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Cover to the Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. A darkly sardonic rhyming alphabet book, each letter itself a tiny tale of terror:’A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,B is for Basil assaulted by bears.’Go to Brainpickings to find out what happened to poor old Maude and Neville!

In our last unit one of the questions we asked was: Why do some people stand by during times of injustice while others take action?  In the course of our reading, the words compliance, resistance, dictatorship, discrimination, opportunism and certainty became concepts invoking terror. The creation of the next in our series of Tiny Tales is the culmination of 20- 30 minute inquiries conducted at the beginning of class once or twice a week over several weeks. Students in small groups researched words asking the foundational questions of word inquiry:what does the word mean? how is it structured? and what other words are related?  Once we had gathered our morphological and etymological information, we reworked our initial definitions. We discussed each word in depth- asking tough questions: what causes discrimination? Who is complicit in this? Why do so may stand by and comply? What causes compliance? What are the circumstances that cause some to resist?  Are there shared traits of those who resist ?

Quick notes capturing some elements of our discussion around the word

Quick notes capturing some elements of our class discussion around the morphology, etymology and meaning of the word <resistance>.

Once we felt we understood these words, had argued and thought and asked each other many questions, we used our understandings of the words to illuminate our Tiny Tales. We came to see that these words were, in the context of our study, terrifying.



And yes we have divided resistance as <re+si+st+ance>. We continue our research on this. The prefix <re-> has a sense of against. The stem <sist>, derived from Latin sistere “take a stand, stand firm” and  is the reduplicated form of Latin stare to stand. We recognize the Latin suffixes <-are>,<-ere> and <-ire> and know to remove this when investigating how the Latin root emerges in the present day orthography of the base. When we remove the Latin suffix <-are> from the Latin infinitive <stare> we are left with <st>. When we remove the <-ere> suffix from the reduplicated form <sistere> and then the reduplicated element <-si->( we know this is not a prefix) we are left with <st>. This allows us to see the connection to so many other words that share this base. Here is the work of one student’s thinking so far:

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The words that have informed this matrix above are a mere drop in the <st> ocean of words. As the number of words with <st> as a bound base become increasingly apparent to us, we envisage the matrix as becoming enormous and perhaps unwieldy. We are currently discussing the advantages and disadvantages of  treating <-si-> as an analyzable element and separated in the matrix. Is the matrix and the ability to form words from this more manageable if <sist> is treated as a bound base element? After all, <si> is not a base element, nor a prefix. Does <si> occur as a reduplicated form with other bases? How could we acknowledge the <st> base embedded within <sist> ? All questions form part of an ongoing discussion. See our earlier work and discussion of this word resistance here.

Observations of this work:

Hidden behind the production of Tiny Tales is rich dialogue as we grapple with a word’s meaning, cite examples and see how its connotations can change from positive to negative depending on the context.

We enjoyed the collaborative nature of producing the work from the research to everyone choosing someone else’s writing to illustrate or to bring to life through voice.

On being certain:

I cannot close this post without mentioning ‘certainty’. The word certainty <cert+ain+ty> from the Latin certus, cernere to sift, to separate, was the basis for lengthy dialogue and sparked by an inspiring article in the New York Times brought to my attention by my colleague Erik Ortman ( you’ll often see him working with students in class videos). In our discussion we could see the dangers of certainty, the stultification implied by the ‘right’ solution, correctness. We saw its antithesis as doubt.

Doubt sometimes comes across as feeble and meek, apologetic and obstructionist. On occasion it is. But it’s also a powerful defensive instrument. Doubt can be a bulwark. We should inscribe that in marble someplace.’ Cullen Murphy, The Certainty of Doubt, New York Times (2012).

Go here to read the thought provoking New York Times article : The Dangers of Certainty (2014) by  Simon Critchley, philosophy Professor at New School for Social Research in New York. The following statements by Critchley stand out:

‘Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty…the more we know, the less certain we are.’

The remarks below by Bronowski resonate strongly for me:

“Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave.’

Watch Bronowski’s eloquent and moving warning about the dangers of certainty . This is the final clip in episode 11: Knowledge or Certainty from Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man” series.



We realized, as we reflected on our study, that our choices impact others, that we need courage to act with integrity and to stand up to — and for — others. Above all, we must question.