know it's more nuanced than that, but as this is my initial introduction to the idea, I'm still feeling my way into it. In fact, my first response is actually rooted in Williams' initial explanation of the concept of keywords.

Keywords, Week 1
“But for words of a different kind, and especially for those which involve ideas and values, it is not only an impossible but also an irrelevant procedure.” (Williams, p. xxix)

Clinging to the “dictionary definition” of a word with layers of meaning is something I’ve encountered regularly in my teaching practice, particularly while teaching at my last school. As a PBL school, all my units were designed around thematic driving questions, and as I began to realize in the process of shifting my teaching this way, the students needed to start with a firm grasp of the denotation of the keywords in my questions before they could begin to unpack the connotations. In that way, I supposed I disagree with Williams. As my questions became progressively more layered, students had more unpacking to do before they could demonstrate a deep mastery of the material and understanding of the question in a way that was personally applicable. I lost track of the number of times I had to guide individual students to break down my driving questions to the individual word level, instructing them to identify the dictionary meaning in order to move to the more thought-provoking possibilities inherent in the word. Student reactions to my driving questions were always blank stares and deep confusion at the outset, but through careful decoding and individual inquiry, it seemed that most students were able to dip beneath the surface of the words in their quests for meaning. Some students never moved beyond the literal; they produced perfectly serviceable work that dealt with, for example, the plot point of Romeo and Juliet in response to the question “what are the unforeseen effects of rebellion?”, and a surface understanding of the play and the question is all those students gained. However, many other students followed the rabbit hole that Williams describes in his introduction, not so much in a quest for the etymology of the words, but for a personal quest for the layers of meaning they could ascribe to the text. Essentially, these students engaged in a close reading of the question, which in turn led them to a closer reading of the play or other classroom texts at the center of any given unit. By the time it was necessary for these students to demonstrate their understanding, their projects were unique, reflective explorations of language, art, and experience that consistently blew me away as an educator and reaffirmed my commitment to PBL as a pedagogical method. Now, thinking back, I wonder if it wasn’t just about PBL, but about the language quest my driving questions encouraged students to take within each project.

Perhaps, then, I will conclude by saying that for a quest like Williams’, at his level of scholarship and interest, the dictionary definition of a word is unimportant. But for grade 9 students who are just beginning to be shown methods of expanded, critical thinking, starting at the denotation can provide a point of stability in which to ground their individually expansive inquiries.

Williams, R. (2015). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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