What Can Happen When CI Teachers and Traditional Teachers Collaborate

This is a true story.  I teach in one of the nation’s largest and arguably best public school systems.  Our system demands the best from us all the time (which can be exhausting).  In one of those ever arriving demands, we Foreign Language Teachers were told that we needed to work on a five year plan that included updating district standards, creating common semester exam assessments and performance exams, lesson plans and curriculum calendars.  All of these, at this writing, are considered resources and are not required to be used.  The largest concern for their creation was that new FL teachers have immediate access to what they need to get started: standards, lesson plans, a calendar, and assessments. There was a call for volunteers in each language to joint this 5 year effort.

I’ve learned over the years that when there is going to be change like this, from the top down, and there is an invitation to participate, those who show up make the rules. I volunteered as did 7 other Latin teachers from our district.  I think that they would all agree with me that we came as a mix of approaches.  Some of us were CI teachers.  Some of us were traditional grammar-translation teachers. Some of us were “Cambridge reading approach” teachers, and some were a mix of all of the above.  Out of the 8 of us, 5 of us remain in what is now year 3 of the effort. I want to tell the story of what happened in our work that has made this one of the most positive and most hopeful, to me, of such collaborative efforts.  I also hope that it may provide some fodder for others around the world to consider for their own collaborative efforts.

I don’t mind owning that I went into our first meeting concerned that with such varying approaches, this could immediately become a committee of political fights (power struggles) over whose way prevailed. While I am committed to the CI approach, I know that there’s no such thing as arguing others into one’s approach–from any angle.  We humans just don’t work that way, and that is not collaboration.

Here’s what happened in the first meeting.  We agreed that our one, single, common goal was that our students be able to read some Latin.  In fact, I think you can extrapolate this as a truth for all Latin teachers and the follow up.  After that one, common goal, we do not agree on much.  We all agreed that none of us wanted our approaches, our programs (which means our students), or our materials thrown under the proverbial bus because of what our committee did.  So, we agreed on some guiding principles.

1. We would focus entirely on reading comprehension of Latin that was appropriate to each level–which nails our one, common goal.

2. We would spend time using a word frequency list and our own common sense and teaching experience to create a common vocabulary list for each level of work. (I will say more about frequency lists below).  Over that process we decided on 150 words per level.  We stipulated that teachers were free to teach more than that, but that all the materials we created would be bound by that list or have glossed words.  On that note, we also bound ourselves to never have more than 5 glossed words in a story.

3. Upon the completion of the list of 150 high frequency words for a level, we then decided which were for the fall and which for the spring.  We then worked in pairs (usually) to write stories using that vocabulary for semester exam assessments.  The stories were all set in historical Rome (broad terms) and with accurate cultural and historical settings.  We agreed that we could use any grammar necessary to tell a good story as long as what we wrote was comprehensible based on vocabulary.  E.g. using a gerundive purpose expression in a Latin 1 story was not a problem if the gerundive phrase made use of known vocabulary words.

4. Each semester exam had 4-6 such stories. After proof reading and editing each other’s stories, we wrote multiple choice questions for each story.  The questions and answers were all in English.  We made this decision for psychometric considerations.  If we wrote questions and answers in Latin, how would we know that a missed question was because they did not understand the story, or because they did not understand the question.  All of our questions were focused on comprehension of the story and they included basic and a few more complex depth of knowledge questions. There were no discreet grammar, culture or history questions even though, as I have explained, each story was full of good grammar usage and set in accurate cultural and historical contexts. The goal was an exam that would allow all students to demonstrate progress in Latin.

5. When exams were written this way for fall and spring semester for a given level, we prepared a teacher guideline packet with the vocabulary list and a summary of the kinds of grammar that one would encounter in the stories.  EVERYTHING that we wrote in those guidelines were descriptive, never prescriptive.  Our aim has always been to set teachers free to teach what and how they thought best while having some common standards, vocabulary and assessment materials.

At this writing, we have completed the above for levels 1-3.  This fall, we will gather again to continue work on level 4, and we will then need to turn our attention to writing sample lesson plans for all four levels as well as a curriculum “guide.”  That last piece may be the trickiest for us.  We have rejected the idea of a curriculum calendar which tells teachers what they should be doing at each week through the year.  Not only is this bad practice for language acquisition, it would turn our collaborative process into something other than full support for all of our teachers and students.  We are toying with the idea of a sort of curriculum map (think giant mind map) with suggestions for delivering new vocabulary, but now I am reaching too far into the future.

Let me say a word about word frequency lists.  In the world of Latin we have several, and in my estimation, they are all useful.  The key issue is to know what each list was built from–that is to say, from which authors were these frequency lists composed.  We discussed several possibilities, but since in our number we had teachers who wanted to use medieval, late, golden and early classical period Latin as well as occasional neo-Latin, we chose to use Mark Williams” Essential Latin Vocabulary: The 1425 Most Common Words Occurring in the Actual Writings of over 200 Latin Authors. As various people have noted, there are some editing problems in this book, but that did not hinder us from using it well.  We chose it for the wide base of authors it covers.  Our process went like this.

A. We took the first word in the list and asked if it were appropriate for Latin 1.
B. If we had consensus, we added it to the list.
C. We organized our list by part of speech so that we could make some decisions based on that as well.  We determined early that since Latin is so verb-dependent, we could afford to have more verbs than other parts if necessary.
D. If there was dissent about a word, we stopped and discussed pros and cons until we had consensus about adding it or not adding it.
E. There were times when we decided that we just needed a word or words because of what we did in our classrooms with spoken Latin regardless of where it showed up on frequency lists.
F. We agreed, of course, that it would be assumed that all the vocabulary in Latin 1 belonged in Latin 2 + it’s own list of 150, and so forth.
G. It became painfully clear at times that a word chosen by the Cambridge Latin Course –our district text (often for apparent cognate value) was not the best word or at times even an accurate words.  E.g. consumere for eating.  We went with comedere instead for classroom discussions of eating.
H. Sometimes, words that were high on the frequency list don’t show up in CLC until later units. At times we made concessions to the CLC teachers and at times we followed the frequency list which means that CLC teachers will have a word to teach before it shows up in their stories.  We tried to do this in an even handed manner.

We now have three lists of 150-ish words each with the most frequent words appearing in Latin 1 and so forth.  I am sharing those lists now (which many have asked for) since they have now been rolled out to our district teachers.  I am sharing them as examples.  I do not contend that they are perfect, or that they should become someone’s curriculum, or that they represent anything except what they are: the produce of our district teachers’ collaborative efforts. No doubt, over time, as we work with these lists and resources, we will learn things that require more editing.  That is the nature of teaching and learning–it’s always an ongoing process.

Here are the three current lists:

Latin 1 common vocabulary

Latin 2 common vocabulary

Latin 3 common vocabulary

This whole process has made me look forward to each gathering of the committee.  I actually have fun spending 8 hours with this group of people (whoever said that about committee work?) focusing our work on reading comprehension and writing stories with them.  I hope that telling this story–so far as it has gone–can inspire other collaborative efforts among Latin teachers.  As I often say, I think that our language tradition is in a most fragile position these days.  We don’t have time to bicker with one another.  We have to find ways forward together to increase both interest in Latin and demonstrate student success (which in turn generates more interest).  This is the story of one way.

Bob Patrick

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Close Reading in a CI Classroom

This is a sort of “report from the field” but it is definitely something I will be repeating and thought worth sharing.

For the last nearly 3 weeks (yes, ’cause we started school on August 6 with students), I’ve been working very hard as a CI teacher.  I have three sections of Latin 3 Honors (33 bodies in each class).  The hard work has been the core of what we do in CI: various activities and processes to help them acquire needed vocabulary and structures for things we want them to read well, in Latin.  Each class is also made up of students taught by 4 different teachers over the years, so there is also the need to do some serious community building.

I’ve been working hard.

Yesterday, we read most of a story that I wrote using the vocabulary and structures that I want them to know. The story is about a man named Quintus who lives in a large, country mansion, alone now after the death of his parents, his sister in childbirth, his evil brother fled after killing a man, and his other brother serving in the military.  Quintus is afraid of a lot of things, never leaves the house, and gets a surprising message one day about a hidden treasure. It gave me plenty of opportunities to talk about Roman wealth, estates, inheritance, marriages, infant mortality, military service, etc.  Let’s be clear.  This was targeted vocabulary and one targeted structure: clauses after verbs of fearing.  I won’t go through all the things we did, but suffice it to say that through various CI activities we built vocabulary around a set of adjectives that can describe physical as well as personality traits (e.g. certus, clarus, gravis, sinster, et al) and expressions of fear that something might happen.

Today, I gave them each a hard copy of the 645 word story, and sent them out into our courtyard in groups of 3 (courtyard?  Yes, finally here in Atlanta we have morning weather in the upper 60’s and low 70’s!).  Their task was to make a list in response to this:  Quid de Quinto scimus?  I gave them a response sheet with these instructions:

Quid de Quinto scimus?  In the spaces below, list all the things we know about Quintus from the story.  This includes what we know about Quintus himself, what he fears, and what we know about his family or his house and property.  If it relates to Quintus, list it.  You may list in Latin only or English with Latin evidence.” (I did tell them that they would receive no credit for English only answers, and from what I can tell so far almost everyone is writing only in Latin).

I told them that I would be assessing this standard in my grade book: “Reads Latin for detail and specified knowledge.”  I also told them that I had already done what they were about to do, and that I found 49 different things about Quintus, and so I was inclined to think of their work in these terms for the sake of assessment: less than 30 would = C-F; 30 = B-; 35 = B+; 40 = A- and 45+ = A+.  They formed their groups and went out to the courtyard.  I walked around and answered occasional questions.

It went beautifully, and I say so for several reasons:

  1. They were intense and intently focused the entire class period, working with each other, reading the Latin text and writing their answers.
  2. They asked me really informed questions about the text and which made it crystal clear that they were reading and understanding the Latin.
  3. They did not finish and asked for more time–which I gladly granted for the morrow.
  4. A few told me that they did not feel like they were doing this work correctly.  In each instance, I checked, and they were doing it perfectly.

That last issue led me to ponder a bit.  My conclusion is that they felt like they were “doing it wrong” because this was not a worksheet.  This was close reading of a Latin text for detail and specific knowledge, and I set it up as a communicative task.  While one of my classes was in the courtyard, a much loved and respected colleague from the Language Arts department came along.  She wanted to know what we were doing.  I explained.  She said: “oh, characterization, analysis of a character, close reading of a text. I taught these babies to do this in English, but you have them doing it in Latin!”

Yes.  And it felt really, really good. Today, walking around and interacting with students over this close reading felt so good to me as a teacher. What I know for sure is that this moment happened only because of the 2.5 weeks of hard work, acquiring the language we needed for them to read this story.  When we got back to the room, I told my students that what we had just done was often referred to at university level courses in Latin as “a close reading of the text.”  I want them to know that what they just did was important (and a life skill!), and that they are doing it well.  That they did it well should be more clear to them when they get their papers back marked with a grade, but from what I’ve seen already, they will virtually all be very good.

Bob Patrick

Create community in the classroom–and no, you don’t have to be friends

I am teaching 3 sections of Latin 3 this year.  As they have begun assembling with me this week, the first week back at school, the realities of our very large Latin program become quickly apparent–some really positive, and some just really real.

  • As we have been experiencing, our Latin program looks like the face of the school, i.e. the wonderful multi-cultural mix that is our school is also our Latin program.  No one is excluded.  All kinds of learners are not only welcome, but they are successful.  Last year, out of 700 students in the program, we had 0 failures, and no one is unhappy with that.
  • The variety of places that students are coming from (think adverse childhood experiences) is wider than ever, and because average class sizes are 33 right now, denser.
  • The differentiation in Latin ability in each class fluctuates all the time.
  • And while this last observation may not seem like much, it inserts itself especially at this time of the year.  There was once a time when Latin students could expect to have the same teacher all the way through 4 years of study.  These days our Latin students and teachers really grow to like each other, and so as I look out on my Latin 3 classes, some of them have had me before, some have had Keith Toda before, some have had Rachel Ash before, some have had John Foulk before, some have had Miriam Patrick before, and some of them have had a mix of us before. They have varying feelings about not having “their teacher” this year.  The room, the space we share together is in need of some work so that we can work well together.

I’ve been moved, challenged and inspired by reading Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood And the Rest of Ya’ll Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Emdin is associate professor in the department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

I have tried something during these first days of school inspired by his work, and I will admit that I have a long way to go in implementing his practices–but that’s my aim.  I’ll write more specifically about that in another post.

Here’s what I’ve done and why.  It was clear to me after just the first day of school that while these were largely juniors who have matured a lot since I taught many of them as freshmen, the energy in the room felt jagged and disparate.  That’s hard to explain, but the best way is to say that it did not feel like a community–not like it did back when I was the only teacher they had.  In that case, by year 3 we all had already learned how to trust and work with each other.

So, on the second day, after I called the roll, I had instructions on the board: Considite vos in ordine alphabeti, a parte dextra ad sinistram.  Once I verified that they all understood, I pulled out my phone, hit the timer and yelled Incipite!

It took the first class 2:23 (minutes:seconds).  It took the second class 4:04.  It took the third class 3:47.  I conducted the next 10 minutes in English.  I asked them to explain why it took them that long to get themselves in alphabetical order.  The answers that came forth?  They did not know each others names–especially last names.  They were waiting on someone to tell them what to do.  They didn’t know that alphabetical meant by last name. They felt shy and unwilling to step up or speak out.

I told them that I had done this because I wanted us to begin to form a community. I defined community as a group of people sharing space together in a way that is good for everyone–and that we would be sharing the space of my room every day, 5 days a week, for 52 minutes.  I observed that they did not need to be friends to form community and that community was not an accident.  Community making requires effort.  I then asked them, in Latin, to find out from those sitting around them, their full names.

On the second day, I repeated with slightly different directions.  They still had to order themselves alphabetically, but from left to right and from the back to the front. The first class took 0:56; the second 0:57 and the third 1:05.  All of them were significantly faster.  I asked them to explain that to me.  They said, in short, that they remembered from yesterday who they were sitting next to, and they learned from yesterday that if they asked people their names and told people their names it worked out much faster.

Here is what I want to drive home for all of us:  acts of community building are as easy to begin as asking and giving a name. An act of community building is easier the second time because of the first time.  And this: acts of community destruction only create more destruction.  Our world is much too full these days of community destruction. We are forgetting how to build community. I want generations of young people growing up behind me to know how to create community.

I have felt, in just two days, the atmosphere in the room change–pretty dramatically. It’s beginning to feel like a little community.

Bob Patrick

I’m New to CI: How Do I Get Started?

You’ve been to a workshop somewhere recently or had conversation with teacher friends.  You’ve done some reading and you are convinced that you want to either begin using Comprehensible Input as your philosophical framework for teaching Latin (or another second language) or you want to up your game in that regard.

“Where do I start?” I am often asked.

What to do

There are just a few things that you need to do.  Really.  Choose just a few strategies (activities, communicative tasks) that you will commit to doing over and over again this year.  I recommend that you find 2-3 blogs that you can follow–blogs of CI teachers who are talking about how they do these activities and tasks–and let them guide you to the few you will do over and over again this year.  If you are a Latin teacher, those blogs don’t have to be written by Latin teachers, but there are some good blogs that Latin CI teachers write which will help you zero in on a few CI strategies that you will do over and over again.  Check out the items in this blog, for example!  Check out Keith Toda’s blog, or Pomegranate Beginnings written by Miriam Patrick and Rachel Ash. Check out Dan Stoa’s Comprehensible Antiquity, Lance Piantaggini’s Magister P, or John Piazza’s site full of resources.  This is NOT an exhaustive list, but a way to help you get started.  Identify a few CI strategies that you will commit to using this year, and just keep doing them, strategies like: One Word Images, Movie Talks, Dictation, Read and Draw, Read, Draw and Discuss, Story Listening, CI Games like the Word Chunk Game or the Sex Game (Sex = Six in Latin so just stop it!), or Vinco; learn how to embed readings or create Communicative tasks.  Decide which strategies you will learn to do, and do them.  Do them again.  Keep doing them.  Do them with your textbook material, or with novellas or with other materials that you choose to use (or steal from others).

What to remember

Doing this work the first time (for the first year) won’t feel right.  It will feel awkward.  It will make you feel like you look incompetent. I can tell you that it is the right kind of work.  You are not awkward, and it doesn’t look incompetent.

It’s the right kind of work because it works for all kinds of learners.  It works the same way that learning your first language did only now you have some advantages of being able to think about what you are doing (so do your students) that you didn’t have as a baby.  Your brain and your students’ brains are hardwired to learn language this way, so trust that.  Teaching language this way removes language learning (and especially Latin learning) from the “elites only need apply” list.

You are not awkward–even when you feel like it.  You are not incompetent even when you feel like it.  What’s at play here is what you will need to do to teach in this framework and how that contradicts all of your inner images of what a Latin/language teacher looks like.  For example, your inner Latin teacher looks like someone declining a first declension noun on the board and explaining what cases are.  The CI Latin teacher asks students to draw pictures of what they like to play and a pet they have or would like to have.  The CI Latin teacher then begins to talk about student drawings with words like clavicordium, pedifolis, canis, feles and piscis–non of which are in the first declension.  The tension that goes on between watching students see and hear you talk about their pets and what they like to play in Latin and that inner Latin teacher who knows that they don’t know (yet) the different declensions and case usages can become intense at times.  The tension between what you are doing and your inner image of what you should be doing can make you feel awkward and incompetent.

You are neither.  You are helping students begin to acquire a second language, one that you love, and in a way that resonates with their brains.  Take your awkward, incompetent feeling self home each day and allow for a little interior applause for what you are doing.  Because, it works.

Let it be different

You are very likely going to hit a wall at some point.  By that I mean, you will come to a day when you feel like you just cannot do it anymore.  You are exhausted, or confused, or scared, or (fill in your own showstopper feelings).  That’s when you reach for something else.  The something else is NOT what you used to do.  That will only make you feel better, momentarily, and it will confuse your students.  Instead, reach for a CI strategy or activity or communicative task that will give you a little break.  Miriam Patrick has written about that at Pomegranate Beginnings called Monday Tips and Tricks.  So, you do one of those things to give yourself a break.  Maybe you do some of those things for a week to really give yourself a break.  In the meantime, you will find that your creative juices start to flow and you are ready to continue teaching with a CI framework using those very same few strategies, activities or communicative tasks that you committed to use over and over again.  Along the way of this year, don’t hesitate to reach out to other CI teachers for support and to share stories.  There are Facebook pages that support CI teachers:  Latin Best Practices, CI Lift Off, and others that you might want to check out if you don’t know them already. As one of the moderators for Latin Best Practices, I can tell you that if you share that you are struggling with something, you will be supported and get lots of helpful feedback.  Do that for yourself.  Allow yourself to be a learner even while remaining the Latin expert in the room.

You will arrive at the end of the year with a whole new perspective than you could have imagined when you started.  The only new agenda for the next year is to add just one or two additional CI strategies, activities or communicative tasks to what you have just spend a year doing, and when you do all those things again, you will have personal insight into how to make them better.

Bob Patrick