A diphthong is not a bikini designed for safe swimming.
Of course, you know that.
And I know that.
But honestly, if someone came up to you and said, “What’s a diphthong?” would you know?
I didn’t. I haven’t even heard the word since college.
It came up this week while I was volunteering at summer school at Holy Cross Anglican School in San Mateo, a San Pedro neighborhood built on dreams and stilts over the lagoon. The question came from another volunteer who was filling in, at the diphthong table, apparently. I knew it had to do with the combination of letters but couldn’t recall a thing beyond that. I now know it is the combination of two vowels in a single syllable.
My excuse was that I was responsible for teaching hard and soft C’s and G’s and the ph sound. And, hey, that was hard enough.
In summer school, information is broken down into small bits and taught in modules over short periods. It is a great way to convey a lot of information while fighting off boredom. Just as the students are giving you the “dead to me” look, it is time for them to jump up and move on to the next module.
All I had to do was repeat over and over that a soft c — which sounds like “s” — and soft g — which sounds like “j” — are followed by one of the vowels e, i or y. And ph always sounds like “f.”
Invariably, a student or two would ask “What about ‘get’ “?
This was a pretty sharp bunch.
I would reply that “the English language is filled with exceptions,” when what I really wanted to say was “English can be really stupid.”
I went all Sesame Street on them when I asked them to imagine a T-shirt that says:
With e, i or y
I’m just a soft guy
Since these were mostly math-loving kids, I created some formulas for them, too:
C + e, i, or y = “s”
G + e, i, or y = “j”
ph = “f”
Hard C = “k”
Hard G = “g”
Did it work? I think so. Mostly.
These are clever, bright, eager-to-learn kids, mostly from the toughest neighborhood on the island. Some, who were quiet and seemingly shy, were killing it on the daily spelling bee contest.
I learned that I have a lot to learn as a teacher. I only had to hold the attention of three kids at a time. I can not imagine what a real teacher must do to keep 30 and 40 kids in thrall.
On the last day of school for this week, one little fourth grader handed me a folded piece of notebook paper. Inside was another folded paper on which she had written a thank you letter for teaching, in the most exquisite handwriting imaginable.
It said, “Goodbye. I will miss you thank you for teaching” And it was signed “From your best friend: Tiana.”
I’m going to keep that note for a long, long time.