Content To Pedagogy: The Natural Progression Of [Latin] Teachers

I’ve observed how teachers first start out all about content. This makes sense. Teachers generally really like, or maybe even love their content area. In the classroom, they’re certainly the experts. That doesn’t mean they rival scholars in terms of knowledge, of course, but most college undergrads possess enough content knowledge to teach what they know. You can even obtain a teaching license in some states having never taken an education course, instead passing tests (e.g., Praxis, MTEL, etc.) almost entirely content-based, with just a fraction of items related to teaching. Quite bluntly, the state of education is such that even with some training, many teachers are missing an overlooked aspect of teaching: solid pedagogy…

So, you got a bunch of people who know things. These people spend most of whatever training time they get—which might not be much—learning how to present those things to students, mostly via new activities. That’s not really pedagogy. Even for the lucky people in schools/programs learning how to teach, all those approaches, methods, strategies, techniques, and activities still serve content. Pedagogy is an afterthought, with content being the point…the primary focus of class. Therefore, teachers—at first—are overly concerned with students learning the content, and not as much concerned with the practices that make learning possible. For example, if a teacher’s response to a student’s question of what a word means is “the dictionary is over there, look it up,” it’s clear that pedagogy plays little to no role in their classroom. Providing students with a resource is not pedagogy. That’s just supervision of independent learning. If supervision of independent learning is the goal or one’s context, that teacher likely doesn’t progress from content to pedagogy. For those who are moving from content to second language pedagogy, though, the progression seems to be: grammar –> immersion –> comprehension. There must be small steps between each one, perhaps drawing upon some of what comes after, but here’s a basic outline of what I’ve observed:

Grammar
Latin teachers begin teaching what has been traditionally taught, which is a focus on grammar. This is presented, practiced, and tested, sometimes in nearly complete isolation from messages in the target language (re: paradigm-focused textbooks with just a handful of ancient unadapted sentences). However, it’s more common nowadays to use a textbook following some narrative. These narratives are often tied to culture, although the majority of cultural knowledge is presented in English, not Latin. Identifying and manipulating word forms, analyzing parts of speech, and translating Latin into English with precise accuracy is the primary measure of success, mostly depending on how well a student memorizes. Cultural knowledge—generally in English—is also tested. The majority of Latin teachers today are here.

Immersion
This marks a major shift, and is usually the next step for teachers moving away from grammar. Why? It varies. Some recognize the success that modern language teachers have and want to emulate that. Others have personal experience learning a new second language—successfully—in ways that couldn’t possibly be any more different from a grammar approach. Whatever the reason, listening to the target language as a learner tends to be the main difference, which means the teacher needs to be the one speaking to the students. Now, many Latin teachers confuse speaking more Latin in the classroom with full immersion. These are not the same thing. However, this is why immersion comes next along the progression: teachers attend immersion events as one of the only opportunities to interact in Latin, which undoubtedly involves speaking to others. Since the experience is often positive for teachers, many return to their classrooms implementing what they saw at these immersion events, which from the teacher’s perspective is more speaking despite the major lack of content knowledge their students have. N.B. to put this in perspective, the 60 or so hours of immersion taking place over JUST ONE WEEK at Conventiculum Dickinsoniense would be the equivalent seat time of half the school year for most K-12 Latin students. It should be clear that a part-time-1-hour-per-day immersion model doesn’t get the same results from students as does teachers attending a week-long immersion event having had years of previous exposure to Latin. The plot thickens when discussions with modern language colleagues converge on things-ACTFL, an organization that promotes misunderstood policies like “90%+ target language use” and features magazine headlines like “15 ways to get students using the target language!,” all of which end up overemphasizing the role of speaking. N.B. even if speaking is the ultimate goal of taking a modern language course, the ROLE of speaking throughout the acquisition process is usually significantly overemphasized!

In Latin immersion classrooms, the content often remains the same as a grammar approach, although the interaction piece is given more weight. As such, content can be extended to include students themselves and the modern world as discussed through Latin. Still, the most common textbook used in an immersion approach is Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (LLPSI), so modern world content tends to be limited. An insistence on all-Latin (or nearly all Latin)—both from the teacher and students while avoiding English—is a hallmark of this approach. The measure of success is often the same as a grammar approach, although any cultural content that gets tested is entirely in Latin. Some Latin teachers are here, today.

N.B. Although I went through this progression myself, I don’t recommend an immersion approach for a few reasons. Perhaps the most important is that an all-Latin environment doesn’t ensure comprehension for the student. At best, not much time is wasted as students create their own meaning and maybe spend only a little time confused. At worst, students shut down in this approach, and/or students are excluded from a Latin experience entirely because they’re intimidated by the immersion setting and don’t enroll. My first line of thinking is “why take that chance?” Second, running a class entirely in Latin is HARD. This is very taxing for the non-speaking Latin teacher who must start speaking Latin, which is almost everyone in the profession. Third, there just isn’t any convincing evidence that a part-time immersion approach is more beneficial for either teacher or student. Therefore, I say spend as little time here as possible, unless 1) you can easily do it, 2) your students understand everything—all of them—and not just those currently enrolled (i.e., who ISN’T taking Latin at your school?), and 3) you love doing it.

Comprehension
This is another shift, although more subtle. Whereas immersion teachers find success as long as comprehension is maintained in the all-Latin environment—a huge caveat—the comprehension-based teacher employs any means possible in order to ensure comprehension, which often includes English. Terry Waltz as coined the term “comprehenDED input,” not just input that’s comprehensible. That places more pedagogical responsibility on the teacher, rightfully so. In this approach, comprehension takes priority over everything else. It’s viewed as step zero, and practices used to ensure comprehension are sought out, inevitably letting go of the all-Latin environment (hence, the progression from immersion to comprehension). Under a comprehension-based approach, teachers can still run class in 90%+ Latin without artificially avoiding English. Perhaps that’s where confusion arises, thinking there won’t be enough Latin unless English is avoided. That’s just not true. A comprehension-based approach to language teaching uses English to check comprehension, or to establish meaning. If class already has high levels of comprehension—which it should—there’s even less need for English! Also, give yourself some slack on the whole “target language use.” Another gem from Terry Waltz is that “a class 90% in Chinese but 50% understandable is far less effective than a class 50% in Chinese that’s 100% understandable.” I buy that. Some Latin teachers are here, today, and I suspect more than immersion, especially since immersion requires a significant demand on the teacher’s part.

What’s Next? Communicative Purpose?
I don’t know! I’m not sure you can go much further beyond setting comprehension as the primary focus. However, if you could, my bet would be on communicative purpose. This refers to the handful of reasons why humans would interpret, express, or negotiate meaning in Latin within a classroom (i.e., for entertainment, learning, or creating). It’s possible that if purpose were the primary focus of class, comprehension would inherently be embedded in trying to convey and interpret meaning (because there’s a reason or need for it). Under this model, if teachers spent more time learning how to create a purposeful learning environment, that might lead to practices that ensure comprehension. Of course, the two already go hand-in-hand since comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) is already a thing. However, I’m still not convinced that all comprehension-based teachers move towards a communicative approach, or that the ones who do end up arriving at the former before the latter. Regardless, it’s safe to say that some Latin teachers are here, today, for sure. This is how I’d characterize my own teaching.

What about you?

Are you somewhere between? If so, there’s a chance you’re working with conflicting principles that make whatever shift you’re looking for along the progression much harder. Have you been where you are for a long time? That’s probably a sign you’ve got obstacles holding you back from moving forward. A little reflecting should help determine what to do if you’d like to see more movement, especially if you’re unhappy where you are.

One thought on “Content To Pedagogy: The Natural Progression Of [Latin] Teachers

  1. Interesting progression. Makes sense to me, since I’ve been on a similar one (though I never jumped into immersion). It took me about 3 years in the classroom before I realized that many of my students:

    a) don’t like Latin as much as I did at their age
    b) won’t learn the same way I did

    It’s hard to overstate how much the impulse to recreate and share what we loved as a student can be. I’ve been lucky enough to work at 2 different schools that had a Latin requirement for all students and forced me to rethink my practice to open pathways to all learners, not just those similar to me. I am so grateful I did make these changes.

    The block I have right now is building off the comprehension to engage thinking about the structure of language (takes time I know) and best ways to scaffold communicative writing. Fun problem to think about!

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