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

Advertisements

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

Daily Rituals

I am finding that there are some daily rituals that can be very helpful to us in a CI classroom both with comprehensible input and with classroom management.  I will suggest just a few–some for me are tried and true, and one is brand new!

  1. Salutatio:  when the classroom bell rings signaling that class has started, I teach students that I will greet them (salvete!) and that I expect their enthusiastic response (Salve!).  If I get a weak response, I just keep doing it until everyone is on board.  Always–I deliver with a smile. That’s a required part of the ritual. Mine may be the only smile someone in the class sees all day, which would be sad, but it would be sadder if I missed the opportunity to the that one!  In the beginning with brand new students to me and certainly with Latin 1 students, I explain that this is a social greeting.  It does not mean “hello” but like “hello” is a social exchange for greeting others.  I explain that it means something like “Be well, safe, healthy!”  It is a wish for good health, and that’s a great way to greet others.  At the end of class, of course, we do the opposite: Valete!  Vale! (which I have explained, is also a wish–for wellness and strength).
  2. Telephona: After the Salutatio, I go through the following with gestures.  The first few days, I explain each piece of it along with the expectation that I do this as a fun reminder, that they are welcome to say it along with me (most do), and that by the end of this little ritual, I expect all cell phones to be silenced and in their bookbags.
    Magister: Discipuli, ubi sunt telephona?
    Discipuli: In saccelis!  (I point to a book bag)
    Magister:  Non in manibus (waving my hands near my shoulders); non in gremio (sort of sitting poster and hands in my lap); non in fundis (hand into my pocket), non sub clunibus (lift up a leg and tap under the top of my leg–I tell them this means–“not under my butt” which they think is hysterical).  Telephona tacita in saccellis sunt!
  3. Nomina: Especially with students who are new to me, I always do a formal roll call until I know all of their names and faces.  I make a big deal of pronouncing their names correctly and calling the name they like to be called.  But, I begin with this ritual, which I explain the first few days so that they know what we are all saying.  I keep it on the board for about a week.
    Magister: Nomina vocabo.  Respondete “adsum.” Then, I call names.  I also teach them to say “abest” for anyone not present.  If someone is absent, I respond “eheu, _____ abest!”
  4. CI Reminders: For students beyond the beginning point, this is a new ritual I am trying.  It’s what I otherwise will remind Latin 1 students (and really all levels) of the first week in English.  It goes like this.
    Magister:  Discipuli, commemoremus:  Cum vobis dico, respondeatis tamquam si mirabile sit–fortasse ooooooooooooooh.  Cum vos aliquid interrogo, detis mihi responsum!  Cum unum discipulum interrogo, quis respondeat?  Ille discipulus vel illa discipula mihi respondeat.  Incipiamus!

When introducing any ritual, we have to provide full understanding up front about what every word means.  Every student in the room HAS to know what every word means.  No exceptions. Then, over time, the ritual begins to feel comfortable and expected.  It becomes part of what we do together every day, and anything like that which invites us into the language, feels comfortable and is understood helps us with classroom management issues.  Used together, these little rituals: provide social greetings, take care of phone issues, account for student presence/absence and establish how we go about things in our CI classrooms.

Word Chunk Game–Revisited and Revised

What follows are the instructions for playing the Word Chunk Game, still one of the most favored things that we do in our now very large Latin CI program.  I have made some changes to the description based on several years of playing it now.  One aspect of the original  version that remained problematic is that the teacher has the burden of seeing who raises their hands first (which team) for answering the question.  Because this turns the game into something like a Certamen Contest (who has the fastest finger on the buzzer), the language comprehension aspect of the game suffered.  This revision removes hand raising as an aspect of answering questions and replaces it with names drawn out of a container.  How very Roman!  The Fates get to decide which person in which group gets the next question.  By design, everyone in the room will be called on and every group’s discussion of the question or word or phrase is essential.  So far, as we play the game, the language comprehension aspect has been returned to front and center (okay, maybe just behind the enticement of throwing balls into a basket)!  If you have never heard of this game, just read below as if this is the only way to play!  I have marked revisions below with bolded type.

This game is both low stress on the teacher (unless students having lots of fun in your classroom stresses you out!) AND while having fun an intense vehicle of language acquisition.  It is used with material, a story for example that you have already been working on with students, so I think of this as a Friday kind of activity to review a story, especially with structures or vocabulary that has been challenging.  First the set up; then the procedures:

  • Pass out to students small pieces of card stock (2 x 3 inches or smaller) and have them write their full names on one side of the paper, and then fold once.  Collect the names into some sort of container.  Have a separate container for each class and mark it so that you will know next time which container has their names.
  • Students are divided into small groups (3-6 per group, depending on class size.  3 is better but in huge classes you may have to go with larger groups.
  • groups are in small circles around the edges of the room so that there is a long ally down the middle of the room.
  • At one end of the room, a box is set up on a stool (or some other arrangement) that approximates a basket. You can also find in various stores small wastebaskets that look like a basketball goal, if you like but not necessary.
  • 3-6 whiffle balls or tennnis balls or rubberized balls that fit nicely in one hand are lined up at a “free throw line” some 15 fee or so away from “the basket”.  (how many balls depends on the size of your groups)
  • Teacher preps a list of sentences from the story that has already been read and which highlights structures or words new to the group.  (e.g. if relative clauses are new, most sentences should have relative clauses).  You can pull sentences directly from the story, but you can also edit them to focus on what you want to focus on.  Separate items can be single words, phrases, clauses or sentences.  Single words in context are always better.
  • Each group  must come up with a name for itself, in Latin, and a gesture that they do with the name.  Any time that a person from their group is called on, they must shout their name in unison while doing the gesture.  If they don’t, or even if one member doesn’t, they don’t get to answer the question and it goes to the next person chosen.  This seems silly.  Don’t skip it.  It helps build camaraderie in the group which is necessary for how they have to work together.
  • The game proceeds like this.  Teacher reads the first sentence slowly, aloud, and continues to do so, over and over again.  Group members huddle together and decide, together, what the sentence means. After reading the item at least three times, shake the container of names and draw a name out.  Call on that person.  The group says their name and does their gesture.
  • ONLY that person whose name was called can answer, and if the group feeds the answer, they are disqualified.  HOWEVER, if the person makes a mistake, group members may correct it.  The teacher must distinguish between FEEDING the answer and offering CORRECTIONS.  Corrections are allowed.  Feeding the answer is not.  Because no one knows whose name will be chosen, they learn very quickly that everyone must know what the item means before they raise their hands.
  • If the person called on gives the correct English meaning of the sentence, the entire group goes to the free-throw line and shoots for points.  Teacher keeps score.
  • An easy way to work on Latin numbers is to announce the score after every score earned.  Something like (group name) duo, (group name) quinque, (group name) septem, (group name) nulla), (group name) tria puncta habent!
  • If the person does not give the correct English and the group cannot correct mistakes, the teacher calls on the group whose hands went up second, and so forth.
  • At the end of the period, the group with the most points (or groups if there is a tie) have earned bonus points that they can use on a quiz or test grade (teacher’s discretion).

This is a listening and comprehension game.  They are “re-reading” old material, which is always good.  They are helping each other understand.  Because you can focus on certain structures or words, and because you are reading slowly, clearly, over and over again, they are getting multiple repetitions of Latin that they otherwise would not have done on their own.  Students swear by how helpful this game is.  My problem is not overusing it.

Timed Writes, Free Writes and that Whole Grammar Thing

If you know how we do timed and free writes using portfolios and portfolio analysis you may be interested in these ongoing reflections and evolving ideas about students writing in the target language and what we as language teachers do with grammar–teaching and assessing.

I’ve just finished reading my seniors’ portfolio analyses in Latin 4.  They have been in our program for four years and had three of us for teachers (including myself, Caroline Miklosovic and Rachel Ash).  The version of the portfolio analysis is a little different for the senior year (one of the evolutions of the process), and it can be found here.  I found the consistency of the comments made to be fascinating and instructive to me as I continue to teach in a CI Latin program.  I share them here for what they are worth.  What is increasingly clear is that teaching with CI is never a fixed process.  It always involves evolving as we learn and listen to the experience of students acquiring language.

Students wrote the following things in their end of year analysis, with my reflections.  Used here with their permissions.

“I am surprised by the difficulty of concentrating when trying to focus on grammar and ideas rather than content. . . I was so focused on grammar that I disregarded time management.”

In the fourth year, I have done more regular direct grammar instruction which I invite them to take note of in these notebooks.  I promise two things:  I will  never test you on grammar, and you may use these grammar notes whenever you write in Latin.  Why would a Latin teacher ever say such things?  Teaching with CI and its guiding principles has convinced me that direct grammar instruction does not help a learner make any advances in language acquisition, and that the value of grammar itself is in the editing process.  In order to use grammar well for editing our own writing, we must know the rules and have the opportunity and time to apply them to our writing.  This is exactly now what my work with grammar has become.  I show them the structures.  Give them examples from literature.  They take notes, and they reference them while writing and editing their own work.  In short, they are creating their own in-notebook grammar to reference when needed.  They had other comments about this process.

“When we took two days to do a writing and were able to write, read and revise, that was really helpful.”

“Taking two days for a rough draft and then to work out a final draft allowed for thought and reflection on grammar–particularly verbs, and to include information about the story/writing that was left out in the rough draft.”

This was echoed again and again by students.  I gave free write assignments which came at the end of a reading and which allowed for one full class time to write extensively and without concern for editing the first day–that is, a rough draft.  On the second day, they were asked to read that draft and re-write it using their grammar notes and thoughtful reflection to make it their best.  Almost to a student, they identified those as their “best writings.” Krashen notes in his research what I have come to see for myself.  Writing more does not make writing better.  But there is value in writing.  Writing is communication with others and with the self.  My students seem to really value the communications they were seeing from themselves to themselves about all that we had read this year in Latin through their own words.

“I used to think that how many words I wrote was a sign of how good my writing was, but now at the end of four years, I realize that it’s the quality of the writing and not the quantity that really matters.”

“I’ve realized that we have begun caring less about writing sentences and counting words and more about our responses to the questions presented to us.”

The fact is that early on–in Latin 1 and 2 and probably most of 3–the only measure of writing in our program is the number of words they write.  Teachers do read some of the writes, but we don’t grade for errors.  We look to see if they are re-telling the story, adding a detail, reflecting on a part of the story–in Latin.  And, we look to see if their word counts are increasing.  Errors?  Of course there are, just as one would expect from baby language learners.  We also know that time taken to correct errors is wasted both by the teacher and on the student.  There is no evidence at all that for normal learners error correction makes any difference at all in language acquisition unless it’s this:  error correction by the teacher tends to make students less willing to take risks with language.  They keep their writing safe, simple and undeveloped out of fear of the error corrections (and lower grades!).  In these comments, students are recognizing for themselves–after four years of Latin–that it’s about the ability to begin communicating about what they have read to others but mostly to themselves that matters.  Quality is more important than quantity, and many students found that when they allowed themselves to write for quality, their word counts did go down a bit.

“The point of the class is to be able to understand what is being said, and my writings show that I am actually doing that and not just copying down words that I memorized.”  (This student notes that earlier he was doing that–memorizing and copying, but that he has shifted to a lower word count but a greater level of understanding.  Increasingly challenging reading (via Harrius Potter) is what he credits to this shift.)  He goes on to observe about his own writing:

“Some writings show an increase in grammar (Itinera Petri) and others an increase in vocabulary (Harrius Potter).”

Several students noted the huge leap in new and strange vocabulary in Harrius Potter.  That’s why we spent the better part of the semester reading just one chapter (along with other kinds of readings).  It is interesting to me that they felt they gained more in grammar use and understanding from reading Itinera Petri which sheltered vocabulary but not grammar, but when it came to HP all they could do was think about the new vocab, which exploded.

After I had read all of their analyses, I had a discussion with them.  I wanted to know what they thought about the “grammar days” and taking notes.  Without an exception, the high flyers liked the grammar days and note taking and the more normal learners  largely still found grammar confusing or irrelevant.

So, I asked them: without exception you all say that you are clear that your grammar has improved–how do you know and how did that happen?  They gave this evidence of improved grammar:

“When I’m writing, I don’t have to reference my grammar notes as much.”

“My sentences have become more complex.”

” My number of words may drop but the quality of the writing and things expressed goes up.”

“I feel freer to write around words I don’t know using other words.”

“I know that when I can write about Roman virtues in Harry Potter or in a fable of Aesop and express an opinion or an argument all in Latin–and that when I re-read it weeks later I can understand it–I know that my grammar has improved.”

I can attest that all of these things are true about their writing, and it does indicate more control over the grammar and vocabulary (the monitor for Latin is strengthening in them), and they still make mistakes.  The mistakes are normal and appropriate for just four years of study (more like 360 hours of instruction).

What caused their grammar improve?  When I asked that question they almost answered with one unified voice:

“Reading and speaking Latin!”  

One added: “When you speak and we speak back to you, it helps hearing you repeat it correctly.”  This was held in contrast to calling students out, pointing out their mistake and embarrassing them.  “You just say it again correctly, and we can hear that.”  In my opinion, they have become better at hearing that.  In their first and second year, there is less evidence that they are hearing that which only argues for more time with them.

Another:  “After a while–reading and speaking, some things just begin to sound right and wrong.”

At this point, I thought I might just openly weep for joy.  Without knowing, per se, my CI agenda, they were telling me exactly how CI works for them.  

Even as I rejoice over how CI is working across 4 years for our students, I have to honest to say that I am also still left living with a traditional Latin teacher’s brain.  What does that mean?  It means that I continue to experience doubts about what I am doing.  Shouldn’t I be testing them on grammar?  Shouldn’t I be correcting their writing errors? Doesn’t misuse of grammar mean that they aren’t learning Latin?  

Likewise, when I am among a larger group of Latin teachers outside of my program, I find myself lost as teachers talk about a “dative worksheet” or mnemonics for remembering deponent verbs.  I once did all of those things, and I don’t anymore.  I can offer them while doing a “grammar day” but they are no longer standard fair in my classroom. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, and sometimes I feel cognitive dissonance when I hear Latin teachers talking about that.

This CI work works, and it’s changing me.  The change is slow.  As I look back, I have interfered with what I know to work because that traditional Latin teacher brain objects.  I think that’s happening less now, but it’s still a process.

No student makes progress in the language from writing or speaking.  Their writing and speaking are evidence of the interesting and understandable listening and reading they receive.  There is value, then, in writing for two things:

  1. It lets me know how effective my speaking in Latin and reading choices for them are.
  2. It allows them to communicate with themselves in this language about the things we read the conversations we have.

Bob Patrick

Writing Analysis–for level 4

This is a slightly different take on the portfolio analysis that we use in our CI Latin program.  Seniors in Latin 4 keep a composition notebook in which they do timed writes, free writes, take grammar notes and any other notes that they think will be helpful when they do writing in Latin.  They can use anything in the notebook when they write.  The composition notebooks stay in the room all year long.  Here’s what they do at the end of each semester.

  1. Take about 20 minutes to read through ALL of your entries in your composition notebook.
  2. Do all of your analysis on a fresh page in it.  Date it at the top with the title “Composition Analysis–(today’s date)
  3. After your read through, what are you noticing about your writing that surprises you?  Surprises should be both about progress and perhaps some shortcomings.  Explain with examples.
  4. Which of your writings is your best?  Identify it by title and date, and explain with examples why it is your best?
  5. Pretend that this composition notebook were the only evidence of your progress in Latin over the last 4 years.  Write a summary description of what that progress means and looks like.  Write it third person about yourself, and include examples from your writing this semester.
  6. Give yourself a numeric grade for your performance in Latin this semester based only on what is in this notebook.  Give an explanation for this grade.
  7. When finished, fold the pages of this analysis over in half, close your notebook, and return it to the front of the room.

DRAW 1-2-3

This is a reading, drawing, critical thinking and writing activity.  It begins with whatever reading you have students doing.  After using other CI activities to establish meaning, read and discuss the story, you may want to us DRAW 1-2-3 to deepen the activity.

Instructions to students:

After you completely understand the story, prepare the following on a clean sheet of paper.

  1. Draw ONE scene that represents what fascinates you the most about the story.
  2. Include TWO talking bubbles or thought bubbles.  The content of those bubbles MUST be copied directly from the story.  
  3. Write a THREE sentence caption under your drawing.  The THREE sentences must be taken directly from the story and combined in a way that they give some insight or cause some thought about your drawing.

Options for the teacher:

  1. Take the finished products and select the 2-3 that are the most intriguing and put them on the screen in the next class period of segment of your class.  Create a conversation around each picture, almost like a movie talk but with this still picture that includes two bubbles and a caption of three sentences.  How did the creator change or enhance the story by choosing this picture, these bubbles, these sentences.  Of course, you could do more than 2-3.  You could spend days doing these if they are compelling enough.
  2. Or, give every student in the room someone else’s DRAW 1-2-3.  Give them a few minutes to read and think about it, and then partner with another students where they each describe the picture they have been given.  This could also be done with each student describing his/her own to another student.
  3. Have each student holding her/his own and have students move through the room in pop-corn reading style only they are describing their own DRAW 1-2-3 to each other in L2.
  4. End any of these activities with a timed or free write in which they summarize the original story and write about a fascinating take on the story they encountered in a DRAW 1-2-3, their own or another’s.

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

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

When the “Test” is just more great CI–a best practice

As Department Chair, one of my duties is to observe the members of my department and add my observations to those of administrators who do the same.  (See my document on the Downloadables page on the GA Performance Standards and what they look like in a CI classroom).

I want to share what I just observed one of my Spanish colleagues, Mr. George Brennen, doing in his Spanish 3 class.  It is an extraordinarily good example of technically assessing students on “animals” but in such a way that the testing event itself becomes just the next good example of providing students with tons of comprehensible input that is both broad and deep.  I want to do what he did!

Here’s what he did.  He stood before the class holding three index cards of different colors.  Everything I saw him do was entirely in Spanish.  He asked the students to choose a color. They chose purple.  He then began calling the numbered item, and then describing in great detail the animal–it’s size, colors, where it is found geographically (with descriptions of those geographical regions), the countries it was found in, its relationship to human beings, and other animals, its habitat and behaviors.  Students were literally leaning forward, glued to every word.  I have a degree in Spanish.  My Spanish is very rusty, though I read it and often understand it fairly well.  I understood every word.  All the students had to do was write down the name of the animal.  He was on animal number 12 when I had to leave.

In one assessment (which, BTW, will be super easy to grade) students received tons of understandable messages about animals, colors, sizes, geography, climate, countries, behaviors, habitats and relationships.  This is brilliant!  Technically students took a test on animals.  I am without doubt that these students left with more acquired Spanish today then when they came in.

So, CI teachers of any language:  how can we devise strategies of both teaching with understandable messages and assessments which integrate and pull together all kinds of language material/themes/vocabulary that requires the students largely to listen and comprehend while only writing down a word or two?

This is going to be my own personal challenge for the week.  I have a unit on Roman virtues that I am about to start.  I am now aiming for that day when I can have long, broad and deep discussion with students describing a virtue. They listen and then write down the one word.

Bob Patrick