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What Red Pandas Can Teach us about Words

Red panda bears don't really look like red panda bears. They look like red raccoons, maybe. They kind of look like red skunks in a way, but either way, they bear very little resemblance to the giant panda, the black and white one we all think of when we think of pandas. There are only three types of pandas: giant, Quinling, and red, so part of me wants to just let the little guys be pandas. But another part of me, the geeky, nerdy part, I guess, wants to make sure they're fitting into the box that makes the most sense (to me) for them to go into. The other part of me doesn't care at all about the taxonomy of red pandas; however, all of me has had to care about them for the balance of three weeks because a student of mine is writing a research paper about them. This researching/writing process has made clear to me that there's an analogy between red pandas and word forms (parts of speech) and our reactions to their classifications.

If you start researching red pandas and can focus without getting distracted by the Instagram videos of them standing on their two little feet eating fruit with their hands down at their little sides, you'll find that scientists don't agree either on how to classify these animals. They were first classified in the same family as raccoons because of their skull shapes and claws. They were later reclassified as bears and linked with pandas. (They do like their bamboo.) Many scientists today believe they're their own family entirely, though somewhat related to weasels, skunks, and yes, raccoons. 

The study of words is a lot like the study of red pandas. It requires the flexibility that must come with scientific study. Is the word "chair" a noun? It certainly can be. But in the sentence, "Jessica chairs the school board," it's certainly not. It can be tempting to give words and even their graphemes a certain label when we just don't know enough about them to make a decision yet. Or maybe we're not ready to. If we're wondering what the base of a word is, it's okay to leave a hypothesis where it is and come back to it later with fresh eyes and additional understanding. I might think the base of the word <natural> is <nature>. I may think it's <nate>. Maybe I have a full understanding of its structure: <n + ate/ + ure/ + al>, but it's okay to leave it at <nature/ + al> until I get to a place of understanding and can give a more accurate word sum. 

But in front of my kids? In front of my class? Admit I don't really know (yet) what the base is? Yes! I've done this with students, and it's taught them flexibility, curiosity, and a love of the process of discovery. No, those aren't on your standards list. But they're worth their weight in gold. 

The case may never be closed on the red panda and its classification. Maybe the little guys fit in multiple boxes; maybe they've got their own. Maybe a scientist will come along with new evidence that's irrefutable for one family or another. Maybe not. And that's okay. My student finished his paper this week, and just like the grammatical items we've studied that he doesn't fully understand just yet, he's okay with his current understanding: red pandas bears are absolutely adorable and maybe they're not panda bears at all. 

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