Posted by: When Grief Group Isn't An Option | November 12, 2009

Short Story – Leiningen versus the Ants (Vocabulary, Setting)

Vocabulary and Setting – two pieces of the puzzle


Vocabulary from “Leiningen versus the Ants”

1. In the text of the story I have noted 213 words or phrases (shown as they appear, in lists of 9 words each – 24 lists) that are likely to be problematic for the average middle school student. I would never stop at every word and discuss the correct meaning.

2. One method of attack might be what I have come to understand is called the Jigsaw Method; I never had a name for it but remembered my Granny’s advice, “Many hands make light work.” If individuals were assigned one of the lists, the teacher could ask that each student would learn the correct meanings of 9 terms and be prepared to share that knowledge with the class. If everyone had a piece of the puzzle, the whole picture could be made clear with a contribution from individual students.

3. I have offered 24 lists but I don’t remember having too many classes with only 24 students. What to do? The teacher could divide the 213 words by the number of students actually in the class. OR The teacher could use a bit of Differentiated Instruction strategy (I called it grouping, pairing or just helping) and share some of the lists – an academically stronger student with one who struggles with reading. E.g. in a class of 30 students, assign Lists 1 to 6 to pairs of students, Lists 7 to 24 to individuals and the result is 30 groupings.

4. Does this mean 9 trips to the dictionary for each individual or pair? I hope not! Some of the words may be ones I think the average student wouldn’t know – and I could be wrong. It has certainly happened before. And, of course, not every student in the room is an average student. So that might mean that a few of the words get defined right off the bat.

For others, I am a huge fan of using context to determine word meanings. I teach my students a method with the hook Context Clues Really Don’t Stink so they know about 5 different types of clues.  The mnemonic is my invention, but the context clue information comes from an excellent source we used to use called Patterns of Communicating, published by D.C. Heath and Company.

For now, let me say that the first letter from each of the words in Context Clues Really Don’t Stink stands for a context clue.

C = Comparison e.g. He was as obese as an over-stuffed elephant.

C = Contrast e.g. She played like a novice despite her experience.

D = Direct e.g. Being lethargic (lazy) is a common fault.

R = Related Word e.g. Dancin’ Danny was filled with vigor and energy.

S = Sentence(s) e.g. Cumbersome ways to kill a man include crucifixion, stabbing, gas warfare and bombing.  There is, however, a very easy method.

Using prior knowledge paired with the skills of using context clues should reduce the number of trips to the dictionary.

5. A final note for this blog entry regarding difficult vocabulary from “Leiningen versus the Ants” – for the trips to the dictionary that are necessary, remind students that the dictionary is set up with root words. They must look for conceivable not conceivably, for implore not imploring and so on.

Best wishes as you and your classes tackle the vocabulary elemental in “Leiningen” but please remember the “small steps” philosophy. To tackle over 200 vocabulary terms with one class would be like . . . well, battling an army of killer ants.

Setting – time, place, mood

Most language arts teachers I know teach setting as the time and place but do not mention mood. I’m not sure where I got the idea of all 3 elements but I have used it throughout my years in the classroom. Maybe I’m not as alone as I think I am.

Time seems obvious – pick one: Past, Present, Future. For me, it isn’t quite that easy. Especially when dealing with the present, I like to get my kids to see time on a continuum. I draw something like this on the board (and a whiteboard isn’t 8 ½ x11):

____ dinosaurs ____ cave men ____ knights in armor ____ explorers _____ cowboys _____ World War I ________ World War II _________ the 50’s _________ the 60’s ______ the present  _________ the 2010’s _________ living in space ____

When I show “the present” on a continuum or time line like this, I ask, “If the author doesn’t come out and tell you the story is in the present, what sorts of things might point to the story happening ‘now’?” I usually get answers that involve the use of modern technology (computers, cell phones, texting) or general descriptions (cars, subways, clothing, hairstyles, the World Series). Sometimes the students note things that are absent and say, “In that other story a piece of a cake only cost 10¢.” or “They didn’t dial the phone or put a record on so it could be in the present.”

My concept of the present is that it is in or about the time we would call “right here, right now.” For me, the present could be last week, last month, and even as much as a year or two ago. In the big picture of the continuum of time it’s in the modern age.

It’s not a big deal but it works for me and seems to work for my students. And it helps them understand that because a story is written in the past tense it doesn’t mean it necessarily happened in the past.

In Leiningen versus the Ants, mood and place are more important. The mood is set in the first four paragraphs, if not in the first sentence. I teach mood as being the feeling or atmosphere the author tries to create at the beginning of the story. The mood is very likely to change (at least to some degree) as the story progresses, but the reader should be made to feel a certain way at the outset.

In Leiningen, author Stephenson’s opening line hints at some unknown menace  – “Unless they alter their course and there’s no reason why they should, they’ll reach your plantation in two days at the latest.” The reader asks, “Who are they?” and “Why would they not alter their course?” Leiningen is unfazed but asks about being driven from his plantation to which the District Commissioner shouts, “You’re insane.” and goes on to explain about 20 square miles of ants – “each one a fiend from hell . . .” To me, the mood has clearly been set.

It is the understanding of place that is key to student understanding of the story. To leave it as a plantation in Brazil is insufficient. It is important to know the general place at the outset but my students always appreciated the time taken to paint a more precise picture as the story progressed.

To help paint the picture, I have highlighted (in orange in the blog entry, and by underlining in the Word document) any information with respect to place.

I think there are three key elements – the weir and moat concept, an understanding of the breakwater, and an ability to look at the plantation from a 3-dimensional view – especially the idea of the land elevations. As I write this, it sounds complicated. My experience, stick-man drawer that I am, has been that it just takes a few minutes along the way to make things clear.

Without actually making a scale drawing, I would suggest the old stand-by chart paper or a clear sheet of acetate to create a stage-by-stage drawing of the place as the information is given. Those with interactive whiteboards can do a similar thing and save the page to be recalled at the appropriate times. Some semblance of scale is required but rulers and AutoCAD or Google SketchUp aren’t needed.

Draw the river, the weir and the outer moat. Note North, East, South, West. (Never Eat Soggy Wieners) Draw the inner moat and place Leiningen’s house. Sketch in the petrol tanks and the underground pipes. Add the outposts, the little bridges, the high bank on the far side of the river. Take the time to explain and perhaps show pictures of real breakwaters. Do a side view that shows elevations.

If you place the concept of place in the right place, you should end up in first place.

But not the whole puzzle . . .



  1. can you show me an example of the drawing?

    • Thanks for asking but the idea is for you to take the written information and create your picture. For me to offer an example would be doing the work for you. Best wishes.

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