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

Latin 4 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