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Vocabulary Creativity and Expansion: Imaginary Word Problems

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Jeffrey Pflaum, blogger on BAM, is also hosting CREATIVELY SPEAKING on the network's new show, PULSE (category: "Classroom Innovation").  Please check out the 12-minute podcasts on creativity, creative thinking, EI, social-and-emotional learning, and more.



Vocabulary Creativity and Expansion: Imaginary Word Problems


What would happen to words if you could perform the mathematical operations of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing to them?  Can you add words together and find an answer?  What would that answer look like?  What shape or form would it take?  For example, can you divide one word into another word to find something new, different, surreal, and extraordinary?  How about if you multiplied one word by another word?  What if you multiplied three or four words at a time?  What answer would it bring?  If you subtracted one word from another, what mind-pictures/images, thoughts/ideas, feelings, and/or experiences/events would pop up in the mind and imagination?


What would the results of the mathematical operations bring or create?  Can we approach an ideal state of reading enjoyment and passion through imaginary word problems?  Is it possible for children to see reading three-dimensionally as a virtual reality in their imagination, the “self-amusement park of the mind”?  Isn’t this one key aspect of deeper reading?  That is, to be the “avatar” in a vast, personal inner landscape of mind-pictures, feelings, thoughts, and real-life experiences?  Can creative word problems take kids on fantastic voyages through inner worlds they had no idea existed inside them?  Can we show, through creative play with words, how students might reach phenomenal universes in their reading lives that compete with video games and 3-D and HD movie imagery?


I believe it’s all inside you, your students, and there are ways to get there, to be there, to feel what you’re reading, to experience the words, because as reader and avatar in a virtual reality, you live vicariously for that moment in time within the context of the book, story, poem, essay, or whatever you’re reading.  (Go to www.bamradionetwork.com to see my December 11, 2011 BAM post: “Reading as a Three-Dimensional, Holographic, Virtual Reality.”)


Check out the sample imaginary word problems and see if you can create an answer mentally.  Keep in mind that this is just-for-fun.  It is an experiment in word exploration, to show kids and adults alike, where words can take us, the amazing virtual realities we never really imagined we could see.  Maybe the quirky exercises will show the magic of/in words, and the magic they will produce if you put a different spin on them with mathematical operations.


For each imaginary word problem, the answer can describe a mind-picture, thought, idea, feeling, or experience triggered by the mathematical operation.  Take your answer wherever it goes in your imagination and mind.  Your creativity and imagination are critical to the “solution” of the problems.  And remember: there are no right or wrong answers.


See if my ”solutions” to the imaginary word problems approach a 3-D reality, where the picture visualized is not “flat” or two-dimensional, but triggers thoughts, feelings, and experiences along with the images.  In video games, the 3-D images are made interactive so players feel involved in the scene, making this a virtual reality.  Everything seems real, lifelike, and there is an illusion of depth, creating this “almost real” world.


In the reading process, you want the kids to be connected, that is, to be able to “see” or imagine true-to-life three-dimensional characters, and experience natural, believable, authentic, photo-realistic settings, scenes, objects, and worlds.  The ideal end result and goal of a 3-D strategy is when children sense their presence in books and feel they are in the present moment, which, in this case, is the book.



1. furious x enraged =

2. blues + poetry =

3. clouds / imagination =

4. slowest x infinity =

5. kind x mind =

6. peace / silence =

7. poet / bully =

8. burning x boiling =

9. soul + spirit =

10. spite / evil =

11. imagination – pictures =

12. feelings – thoughts =

13. rapper – words =


(Note: The “/“ denotes division.)


Are you able to find pictures, thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, reflections, dreams, or experiences to answer the problems?  Try to visualize, to see mind-pictures of the words, find meanings, thoughts and ideas they might trigger, words associated with the “words” in the problem, or memories connected to the words, whatever it takes to answer the problem.  Make-believe you are the avatar traveling, via the mathematical operations, through the potentially infinite worlds the words create in your mind and imagination.


My answers to the imaginary word problems are meant for educators to provide a creative, three-dimensional understanding of and appreciation for words, and where they can take you.  The open-ended problems can have many different responses.


Let’s try #1: furious x enraged =


I’m thinking, let’s see, very angry times very angry: what do I see, feel, and think?  I’m letting my imagination go here and there to see what may happen… I see pictures of a big mouth with teeth, huge teeth, gridded pearly whites, unsmiling and grinding away in outrageous anger, and, at the same time, I see the person’s hands balled up in clenched fists, with knuckles turning white from the pressure, and then the whole body becomes tort, and the face turns bloody red and the mind-picture seems comical, but isn’t...And now I’m thinking about the words multiplied and how mad I get at times, mostly little things, where the anger is disproportionate to the event, and how I wish I could take back that momentary madness and exchange it for a more serene state of mind.  When I think of furious and enraged, I feel those feelings. Why do people get caught in the riptide of extreme emotions?


#2: “Blues” plus “poetry, where will this addition take me?  Blues, blues, I feel the blues a lot, and I experience the color blue like a filter over everything I see, but I love blue, because I don’t really feel blue or low, maybe I just accept the condition as part of everything, and won’t fight it, let it enter my mind, to circulate through my body and take a voyage through my heart, yes, I see blue sailing through me, and then I add poetry, words and lines for the blues, and watch them penetrate the blues, whatever the poem may be, I don’t care, and I see the page where the poem is written turning blue, blue, blue, and I think of loving you, you, you, and now my addition of the words is making surreal sense, it’s where I want to go, to show myself, how I can affect my world by spinning words to see where they take me, with no fear, because I know the inner journey, this inside world, is infinite, so let the words add up, blues plus poetry, to see if I can find myself, my life, an answer to this addition…



#3: “Clouds” divided into “imagination, you don’t need an imagination for clouds because they are not only real but also imaginary and unreal, in the sense, you can see all sorts of things in them, it’s never-ending if you’re a kid, maybe as an adult, but you need to look up and see what’s happening in the skies, so when I divide clouds into imagination, another world and other worlds whiz by, as I keep seeing a continuous stream of clouds like a long freight train chugging down a blue skyway made up of dogs, cats, birds, people, planes, jets, boats, and then, after all that looking and imagining, my mind goes blank, and gets white, misty, foggy, and I see my Self caught inside a white veil, a wall of mist surrounding me, and soon enough I’m floating, drifting, gliding in a mystical world, no longer looking at it, but inside it looking out as the world takes on a soft focus appearance, a heavenly, peaceful quality, that keeps me in peace, until everything becomes a meditation on white, and now the clouds enter my head and fill my brain, soften it, and I’m thinking a lot less, just feeling the world inside without thoughts or words, cruising along…head in the clouds…


#4: “Slowest” multiplied by “infinity, and now everything stops, time, my heart, head, and I’m starting to see myself plastered somewhere in outer space, in the darkest night, where there is no end, no wall, and I move on and on and on and on, without moving at all, till I finally stop dead in black space, looking around me, but very slowly, too slow, because it seems like things are breaking down or up, the real world is falling apart, everything turns abstract, all I see are abstracts of the environment, even I am abstract, breaking apart myself, becoming infinitesimal  dots, and I see my Self splitting up into more dots, and the dots are me, and are moving away from each other, taking different roads, going in all directions, and the semblance that was once me is no longer, not even an abstract or impressionist painting, just floating particles with no nucleus, no movement, hovering, dispersed into particles, tripping endlessly into space, stopped in time, looking as if I’m moving backwards in the deepest, darkest void…



#5: “Kind” x “mind” = a meditative mind, where I see tranquility surrounding it, occupying space somewhere in our heads, but I can’t touch or feel it, yet it touches and feels me all the time, and now, coming into view in my third eye is the meditator, squatting on the floor, eyes closed, feeling the vibes, where this kindness puts an aura around my mind, bringing instant peace, hiding me in a bubble where an overpowering feeling of kindness attacks my brain like a drug and flows through it, and now I’m asking you to experience the feeling I am going through as I sit in front of you, do you realize how the mind can be a good influence in our lives, and we must keep the word kind and its feeling, before it becomes extinct, and if we can let kindness multiply in our minds, we may discover the flow we hear so much about, a flow that happens only on rare occasions, when it should happen frequently, yes, this is a meditation, to see how the world might change if we let in good vibes…and send them out again into this new world.


#6:  Look at the problem, “peace” divided into “silence”: what happens in this operation?  If you injected the feeling of peace into silence, what would it mean for the feeling?  I see an invisible world making its way around the universe, descending on places, people, and things, pouring itself out like water from a big pitcher, and, in its invisibility, this nothingness, enters any thing or being, changing an object like a teacup, for example, using its magic to penetrate the “thingness” and give it an meditative aura of silent peace.  The wave of emotion reaches out from the teacup, this “thing,” to a person, showing her a way to a potent harmony and calm, where no one really sees the process since everything is invisible.


#7: What a contrast, a “poet” and a “bully, now divide that poet, hmm, but before I do that, I think about a poet, who he is, what his life is like, how he thinks, what his mind and imagination are like, what words are stored inside not found in me or other people, how he is so different, yet regular, ordinary, and extraordinary all at the same time, and then I think about the bully, his life, what goes on inside this person’s head, the demons, unresolved conflicts, the anger, meanness, and fear, the words floating around his head, how much misery and fury are mixed in with the thoughts, how he sees out of his eyes, the brutality, rawness, and cruel head posing as a person, who is this monster, the stalker who preys on others like a wild animal, all those cyber bullies hiding in anonymity somewhere in cyberspace where you can’t find them, and then I think again of the poet and his poems and how I will divide those words, the sensitivity, compassion, love, intensity, and passion into the madness, what will result from such a division, and now I see the  bully’s mouth opening wide, words speeding out, words surrounded by the northern lights, those neon green swirls spinning in the dark blue night, and it is these poetry words that become a rap song, words of remorse all sung in a poetic rant, and the bully sings out loud the beautiful words, and guess what, the scariest thing of all, the words spin inside the northern lights, gyrating like a cyclone, and then the words skip out of the green swirls and return to the bully’s eyes and mouth, as he begins to regurgitate his own violence, because he has tasted his words, for a change, the words come back to him, to haunt and disturb, and with this penetration, the bully-poet has lost his bully pulpit and has no place to go but inside himself, that is the fear he fears most, and the last mirror he wants to look at, and now he’s trying to find the words to talk himself into a safe harbor where he can find the love he lost…


Think about this: When trying to solve the problems, think of each word in the equation, visualize, feel, and think about it, find memories, mind-pictures, thoughts, ideas, dreams, reflections, and extremes/exaggerations of it.  Work with both words and blend or mix them together according to the mathematical operation.  Pretend you’re putting the words into a blender or a mix-master where you make drinks like smoothies, and then imagine what the new drink looks and tastes like.  This is all about playing with words and having fun with them.  Let them run loose in your mind and imagination and see what comes up.  There are no right or wrong answers to the problems.



Try this one, #11:



The subtraction of “pictures” from “imagination” leaves 0, or a blank mind, because without images what would the imagination be?  I am trying to visualize an imagination without pictures: it is a dark world, a void, a feeling of emptiness, and then I wonder, “Where would I be and how would I exist if I can’t see pictures in the mind?”  A life without image making leaves me in darkness, inside a cave that needs the lights of images to spur me forward to envision a future of possibilities.  We’re running out of imagination, right now we’re entering a time of picture-less minds, because we have lost our ways, and who can argue with the beautiful pictures of video games or 3-D TV?”  With the world of imagination right in front of our eyes, there’s no need to imagine, just let the TV or computer screen do the talking with their pictures.  We will all pass “Imagination Station” for other worlds we can never imagine, where reality, eventually, will become imaginary, and who can argue with that, because without an imagination we can’t distinguish it from reality.  And that’s a scary thought, it’s almost as if our imaginations are melting away like the glaciers in Antarctica, and we are experiencing an inner-global warming eroding the mind’s self-amusement park in a rapid manner.


These problems challenge our creativity.  If we can see the creativity and depth in words, they will lead you down astonishing corridors you never visualized.  Keep in mind this is a fun exercise and it will free you up to let thoughts rip and find the side-journeys of words: the ideas, meanings, pictures, and experiences they conjure up in your imagination.  The activity shows kids from elementary through high school that words do not live alone in a black-and-white void, but have the ability to trigger a stream of surreal, multi-dimensional worlds, if you let them.


When children get more connected with and have a fresh feel for words through an organic, artistic, contemplative approach, they experience the depth of words, what journeys they can take them on, and develop a passion for reading, writing, and thinking.  All the vocabulary practice, defining of words, finding synonyms/antonyms, being tested on word knowledge and reading comprehension, place heavy “controls” on the magic of words as symbols, a secret language, code, and message which could make them more appealing, thought-provoking, exciting, curious, and motivating in the first place.  Think about this: What is happening and what will happen in the future to words with the ever-increasing expansion of technology?



The upcoming practice imaginary word problems ask students to go creative with words and let them run free inside their imaginations to see where they might wind up.  Let them explore all the links to the words in the problems: mind-pictures, feelings, ideas, thoughts, experiences, fantasies, reflections, dreams, daydreams, and associations. 


Before writing answers to “solve the problem,” ask kids to think about, reflect on, visualize, and contemplate each word in the equation and mix them together to see what they can create. Remind them this is about enjoying themselves in the self-amusement parks of the mind and imagination.



An optional approach for answering the word problems is asking students to visualize then and draw their answers. They pencil-sketch the drawings or use magic markers, crayons, or pen-and-ink to illustrate a response to theequation.”  The students’ illustrations can be abstract, impressionistic, or surreal: they are free to choose how they would like to represent their visualizations.


As an option, you can ask for a short paragraph or a few sentences describing how they conjured up their pictures by visualizing, creating, and drawing.  Note: Drawing an “abstract” and/or an “impressionistic” picture requires extreme creativity and/or artistic ability in comparison to a representational artwork—but it can be done and kids enjoy this activity.


Before listing practice imaginary word problems, let me give an example, a verbal description of a possible drawing I would create as an answer.  Check this out:


  • devil x angel = If I illustrated this word problem, I would visualize what a devil looks like, to me, and do the same for an angel.  I would mentally create a mind-picture of a devil and an angel.  In my quickie pencil-sketch, I would combine the two images to create a half-devil, half-angel imaginary being, who has angelic wings, horns with halos, and emits a reddish/yellowish glow, sending out mixed vibes in different colors and different shaped lines, an aura of ambivalence, that keeps people guessing about its “goodness” or “badness,” and, as the oldie song says, “Devil or angel, I’d like to know which one you are…”


  • As an “abstract,” I would draw red lines and bright white lines and keep playing with them on paper, mixing up a variety of crisscrosses, horizontals and verticals, and let  the colors and lines take me wherever they go to see what the end result would be, that is, what I might have in mind as the answer to the equation of devil times angel?  For the abstract, I’m not sure I would have a definite answer to the word problem before I started my drawing; it would only come after I started playing around with a concept or idea for the equation.




1. wonder + wander =

2. lie x exaggeration =

3. mighty x powerful =

4. glow / fog =

5. blueberries x cherries =

6. contemplator + communicator =

7. passion / fight =

8. lose + loser =

9. sunlight / mirror =

10. peace x mellow =

11. peace x sweet =

12. mountains / hills =

13. dream x daydream =

14. fantasy x daydream =

15. illusion + fantasy =

16. magic – reality =

17. fantasy / reality =

18. surreal – real =

19. smile x frown =

20. dumb + dumber =

21. loose + free =

22. dive / boredom =

23. boredom x boredom =

24. plunge / blues =

25. giggle x howl =

26. roar x scream =

27. thoughts x feelings =

28. wind / fire =

29. sorrow – happiness =

30. thinking – feelings =

31. stars – darkness =

32. lost + tangled =

33. slow x delay x stop =

34. dim + dark + night =

35. beat x hit x strike =

36. tender + gentle + warm =

37. glee x merry x joy =

38. confused / muddled =

39. lightning / cavern =

40. bully / bully =

41. angel – spirit =

42. infinity / imagination =

43. goofy + wacky + nutty =

44. fireflies / clouds =

45. insensitive + numb =

46. unaware x unconscious =

47. thoughtless + emptiness =

48. try / lose =

49. try / loser =

50. failure / memory =

51. fantasizing x dreaming =

52. conquer x bullying =

53. reality / unreality =

54. sunny + funny =

55. quack + oink =

56. woof + meow =

57. dummy x mummy =

58. daffodil + tulip =

59. rose + daisy =

60. sunrise x sunset =

61. sunrise / sunset =

62. never / not =

63. faith + magic =

64. bubbles – floating =

65. truth – honesty =

66. sensitivity + tolerance =

67. peace + tenderness =

68. no x stop =

69. thoughtful x melancholy =

70. chance / risk =

71. riveting / inspiring =

72. bozo / dummy =

73. reject x tease =

74. pillows + willows =

75. spirits / wind =

76. tornado x hurricane =

77. ghosts x tornadoes =

78. sunlight / leaves =

79. meditate + walking =

80. thoughts x thoughts =

81. feelings x feelings =

82. power – charge =

83. rapper – words =

84. bubbles x bubbles =

85. lightning / sun =

86. perfection x perfection =

87. meditate – focus =

88. bubbles + meditation =


Now imagine yourself as the reader-avatar conjuring up three-dimensional, holographic, virtual realities…with you inside the book…



For more information and resources connected to the post, check out the following:



Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the Way by Jeffrey Pflaum (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011)



“Reading as a Three-Dimensional, Holographic, Virtual Reality” (12/11/11) post by Jeffrey Pflaum on the BAM Radio Network blog (www.bamradionetwork.com)



The works of Bruno Schulz at www.schulzian.net: The Cinnamon Shop, The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hour Glass, and Uncollected Stories (Read them for free and experience this incredible 3-D writer.)



Dreaming by the Book by Elaine Scarry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)



http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/abram.htm: “The Magic of Literacy & The Spell of the Sensuous” (2011) is an interview with Dr. David Abram who discusses topics such as “Reading is Like Magic,” “How Reading Affects Us,” “Self-Talk,” “The Magic Spell of Writing,” “Animism—Nature Speaks,” “Interiority,” and “The Child.”


http://psychology.about.com: “Want to Explore Virtual Reality?  Try Reading a Book” (2009) is an article about Dr. Jeff Zacks, associate professor of psychology at Washington State University in St. Louis, who discusses “his new study exploring what happens in the brain when we read a book.”



http://www.sciencedaily.com: “Readers Build Vivid Mental Simulations of Narrative Situations (2009) is a more detailed piece about the previous Zacks’ article on reading as a virtual reality.



http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com: “Fiction: The original virtual reality” (2009) is yet another article found on Read Street, a blog for a community of readers, in Baltimore and beyond.  It is also about the virtual worlds triggered in the reading process in connection with the work of Dr. Zacks.



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Jeffrey Pflaum has been an inner-city elementary school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, for thirty-four years (NYCDOE, retired in 2002). He worked as a creative writing, whole language, social studies, gifted/talented, physical education, and mentor teacher in grades K – 6 and special education. Pflaum coached middle school boys and girls basketball teams and one of his players became coach of the Pace University team. Tennis was also taught on the elementary school level to lower grade kids as part of the NY Junior Tennis League Program founded by Arthur Ashe.

Pflaum considers himself a teacher-developer-researcher experimentalist who created successful education projects in emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning, reading, writing, poetry, thinking, creativity, vocabulary expansion, concentration, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills. He has written articles for professional newspapers and publications about his curricula. Various programs appeared on web sites such as ERIC and CASEL/Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (“Experiences, Reflections, and Insights”).

One program was featured at the International National Council of Teachers of English at NYU as one of the best examples of English Language Arts in the NYC Public Schools, K – 12. His students’ poetry and prose have been published in college, writers’, gifted secondary, and children’s literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and by major commercial book publishers; read on public radio (Poetry-In-The-Morning, WNYE-FM, sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative/NYC); and, won honors and awards from PBS, Channel Thirteen/NYC. One student, Noel “Speedy” Mercado, became a top NYC disc jockey on WKTU-FM.

Pflaum published an inspirational book about adolescent reading lives titled MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS: HOW TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN LEAD THE WAY (Rowman & Littlefield Education). For book reviews, go to http://www.examiner.com/review/motivating-your-kids-to-read to see Kecia Burcham's response to the book, and also, The Teachers College Record for Karen Polk's insightful article. For Karen Polk's review (8/24/12), from the Teachers College Record, google "MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS - Teachers College Record."

Go to www.JeffreyPflaum.com for more articles on "Contemplation Writing," Meditative Writing Ideas, Internet radio interviews, published student poetry, and newspaper articles about his book on motivating adolescent readers and Inner Cities Arts Project. His recent interviews on Contemplation Writing can be found at these "Pure Imagination" links: http://prn.fm/2012/07/14/pure-imagination-071312 and Pure Imagination - 07/13/12 | Progressive Radio Network. A second interview on "Connect With Julianna" (Toginet Radio Network) about "Contemplation" or "Music" Writing can be found at these links: http://bit.ly/iTFbk7 and http://bit.ly/t5FA0W; or, Connect with Creative Educator and Author, Jeffrey Pflaum.

Pflaum is currently a regular blogger on The BAM Radio Network's blog, ED Words, where posts about a plethora of his projects can be found at: www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/blogger/listings/jeffpaul. Also, he is a contributing writer for EDUCATION VIEWS at: www.educatnviews.org/author/jeffreypflaum/

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