The Power of Words

I love to read Frederick by Leo Leonni to show my students the power of words. The mice are very busy getting ready for the cold dark days of winter. They scurry. They hurry. They work to gather grain. Frederick sits on the old stone wall staring at the sun-drenched field. The outraged mice demand to know why he is isn’t working. Frederick explains that he is working — he is gathering a different kind of food for the winter. Frederick is gathering words and colors. And when the food runs out, he delivers. He helps the mice feel and see that for which they yearn. He uses words to turn the dreams of summer into a winter reality.

Writers collect and arrange words on scraps of paper, in the margins of books, and in notebooks. Then, one by one, words are picked for their precision, grace, and power.


John F. Kennedy collected words and phrases. Above is a scrap of paper that he saved. The words he gathered became the words we know: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” In 1961, at his Inauguration, those words stirred hope into action.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech with a powerful start: “I have a dream.” The dream, the words, and the work of Dr. King changed the world, but not right away.

When Dr. King made his speech, I was an eight year old in the last days of summer. A week later I entered the all white third grade at my all white school in Williamsburg, Virginia. Our schools were segregated. It didn’t seem like anything had happened. Yet.

Forty-five years later, I find myself in a third grade classroom. And what a different classroom it is. We are white and black in Room 204, and we can’t imagine our world any other way.

On Tuesday, we will decorate our desks with red, white, and blue paper chains of powerful words. We will turn on the TV and watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. He will say the words that George Washington said (and every president since):

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Then we will listen to our new president’s words, — words chosen carefully for precision, grace, and power, — words for a country and a world on a cold winter’s day in January.

I will be exactly where I want to be: in Room 204 at William Fox Elementary School, where a dream continues to unfold.

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified teacher and loves her work. After a forty year career in the classroom, she continues to support teachers. Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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3 Responses to The Power of Words

  1. Laura Potter says:

    Would it be possible for students to share an example of scraps of words or phrases that a family member might have saved or written? Those kinds of things are interesting in themselves and for what they say about the person for whom they’re important. We have lots of things like that around the house that I think Kenan would enjoy finding and then sharing with others.

  2. ourclasswrites says:

    I would love for Kenan to share such words.

  3. Wendy Martin says:

    As a writer, I’m all about collecting words. But when I read Frederick, I still think he should have gotten off his butt and helped out. 🙂

    I wonder what will become of scraps as we go digital. I’ve gone paperless — take a laptop to meetings now, etc.

    I still get such a jolt when I find scraps with my late mother’s handwriting on them.

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