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The mandrake plant, where the root is interpreted as a naked man, is from the 1440, ‘Tractatus de Herbis’ seen at the British Museum (Codex Sloane 4016). The bifurcated root was said to resemble a man that when pulled from the earth would shriek, so people believed. Digging to the roots of these words too led to shrieking: some shrieks of amazement, some of frustration. In the making of these videoclips, no students were under the influence of mandrake, a member of the deadly nightshade family. No dogs were harmed!

So many of the day to day class activities flow into and build on each other and yet they all begin with words. We are currently reading the graphic novel of The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds. This is an accessible entry into this classic text with rich language that echoes some of the great translations. Earlier in the week we began an examination of Odysseus’s character:

‘Sing to me O Muse, of that man of many troubles, Odysseus…’

I heard one student say they weren’t too sure whether they liked him or not- “Look at his bragging to Polyphemous, the Cyclops, he certainly was not faithful to Penelope, and look what he did with the suitors and the handmaidens on his return!” And yet –Odysseus’s determination or is it persistence(?) his clever trickery, his focus on returning home and his determined embrace of life and mortality- all this makes him a fascinating character, human and in the end (to this reader) flawed but likeable.

We explored various traits that could be applied to Odysseus. Students analysed these words into morphemes, identified the root and the base.

Here’s Temira’s initial work carried out with a partner. At this stage she has only copied the dictionary denotation. Later she and the class will write this in their own words to indicate their understanding and in doing so make connections with the root. You will notice letters in red where students marked the letters in the root that have carried on into the present day base element. I felt this was valuable in allowing an understanding to grow between root and base and for students to see how the root influences the orthography.

Word, denotation, morphemes and root. Letters in the root that have been carried over into the orthography in the base element are marked.

Word, denotation, morphemes and root. Letters in the root that have been carried over into the orthography in the base element are marked.

Here’s the next phase of this inquiry where students were asked to:

1.Place words in a category (below) based on your understanding of the denotation (read very carefully) and knowledge of the meaning of the root.

2. After you have placed these, decide which word of the pair or trio most applies to Odysseus. Make this bold (or change its colour).

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This student has ranked the pairs or trio of words from least to most negative. The words bolded and marked in red are those that the he and his group feel apply most to Odysseus.

Phase three had the students placing the words on a continuum from less negative to more negative.

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This led to a lot of discussion as to subtle differences between words. You’ll note how I attempted, not especially successfully, to push students beyond a simple claim..”I think Odysseus is ..” to begin to justify their reasoning and in doing so reference both the current denotation and the root meaning as well as citing specific evidence from the text to support their claim. Obviously this is a skill we will continue to  (and need to) work on all year. Once again these recordings teach me so much about student thinking, both individually and collectively. It, as ever, gives me pause to consider my tendency to steer rather than allow students more time to draw their own conclusions! My mantra after watching these clips below is to  : Be more silent! Ask more open ended questions…..!






What’s needed?

  • More practice doing just this and reading Online Etymology Dictionary
  • Justifying a claim

What was gained in this lesson evolving over several sessions?

  • Rich discussion both about the subtle nuances between these synonyms
  • Rich discussion about the character of Odysseyeus
  • Experience in using references such as Online Etymology Dictionary and the Mac Dictionary to identify the root.
  • It’s not about “rightness” or “wrongness”- it’s about evidence!

Rightness and Wrongness:

I’ve been thinking a lot about “rightness” and “wrongness” recently and in particular, my students’ obsession to get it “right” or hunt down the “right answer” and in the speed of light! It is not that getting it right is wrong – I want air traffic control to get it right when landing planes, I want any surgeons working on me to get it right, I want other drivers on the road heading towards me to get it right. However, in my humanities class I want students to take risks in their thinking and that means being able to embrace “wrongness”. I want my students to be able to listen to others and question, to be able to change their thinking when the evidence warrants this, to slow down rather than leap to swift certainties. I am frequently guilty of leaping to swift judgements, assumptions and regard these as “right” interpretations or correct answers. My students consistently show me the importance of slowing it down, the value of weighing the evidence. Watch below as this student works through her “wrongness”. The photo below shows her initial thinking:

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By the end of the session, this student had been able to recognize that <term> was a free base element from Latin terminare: to finish, to reach the boundaries. Her partner had recognized the word’ term’ and ‘determined’ that this did indeed share the same root. Unfortunately, the memory card on the camera was full as her observations about the process she went through to reach this understanding was illuminating. She said:

“If you’d just told me the answer, I wouldn’t have understood. I was uncertain but I needed to slow down and think through and keep asking questions. I needed time and questions”. And I would add not the pressure of getting the answer right. She and I both learned so much from her “wrongness”.

Go here to read Kathryn Schultz’s blog The Wrong Stuff on Slate Magazine. Her blog interviews people ‘on their relationship to being wrong’. Watch her Ted talk On Being Wrong

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‘The mandrake is a plant; its roots grow in human form, male and female, and shriek when torn from the ground. It is of great use in medicine, but anyone who hears the plant’s cry dies or goes mad. It was therefore a custom to tie a hungry dog to the plant by a cord and place a piece of meat beyond its reach. To get at the meat the dog tugged at the cord and dragged up the plant, while its master remained safely out of hearing.’

And look at the ‘wrongness’ in the beliefs about the mandrake plant and in the folk etymologizing of ‘mandrake’ as a word.A German belief was that’ the plant springs from the drippings of a man hanged on a gallows. Hence in Germany the plant bears the popular name of the Little Gallows Man. It is, or used to be, believed in that country that when a hereditary thief, born of a family of thieves, or one whose mother stole while he was in her womb, is hanged on a gallows, and his seed or urine falls on the ground, the mandrake or Little Gallows Man sprouts on the spot’!
Mandrake is a compound word connecting drakes with dragons and of both Greek and Old English roots. The root ( of the plant, not the word!) resembles both a human figure and a phallus. Shakespeare references the belief that when pulled from the ground it shrieks. Juliet in her final soliloquy, says with the fatal phial of poison in her hand:

‘So early waking, what with loathsome smells,

And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,

That living mortals hearing them run mad.’

mandrake (n.) Look up mandrake at Dictionary.com‘narcotic plant, early 14c., mondrake, from Medieval Latin mandragora, from Latin mandragoras, from Greek mandragoras, probably from a non-Indo-European word. The word was in late Old English in its Latin form; folk etymology associated the second element with dragoun and substituted native drake in its place. The forked root is thought to resemble a human body and is said to shriek when pulled from the ground. ‘ ( Online Etymology Dictionary)

Go here for more: drake and dragon

What led to the beliefs that the mandrake shrieked? What does this one word tell us about the time and the culture?  Read about Mandrake here.

Remember Mandrake the magician? This character, superhero’s powers lie in the hypnotic qualities of his gestures so that his subjects succumb to illusions. Surely an allusion to the narcotic properties of the mandrake plant. Read here and watch here created by Lee Falk (before he created  another childhood favorite The Phantom). Note the Falk wrote while Davis worked on the strip until his death in 1964.  Falk then organized for Fred Fredericks to illustrate the comics until Falk died in 1999. Fredericks became both writer and artist. The Sunday Mandrake strip ended December 29, 2002.

Mandrake creator Lee Falk:Guardian Obituary