Comprehensible Input In Latin Classrooms: Is it Silly or Serious?

Several times in my life I have been told that I am too serious.  I know a few (okay, a LOT) of other Latin teachers (okay and other language teachers) who fit that charge as well.  It’s easy to be serious when you are a Latin teacher.  Our textbooks are all some version of a grammar, and grammar is always serious business.  When we chose to study Latin, we had to endure any number of inquiries (which felt like inquisitions) about WHY we chose Latin and what in the world we were “going to do with that!” The questions alone have the power to turn us deadly serious as we try to defend our choices to those who don’t appreciate them.  And then, there are the classics programs we have gone through.  While we all have found wonderful friends and mentors in and through our programs, the programs themselves don’t pretend to be anything but . . . serious. Add to that the reality that Latin faces the real possibility of disappearing from the educational and intellectual landscape in the not too distant future, and it’s enough to turn and keep any of us . . . serious.

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have some interest in or already established practice of the philosophy of teaching knowing as Comprehensible Input.  As I often like to remind myself: in a Comprehensible Input framework, three things must always be in play: comprehensible material in Latin; compelling material in Latin; and a caring atmosphere in the classroom. Those three items create a framework around what we do in the classroom. That’s why I call it a philosophy.  It frames and informs what we do, but does not dictate what we do. Teaching within the framework of CI is a game changer.  Whatever Latin material I work with, I have to make sure that every single word is understandable to every single student in the room.  Every day. (That’s still very serious). I also have to find ways to make sure that whatever material I bring into the room is intensely interesting to the students in the room. In addition to that, I need to insure that however I bring whatever material I bring to the room is done in a way that students experience as caring and supportive.

Those last two of the three necessary items hold the real possibility of moving away from serious and toward silly. Most of us are working with children and teenagers.  Even if we are working with adults, the truth is that what we find most interesting will always have the qualities of story in them, and as human beings, we like to laugh. While tragoedia is a long standing genre in our literary tradition, comoedia is as well, and it’s not a newcomer to the literary scene. If we look at our own comedic literary traditions, they are not only some of our oldest works, but they are always attempting to deal with the serious in life through laughter.  Situations that feel the most supportive to us always include smiles and laughter especially around the most serious of situations.  We cannot do serious all the time and pull off smiling and laughter.  Work that is truly compelling to our students and which is done in a way that is caring and supportive will at times include silliness.

Our work helping students acquire Latin while teaching within the CI framework can go off the rail in two different directions: with too much serious or too much silly. This is really not a choice of whether our work will be serious or silly, though at times I am sad to hear it cast that way.  If someone is teaching within a CI framework and all that they are doing every day, all year, in every level is just silly, then they are missing real opportunities to connect the fun and light hearted things of life with the richness of our Latin literary tradition. On the other hand, if all that we do every day, all year in ever level is about following a textbook, section by section, plodding through a grammar syllabus and never using any Latin with students that connects with their daily lives, we are likely being too serious.  In that case, we miss the opportunity to help students experience Latin as a language for communication that might be relevant to who they are and what they do. What if I told you that I have used a story about a monster who went to Starbucks to get a cookie but Starbucks was out of cookies?  The monster then had to go from one Starbucks to another but they were all out of cookies.  Is that too silly?  You might think so at face value.  What if I told you that in the use of that story all of the students in the room (who, btw, thought the story was outrageously funny) acquired all the vocabulary they needed to read a Roman myth about the creation of the world completely in Latin.  Not so silly now, is it?  The follow up conversations with students about the myth were how sky (Uranus) and earth (Gaia) really are sort of the parents of all that is on earth, and that was a pretty serious conversation.

It’s always okay for things to go a little silly in this work for two reasons.  1) Silly can be a vehicle both to compelling material and a caring atmosphere, and 2) you are the language and literature expert in the room.  You have the capacity to take what they create and re-embed it into the Latin literary, cultural and historical tradition. Most often, when we do that, students want to know more about that tradition, and that’s why we are helping them learn Latin in the first place.

I’ve watched us as a Latin teaching community go through our growing pains as increasingly we embrace Comprehensible Input as a framework for helping all kinds of learners acquire ability in Latin.  At first, the great reaction was “you don’t teach grammar!”  That’s simply not true.  What is true is that in a CI framework, we teach grammar very differently than before, and it is no longer the engine that pulls the train.  More recently, I’m hearing: “CI work is just too silly to be taken seriously.” The truth is, using a CI framework allows us to take our students and their lived contexts seriously, and it allows us to be a little more light-hearted about this vast literary, cultural and historical tradition within which we work.  Too serious, too much of the time is going to kill this language tradition in our schools.  We might just ponder this.  Within our own literary tradition there is written this tension between too serious and too silly.  Catullus came along and offered what was derided as “light verse.”  Ovid appeared and not only did us the very serious favor of preserving the only copy of Greco-Roman myths in one huge collection, but he did it by making a little fun out of almost all of them–his own unique signature, most often at Vergil’s expense.  Plautus, one of our oldest literary giants, does this almost mundane, predictable physical humor with the same 4 or 5 characters even as he deals with issues of love, rejection, slavery, poverty and power.  Pretty serious stuff for comedy.  Silly and serious.  As a literary tradition, that is exactly what we do–holding these things together.

Bob Patrick

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OWI: One Word Images

I recently was able to sit in on a workshop being offered by Steven Ordiano as he demonstrated OWI–One Word Images.  I think all of us acknowledge that this CI activity originates with Ben Slavic, and I am sure that like many others, it has been touched and shaped by many practitioners of Comprehensible Input.  Here’s my freshest take on OWI thanks to Steven.

Begin OWI by establishing a few jobs in the room.  You will need:

  1. An artist–the artifex.  The artist should be given a blank piece of paper or butcher paper, some colored markers and an ample surface to work on.  The job of the artist is to draw as best as possible the object or animal that the class is deciding on during the OWI.  This becomes the “image” part of the OWI.  The artist should work in a space where others cannot see the artwork as it takes shape.
  2. A Decider.  When Steven did this in Spanish, he called this job proffe2 (proffe-dos, or teacher # 2).  In Latin, we might call this person “secundus/a” or “iudex.” I use iudex.
  3. A Dictionary person–the lexicographus.  Steven had this person look up any word he did not know that came up in the lesson.  Teachers might think this beneath them or be disturbed at the notion that they might be caught not knowing a word, but the truth is that none of us know every word we need all the time.  In fact, during this session, someone called for a “woodpecker” in the OWI, and Steven couldn’t immediately remember the Spanish word for it (Spanish is his first language, btw, so that gives me a little room for not knowing every word).  He turned to his Dictionary person and had them look it up.  For Latin, I would have that student open up Whitaker’s Words to use simply because it’s an easy, online dictionary for students to use.  We all know that finding the right word can be complicated, and sometimes more modern Latin words don’t show up in the best dictionaries (arming a beginning student with Smith’s massive volume or teaching them how to use the Morgan lexicon is too much at lower levels to ask, in my opinion).  If they search in Whitakers, they can then give you the options, and you can determine with them the correct word.  Everyone is watching you do this, and it becomes a mini-lesson in how to use a dictionary.

Once the jobs are established and each of them knows what they are to do, you proceed this way.

Ask the class to give you an object or an animal to work with as your “one word.”  There can be some discussion about it in English.  Once several options are on the table, your iudex must decide.  If these are more than beginners, you may invite:  iudex, quid dicis, quid cernis?  The Decider then tells you what the word will be.

You then ask the class questions about the object/animal. Your questions can include:

1. Size
2. Color
3. What it likes (especially with animals) or what things are near it (with objects).
4. What the problem is.
5. What the object/animal’s name is.
6. Where the object/animal is now.

Knowing that you are going to be asking all of these things, keep a few things in mind.

A. Ask for input on each item above.  Students can answer in whichever language they are capable of.  You always repeat it in Latin.  After many options are out for discussion, always have the Decider determine which it will be.  If your object is a monkey–simia, then you ask about size.  Magna, parva, alta/brevis statura.  For something like a monkey, you might get “long arms” and you can couple it with alta/brevis statura for an interesting image.  This might be: simia, brevis statura est, sed bracchia longa habet.

B. Recycle often.  That means that after you have asked information about each item above, you always restate in Latin everything that you have determined.  So, when asking about what the monkey likes (and of course you get suggestions like bananas, hamburgers, french fries, and another monkey), your decider gives the answer (another monkey) and you recycle everything like this:  Discipuli, simia est brevis statura sed bracchia longa habet.  Simia colore spadix est et simiam delectat alia simia nomine Frederica.  The further down the list you go, the longer your recycling will become–the more repetitions you get in, and the more Latin your students will be hearing that they understand.  Comprehensible Input!  If you are concerned at this point that this is getting “too silly” don’t worry.  You are the Latin and Classics expert in the room, and you can take whatever they create today and tie it into Roman culture, history and literature tomorrow.  In this instance, you know that there are quite a few fables from Aesop and others which include simia as the main character. (You may be reading this and thinking: I did NOT know that a monkey was the main character of several fables. That’s okay.  You simply look up the object or animal that your students chose for OWI and find out where in Latin Literature this word shows up.  Look it up in Lewis and Short, for example, and see where it occurs.  Then, pull an example–make it simple enough–and work it into the lesson tomorrow.  More on that below).

C. Decide how far you are going with this.  You have a couple of options.  OWI can be a warm up, brain break, or closing item for a class.  If you decide to do this, when you have finished asking about the 6 items above, you are done.  You invite your artist to reveal the image.  Perhaps you hang it up so that it is now part of the room, and you move on with whatever else you have planned.  Or, you can decide to ask a story with the OWI.  In this case, you do that by asking where the character needs to go in order to deal with the problem.  The process is the same as for the previous 6 items.  The class volunteers possibilities, and the Decider determines what it will be.  This then can go as long as you want, and you are always recycling everything.  This story could develop over several days if you wanted it to.  It could simply be what you do today, and 5 minutes before class is over, you call for a surprise ending to the story.  They offer possibilities and the Decider gives the answer.  If you think that you are going to ask a story, then, I would include one more job: the Scriptor.  This is a student who has already shown some advanced interest and who might sometimes be bored because things don’t go fast enough.  The job of the Scriptor is to write down everything new that YOU say in Latin.  By the end of the class, you then have a script, more or less, of the story, and you can very quickly and easily type it up, correct any errors, and have a reading ready to use later in the week. If I were to choose this option, I would also work an ancient fable about a monkey into the story (perhaps as an embedded story), which folds Latin literature into the class creation.  When the story is re-read, you can include the artwork that the artist has created by taking a photo and putting it on the page.

Remember, in a Comprehensible Input framework, three things must always be in play: comprehensible material in Latin; compelling material in Latin; and a caring atmosphere in the room.  It’s always okay for things to go a little silly in this work for two reasons.  1) Silly can be a vehicle both to compelling material and a caring atmosphere, and 2) you are the language and literature expert in the room.  You have the capacity to take what they create and re-embed it into the Latin literary, cultural and historical tradition. Most often, when we do that, students want to know more about that tradition, and that’s why we are helping them learn Latin in the first place.

Bob Patrick