Editorial: Dictionary exchange kick-starts learning, imaginations in young students

  • Third grader Patrick Andrews, 8, searches for words in his new dictionary during a scavenger hunt at the Discovery School at Four Corners. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Members of the Greenfield Lodge of Elks recently launched Greenfield third-graders on the road to knowledge with their annual gift of a personal dictionary for every child. The children’s reactions were joyful and spontaneous: “You can smell the most beautiful smell,” said Penelope Peters. “It’s faster and you can see it,” said Jonathan Ainsworth.

In the back of the yellow paperback book, the children discovered the multiplication tables, the Periodic Table of the Elements, and other tantalizing foretastes of learning yet to come. “There’s a bunch of stuff that I don’t know what it is, but I’ll get to learn it,” said Kaylee Fernette.

One boy explained to teacher Sarah Furgalack that a dictionary is what they used to use before Google. But once they all got their own dictionaries, Google was quickly forgotten.

In one fell swoop, Elks members Bob Mott and Neal Jennison had supplanted the fickle computer with its crashes and search engine optimizations with the immediacy of the printed word. “In our world of technology,” said Jennison, “to give them something that never has to be rebooted and works under candle power — it’s kind of a revolutionary idea, in a reverse sense.”

This was the 18th year the Elks gave out dictionaries to students. This year they handed out about 150 copies to Greenfield students — celebrating National Dictionary Day, and embracing a tradition for the Elks nationally that dates back to the 1980s.

Children with older siblings already had an inkling of what was in store for them, having dipped into an older brother’s or sister’s gift. Third grade, apparently, is an opportune time to introduce children to the world of scholarship. This gift could be the start of a personal library on a bookshelf or bedside table. We hope the instant accessibility of a broad range of random information will ignite and feed the natural curiosity of children wandering through the dictionary as though browsing a library or bookstore — an experience very different from being fed results of a narrow Google search or the targeted promotional material pushed by someone else’s algorithms.

Gracie Laurie, 8, quickly flipped to the back of the dictionary and found an array of resources. She and her classmates pointed to a chart on sign language, a map of the United States.

There’s a reason why service clubs like the Elks, the Kiwanians, the Moose, the Free Masons, the Lions and veterans organizations make children a major focus of their charitable activities. Projects like bicycle rodeos with free helmets, scholarships, paying for children’s medical needs and summer camps have a common denominator: Children are our future. Efforts on their behalf plant seeds that bloom in mysterious ways and when we least expect it.

This dictionary giveaway is a worthy tradition that service clubs in other communities might like to replicate.

It might seem outdated, but it seems to score where it counts at inspiring learning and curiosity.

Noted Payton Martin: “I looked in it and learned a lot of things.”