Word Clouds in Teaching Free Words In Night

Years ago, I found a really great resource for teaching Night. One of the activities in it had students make a list of Free Words. Here’s how I explain the assignment to my students:

Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor who was also at Auschwitz, writes that his experiences in the camp altered the very meaning of everyday words:

Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say “hunger,” we say “tiredness,” “fear,” “pain,” we say “winter” and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.

If the [camps] had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind with the temperature below freezing, and wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger, and knowledge of the end drawing near.*

After making sure this idea is clear to everyone, I present them with this task. I create a master Google Doc for each class and share the Google Doc via our Google Classroom.

  1. Find examples throughout the book of “free words” or phrases that lost or changed their meaning at Auschwitz.
  2. Add your words to the Google Doc. If you add more than one word, don’t use a space and instead use the “~” symbol.

The hardest part is to encourage students to students to not read what each other wrote; this year, to help combat that, I had students write their list on their own Google Doc first and then copy and paste it into the master.

I was really bummed to learn that the Word Cloud generator I liked the best, Wordle, was no longer working. I had to do some fast searching, but I ended up really liking WordItOut after trying a few other generators.

After I create the word clouds (and I often do this in class or start the next class with it), we talk about the variety and which words a lot of people came up with that were the same. This year, I was really struck with how different my two classes word clouds were. I think the students really like the visual, and it helps foster some great discussions.

I’ve done word cloud assignments with other classes, too. Check out an old blog to see how I’ve used it for other lessons.

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