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