Assessing Grammar: Three Time Frames

To demonstrate increasing skill in identified grammar topics

This is one of the standards that I have my Latin 4 students working toward.  One of those identified grammar topics is to recognize and understand readings in three time frames (generally, past, present and future, though this could include some subjunctive and imperative use as well).

I think that for most of us, a first reaction–certainly mine has been–“well, of course they should be able to.”  In fact, we might think that such a task is more fitting for lower levels–not fourth year students.  My own growing experience is that while I might expect students to easily understand and identify–even produce–three time frames through verb tenses and moods, that the expectation is not very realistic.  Here’s the journey of my own understanding about this.

Show and Drill

For many years, regarding grammar, especially verbs, I would show students how verb tenses were formed, four principal parts on the board, stems, connecting vowels, endings, etc.   I had them takes notes.  I made them practice. We drilled.  And then, when it came to translating a text, it was if none of that had happened.  Intensifying my efforts made virtually no difference.  Only a handful ever seemed to be able to gain control over these verb forms.

Read and Write

When I moved into more of a reading approach, I thought that having students write in Latin would somehow help them gain control over the verb and noun inflections.  I still demonstrated how those changes happened, gave them ample notes, allowed them to use their notes (a change from show and drill), but writing for most of them was painful and tedious, and their control over forms did not show much increase.

Read and Understand

Since I have been using approaches that qualify as Comprehensible Input, my attention with students has shifted dramatically to giving them input that they can understand (speaking to them in Latin that they can understand, placing readings in front of them that they can understand).  It took a while for me to catch on that these forms of input also needed to be interesting, i.e. compelling.  To complicate matters (as well as keep them interesting) what one group of students finds compelling doesn’t always insure that the next group will find the same compelling.  I’ve found that if the input is compelling and understandable, students begin to gain a sense of the meaning of verbs, time frames and inflections of nouns (and it is increasingly my sense that they acquire verb inflections more readily than noun inflections).  I still, from time to time, show them how to create verb forms as I always have.  I invite them to create their own “working grammar” which they are always allowed to access during writing assignments.  I would also allow them to use those notes on tests, but I no longer “test” grammar per se.  I am always teaching it.  I never test it, and students are always adding to their personal grammars the notes they might want to access.

Produce?  Only with Time and Purpose

I still ask students to write.  I am still interested in my Latin 4 students gaining increasing skill with grammatical topics, particularly around time frames.  My current set of priorities looks like this, in this order:

A. Lots of understandable, compelling input from me making rich use of the grammar of the language, but with a limited vocabulary.  Vocabulary increases, of course, over 4 years, but much more slowly than in a traditional program.  The question is not how many words they “know” but how well they can understand Latin as they hear and read it.  What’s the point of them “knowing” a lot of individual words if they cannot understand Latin writing?

B. When students ask about a verb form, I use that as an opportunity to demonstrate how to form verbs.  I try to keep it short and poignant to the context.  I ask them to take notes in their personal grammar for later reference.

C. I ask them from time to time to produce Latin in speaking and writing.  When they speak and make mistakes, I simply repeat what they’ve said back to them correctly.  When they write, I give them LOTS of time and ask them to use their personal grammar notes to help them.  I allow them to ask me questions while they are writing.  This, I am convinced, is the only way to “do” or “use” grammar for most students.  I. They have to have access to the rules (their personal grammar notes).  II. They have to have time to create and then edit their own work.  III. They have to find the work interesting enough to engage it.

To that last piece:  I try to make their writing assignments related to any compelling reading we have recently done. That also means that their grammar notes will contain examples of the words and phrases used in those recent stories.  Their notes will feel familiar.  The content will still hold some interest from the reading, and if I ask them to add a critical or creative piece to the writing, even more so.

Most recently, after reading the first 7 chapters if Itinera PetriI asked Latin 4 students to do a two part writing:

A. Give a breviarium of the book thus far (this, I hoped, would tap into their current interest in the story).

B. Choose EITHER one of the 16 Roman virtues or qualities that we have been focusing on all year and trace it through the story, OR trace the role of magia through the story and its significance.

Students worked on this with their personal grammar notes open for almost an hour.  No one finished early, and the next day, I was able to begin class, Latine tantum, by asking them to tell me about the virtue/quality or role of magic in the story.    As I read their writings, what I am seeing is some increasing control over Latin verbs and time frames.

Today, after reading chapter 8 of the book, I asked them to break into small groups and, in English, discuss the significance of “time frames” in the chapter.  As a whole class, they were able to assemble on the board three time frames represented by one instance of the present tense, one future active participle, and the perfect and pluperfect tenses.  They also drew attention to how even in a past time frame the reader could be made to feel like the event was happening all over again.

Bob Patrick

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Better Learners–Better Teachers–Better Leaders

I am posting this on January 1, 2016, so Happy New Year to everyone!  I recently read an article on the Harvard Business Review  entitled “Four Ways to Become A Better Learner.”  I wondered if it would be a good article to share with my advisement students.  Then, I read the article! Wow, this is really about being a better teacher, and these four ways of becoming better learners are aimed at leaders and teachers as leaders!  They are core to what teaching with Comprehensible Input is about.  In fact, these four keys to becoming “better learners” really echo the findings of CI research and teacher experiences who use it.  So, while I am not very keen on New Year’s Resolutions, I am very keen on learning how to do what I do better.

Take a look at what the author calls “learning agility.”  The best deal is to follow the link above and read the article for yourself.  Here’s my quick summary.

Learning agility “is the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”  Learning agility includes:

  • making connections across experiences
  • letting go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful
  • unlearning things when new solutions are required
  • focusing on learning goals and new experiences
  • experimenting, seeking feedback, reflecting
  • acquiring new skills and mastering new situations is core to learning agility
  • enjoying the process of learning itself
  • willing to take risks and not becoming defensive

There are four ways to develop learning agility:

  1. Ask for feedback
  2. Experiment with new approaches or behaviors
  3. Look for connections across seemingly unrelated areas
  4. Make time for reflection

If you read the entire article, you will see that this was written for corporate executives, but, in fact, it was written for those involved in leadership.  In my opinion, a teacher who does not see him/herself involved in leadership has missed something core to teaching and learning.  “Educate” from the Latin educare implies leading people out and growing them up, and that requires leadership.  Those of us involved in teaching second languages with Comprehensible Input will see the close connections between CI theory/pratice and learning agility even through my simple outline above.

I will close by quickly offering some first steps for implementing learning agility in our teaching practices:

  1. Ask your students for feedback with three simple questions:  a) what have we been doing that HELPS you learn (language)?  b) What have we been doing that DOES NOT HELP you learn (language)?  c) If you could change one thing that would help you learn (language) better what would it be?  Promise to read and collate their advice, and implement the major trends.
  2. When you look at your practice of Comprehensible Input, what aspects of it do you tend to steer clear of or do less often than you think you should?  Make a committment to regularly including that one new thing in your teaching practice this spring semester.
  3. How often do you engage in conversation with teachers outside of your language or outside of your language department?  Identify one or two teachers whose good work is well known, and find time to go and observe them.  Find out what they are doing in their German class or their Chemistry class that might work back in your (language) class.
  4. At the end of each day, before you leave the campus (I do this while walking from my classroom to my car) ask yourself:  what worked today?  What didn’t work today?  How will I change this the next time I do this thing?  (see the connections between 1 and 4?).

I’m thinking of taking the bulleted items above–the qualities of an agile learner–and making a little poster–for myself.  I think I’ll hang it something in my classroom where I am likely to see it each day–just to keep the reflection going.  Am I this sort of learner?  Am I this sort of teacher?  Am I this sort of leader?

Bob Patrick