It dawned on me that I have zero management issues right now. Zero. Yeah, it feels like the Twilight Zone. In fact, the only classroom management issue close to what I used to experience years ago was something mask-related, and took place way back in the fall while I was covering for another teacher. But classroom management in Latin class? It has felt almost like an afterthought. How is this possible, especially after a year…”off”…with virtually (hehe) no problems?!
At the start of the year, MGMT was an area of my teaching that I felt was completely inadequate from lack of practice re: COVID and remote teaching. I certainly had what I used to consider “one of those classes” at the start of the year, but in hindsight, it still didn’t take much effort to manage, not really, and in February when I began writing this post it was hardly unnoticeable, and just not a thing at this point. Why is that?! Has my teaching fundamentally changed since 2018-19? Let’s look into that…
This post includes practical ideas I got from Florencia Henshaw’s and Maris Hawkins’ theory-to-practice SLA (second language acquisition) book. The preface and first chapter contain what’s probably among the best 30 pages a language teacher could read, especially one having little familiarity with SLA, and/or those who missed the Tea with BVP train, and While We’re On The Topic.
My context is teaching first year Latin in a small public high school in a large city. Latin is required. It’s the only language offered. So there. I teach beginning students who have no choice (i.e., this often means no interest or any prior knowledge), and many of them didn’t have a second language experience in primary or middle school. Since “novice learners have a long way to go when it comes to developing a linguistic system” (p. 138), my focus is hardly on any output. Output “helps with the skill of accessing that system” (p. 138), which the beginner is still building, so it’s not a priority. This doesn’t mean no one speaks Latin (students do!). This doesn’t mean there isn’t any interaction. What this does mean is that I’m not thrown off by all the “Get students speaking the TL in just five easy steps!” messages that lead so many language teachers astray. Neither are the authors, although they’ve included stuff in the book for those who might be dealing with an IPA-heavy department (Integrated Performance Tasks), or who might be coming from a more traditional program and isn’t quite ready to give input its due attention. Input is key. I’d actually feel the same if I taught second year Latin as well, and maybe even year three. This would also hold true for any language. That is to say I think all Spanish I & II, or maybe even Korean III teachers would benefit from the same approach: a massive focus on input.
I took this idea from Kelly Gallagher, the History teacher who wrote the “readicide” book. At some point, he started having kids read current news “articles of the week (AOW)” in groups and told them to work together and “highlight their confusion.” I honestly haven’t though about this in a decade, then it just popped into my head the other day. I realized this could be another “skip the quiz” assessment that gives us just as good data, if not better. The task was simple:
I handed out one text and one highlighter per group. To complete the simple task, students read and interacted, helping each other understand the story. I collected them for use the next class. What I got was a list of words and phrases nearly all groups didn’t know, and a few here and there that each group blanked on. That’s all I needed to make the language more comprehensible, discussing the text the next day and having a short list of words/phrases to park on. Here, “park” refers to a strategy of asking questions and restating answers while focusing on a part of the text that wasn’t as comprehensible (i.e., unknown words). This provides micro-exposure to the words in question, making subsequent reading go more smoothly.
Key Observations & Pedagogical Implications
This was a major confidence boost for students who might have doubted their ability to read a text of about 400 words long. Even the most-highlighted packet turned in had no more than 10 unknown words. These were level-appropriate texts. If, however, the packets I got back were marked up beyond belief, that’d tell me the full version couldn’t be read with any ease—the majority of class time and effort unnecessarily spent arriving at comprehension, not starting with comprehension and doing something more with it, prompting a new text or new level of the text. This is more valuable data than any quiz.
Students read the story together, receiving input once. Then, we read the story together as a class, students stopping me when we got to a place they highlighted. We discussed the story’s meaning, as well as any etymological connections to the unknown words, and whenever possible, additional input was provided through Q&A. Therefore between a) the first run through in groups withtheir discussion & rereading while negotiating meaning (because I monitored student interaction), b) the rereading the next day, and c) hearing the Q&A, I wouldn’t be surprised if this 400-word story ended up providing over 1,000 words of input over just two classes. I’ve never heard of any quiz with that much input.
I usually just read new novellas with students, cold-open. That is, besides reading the back cover description and having a quick discussion to situate the topic, there’s no prep, no fanfare. On occasion, I’ve had students do a little frontloading of some vocab on a Quizlet (and before that on Desmos during our remote year) to make the reading go more smoothly. I’ve also done that for certain chapters once we’ve already started reading, but again, there hasn’t been anything very structured ahead of time. It’s been mostly “just read,” all together, from the start.
Earlier this week, though, I stumbled upon a new way of starting a book together as a class. We began The Star Diaries, and to build on the intrigue and mystique of this book, I played into the mysterious details contained in the description. Here it is:
Not much was known about The Architects—guardians of the stars—until their diaries were found in dark caves sometime during the Tenth Age. Explore their mysterious observations from the Seventh Age (after the Necessary Conflict)—a time just before all evidence of their existence vanished for millennia! What happened to The Architects? Can you reconstruct the events that led to the disappearance of this ancient culture?
As you can see, we’ve got some knowns and unknowns right away. The Architects—are they even people?! They had diaries. There’s something called ages, and there were 10 of them. There was a Necessary Conflict. Was that a big war? The Architects vanished. How long was between Ages Seven and Ten?! How many 1,000s of years are we talking about?! They were an ancient culture. When is now?!
A simple nōta/īgnōta anchor chart really helped sort things out and set up the discovery later on. Students spent a couple minutes writing their own charts of what’s known and unknown right in their notebooks. When it came time to share, I wrote details in Latin on the board, using this time to establish meaning of 10 or so words we were about to read in the book.
I polled the large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers once again, this time on retakes. Retakesaren’t always necessary. However, when we tell a student they can’t redo or retake something, especially if they request it, the message is that it’s OK to not learn the content, or that learning isn’t really a process that matters, or that we get more than one shot at. Students have one chance, on the one day we’ve decided, following the timeline we determined, to show what they know and can do. That’s almost narcissistic, no? How sure are we that we’ve cracked the code of learning and set the perfect date for an assessment? Right…
I’ve sometimes seen retakes referred to as “free passes,” yet the easiest thing we can do is slap a zero on something, tell a student they have to deal with the score they got, maybe followed by “better luck next time,” or shake our head at any redo/retake requests. This actually absolves students from the responsibility of doing anything further, from the actual learning. In such cases, it becomes inequitable NOT to offer redos/retakes. Granted, they still might not be necessary, though, especially if you have a grading system that accounts for continuous learning, etc., but suffice to say that retakes are a good practice, and at times necessary for equity. Retakes are a good idea for anyone averaging all assignments in a category. Those kind of retakes can…”correct”…for the problems associated with lumping every grade together (as seen in this post). But even then, not all retakes are the same.
This was the first large poll that had an overwhelming majority of participants reporting the use of an inequitable practice: optional retakes. That might come as news to some, but this one’s counter-intuitive, so no worries. The next highest number of responses was setting a cut-off for the optional retake, and having no retakes at all. The smallest number of responses went to mandatory retakes—the actual recommended equitable practice—and those who don’t do retakes for various reasons not tied directly to a student’s grade. Let’s unpack all that. But first…
I’m gonna ask readers to pause here and reflect.
I really don’t need to hear right now from anyone getting upset as I share all these best practices that have shown to advance teaching and learning. Don’t take things personally. They’re not. This is a profession, so let’s be professional. This sharing of ideas is done mostly a grassroots thing because teacher education is inadequate and we’ve got some catching up to do, not unlike second language teachers learning well after the fact that input is like 100x more important than any output. Let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of language teachers who were never trained that way, and who still aren’t there yet, either. It follows, then, that we wouldn’t want to be equivalent teachers in the dark about grading, assessing, inequity, and equity. So, if you don’t need to hear about possible inequitable practices you might be using right now—because it’s just too much—that’s fine. Put this on the back-burner and get to it later. Otherwise, let’s look at what makes optional retakes inequitable…
I followed the same format of polling a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on things-inequitable and grading. Of 144 participants, the overwhelming majority grade some kind of reading comprehension without a focus on individual vocab terms. Quizzing vocab (full-out or vocab section of another assessment) isn’t something I recommend doing, especially not grading it. This holds true across all content areas, not just languages. Why? That kind of focus is on the micro level isn’t necessary, and it might just be measuring a student’s short term memory. We don’t need to document any of that, nor is it particularly helpful to know. In Wormeli’s 2018 update to Fair Isn’t Always Equal, one of his principled responses is “avoid test questions that ask only for basic recall of information” (p.14). That makes sense. We can skip insignificant acts of recall and go straight to whatever the vocab is used for—the greater purpose—presumably to read or interact in the target language. That word knowledge is embedded in the greater, more-purposeful task. Why bother with both?!
For my third poll in a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers in this mini-series on inequity and grading, I asked about averaging. A FRACTION of teachers responded this time, with a total of just 80. Compared to the previous poll participants of 585 for late work penalties, and then 625 for homework, I wonder if this is because averaging is something teachers let the gradebook handle without giving it much thought. Most teachers don’t question homework, but they still play a more active role in creating and assigning it, right? Even setting late policies is something teachers…do. Averaging, though? Looks like we might be in a “set it and forget it” situation. The thing is, the gradebook only does what we tell it to (or its default setting), so if we’re not thinking about that, well…
Poll results had the majority (60) doing some kind of averaging. Let’s unpack all that.
Like grades, homework in school is just as expected as yellow buses, questionable cafeteria lunch, rank & file desks, band, and of course, football. Homework is such a part of school culture that it’s hardly given a second thought by the teachers who assign it. I’m sure there’s the following definition somewhere, too:
teacher (n.) = Overqualified and underpaid professional who assigns homework over vacation
Unlike using the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) to illustrate the inequity of late work, the inequity of homework should be self-evident: we cannot monitor student learning, and the home environment—if there is a home—differs from student to student. Some of those environments are conducive to learning, and others not so much. When teachers grade homework, they contribute to keeping those with privilege soaring high while those without get hit with more obstacles. Most teachers not giving homework much thought at least understood how to play the school game (whether or not they did it as students, themselves). Therefore, I’m guessing that the thought of not having a quiet space to do homework, the freedom of not needing to take care of family members, or responsibility of working at the family’s restaurant is questioned by probably just 1% of teachers assigning it. And it’s quite possible that in some communities these situations are completely unheard of. Or, they’re just lurking in the shadows, still there.
For the second week, I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers, this time on their homework grading policies. After about a week, 625 responded. A little under a quarter (139) grade homework one way or another (e.g., completion, rubric, etc.), with the majority of them (109) dropping a zero in the gradebook if not done.
I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on their late work grading policies. After about a week, 585 responded. A little under half (255) apply some kind of penalty, whether work is accepted through the entire grading term, within some window or not at all after its due date. If we look at this practice from the perspective of grading standards (vs. completion, or whatever else), it can shed light on how inequitable late work penalties are…
TLDR; Set up a portfolio in the gradebook to collect evidence that has no direct impact on a student’s grade. I should sound like a broken record for those who have known me for the past decade or so, but it’s an iron-clad solution. Here it is in just four steps: