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.
Considering how impersonal the year felt, the responses from this end-of-year survey support an early prediction many of us had that learning and growth/development would take place this year after all, though certainly different from what we’ve expected in the past. To be clear, “learning loss” is a myth, and you should stop anyone trying to talk about that dead in their tracks. You simply cannot lose what you never had in the first place. It was a talking point used to get kids into schools ASAP, and nothing more. If students, or even just their learning were truly the priority, the conversation would be about improving living conditions for families at the societal level, as well as fully-funding our public schools.
Anyway, let’s start with the first question on my mind: grading. I’ve settled on the system after experience with a LOT of different ones, but what about students? The open-ended responses explaining what kind of grading students preferred are quite genuine. Scroll through the slideshow to see:
I continue to claim that teachers have the most positive impact on learning when there’s ample time to reflect and prepare. It sounds basic, but this isn’t reality for most. Ideally, for every class hour taught, there should be at least 30min prep time, and bonus if it’s 1:1 (e.g. teach four classes, have four hours to plan, every day). This probably sounds insane, but only because most teachers have been working insane schedules. It’s unhealthy. Most teachers put up with the madness of something like one guaranteed prep period a day, etc., which leaves them kind of screwed if they teach more than one course, which is almost everyone, especially teachers of less-commonly taught languages (LCTL) who prep all levels as a department of one. No wonder there hasn’t been much innovation in education, there’s no time for it! The solution? First of all, teachers should streamline their practices so they don’t waste that precious time doing something like grading, or giving the same feedback over and over that students won’t read, or pretending their code system will make any difference. Beyond that, it takes adequate funding to hire more teachers. That should be a reasonable ask, and is just one of the many reasons why I’m supporting John Bracey as NEA Director in the runoff, who’s vying for fully-funded public schools in Massachusetts among other crucial fights. It’s ridiculous this even has to be part of any campaign at all, right? Fully-funded public education should be the unquestionable foundation of society, period. Vote Bracey. He’ll get that job done.
Anyway, I’ve finally made it to a point in my career where in these last weeks I get everything ready for the fall. I’ve been close to accomplishing that in the past, but there’s always been this August calendar event I set up that goes something like “read this, review that, create this, think about that,” yet there’s usually no time, even for someone like me hyperaware of prep time. Guess what? I already did all that stuff, and consolidated the ideas into this one post so the work is truly done to start 2021-22.
Posters I sat in the middle of the room, looked around as if I were a student, and updated every poster that was hard to read. Really, what’s the point of having them if kids can’t see them?! Most are now on 11×17 at 120-pt font, with 80-pt English given below the Latin. Clarity is key, and so is comprehension. I’ll be pointing to these posters a LOT to establish meaning, and then even more when cuing it. I’ve also took down posters I couldn’t remember using. Some posters are nice in concept, but I’m just not gonna refer to fractions in Latin, etc. Also, I’ve redesigned my numbers, and put up my “who needs a boost” and “what would you like?” The latter are actually my first new practices I’ll have to be mindful of, which deserves a number, and bold color to draw attention when I check back in here come August. 1) Use Boosts & Quid velīs?
quālitātēs Since the cognate list has grown to over 700 words, I updated quālitātēsto have *only* cognates, and dropped the English. There are 19 pages with about 160 words organized by positive, neutral, and negative adjectives. My plan is to show students how much Latin they probably already understand, while at the same time introduce English words not in their vocabulary. For example, diabolicum is just too good of a word to avoid using (any fans of The Boys out there?). I’m also going to use these lists more deliberately, like when we describe characters during storytelling. This is another new practice. 2) Use quālitātēs.
PasswordNow “Weekly Word(s)“ This one’s simple. I used to stop students at the door requiring a rotating class password (but really for a quick check-in), and I wouldn’t let them in if they forgot the password. It was kinda fun except for when it wasn’t. The update is a reframing. No passwords, just weekly words now, but I’ll use the same words/phrases that went over well in the past. The very first one has always been “salvē!” which makes sense. However, I’m adding “…sum [___]” to the end so I get to hear how students pronounce their own name for a week. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought of this sooner!
DEA (Daily Engagement Agreements)Now “Look, Listen, Ask“ The update to collecting gradebook evidence that now has a weekly focus on Look, Listen, and Ask means I won’t need to refer to these the way I used to. I’m not even gonna mention the word “rule.” Also, it’s a good thing I wrote about this, because I hadn’t made that Google Form yet. Check! 3) Use new form to collect gradebook evidence on focus areas.
TPR Wall I’ve never really had much success with Total Physical Response, and haven’t been around students who like to act during collaborative storytelling either (i.e. so no TPRS for me). I’ve just removed all expectations (hopes?) for these things. It’s not the culture here. I’m not gonna force it. Therefore, I cleared up a whole wall that had TPR words, and moved the Look, Listen, and Ask posters over there.
Digital Fluency Write/Timed Write Form I’ve been having students type Latin into a Google Form, then count up their words (responses from each class section all link to the same spreadsheet). It turns out there’s a formula =IF(C2=””,””,COUNTA(SPLIT(C2,” “))) that takes care of the counting. Drop it into a column in the spreadsheet, and you’re all set. Check out how close it comes to students counting one-by-one! I still review the student’s writing and adjust for only Latin words & names in that last column, but the formula skips the step of students counting—and miscounting—after writing.
Eval I’ve been using timed writes for years to show growth. However, I haven’t been totally happy with the measurements used in the teacher evaluation goal setting. For example, if it’s by percentage, some students have increased their word count 1250%, while others by just 5%. If it’s by total word count, some students are writing 89 words, while others are still writing 10. If it’s by word increase, some students have written 74 more words than their first, and others just one or two. Regardless of the measurement, some students start writing a LOT right away, and don’t make much progress because most are just in that plateau of hanging out at Novice High or something. Therefore, I need a more variable goal that takes into account all these situations based on an average of the first three writing samples:
Under 10 will double. 10-30 will increase by 50%. Over 30 will increase by 25%.
Also, I’ll have to get writing samples early on within a few weeks (not months) so I have a more accurate baseline. I’m also adding two new practices to help increase comprehension when reading, lead to acquisition, and result in higher output. These are alternating between 4) Code-switched Readings and Facing English in addition to full glossaries. Every text will include at least one of these three supports.
Activities **Update: In particular, I’m gonna be sure to start with Card Talk Stories. This could be 4.5.** Due to remote teaching, I haven’t had much experience with a lot of things on my lists of input-based strategies & activities, and how to get texts. Therefore, I’m not ready to ditch any of them. Also, we’ll have more classes in what should be a more typical year, so I might need to draw from those lists to keep things novel. In particular, I’m thinking of varying reading activities considerably more. So, I’ll be sure to consult the lists when planning. 5) Check lists, weekly.
Syllabus/Learning Plan For the first time ever in my teaching career, I had the opportunity to review the entire year’s class agendas! I thought I’d end up with a long list of activities and a rough sequence for the year, but no. First of all, I don’t plan more than a day or two in advance, and certainly not more than a week out. Second of all, it turns out I already did some of that work when creating my core practices! However, until I’m familiar with the whole teaching thing next fall—because I DO forget how to teach, every single year—I’ll make it a point to review all those practices: 6) Check out core practices, weekly. Still, looking back at the entire year’s class agendas was helpful. Hands down, I’m keeping “hodiē,” the one doc I open each day and work from, for organization (although I’ll be created a new Google Classroom assignment each week to better help students keep track). Here are some other routines and ideas I found from reviewing the agendas that I want to make sure I include next year:
A basic Talk & Read format to each class
Start class with date + something else to copy into notebook (statement, story, excerpt, etc.)
Use digital class libraries (only print for certain activities)
Summary So, here I am. There’s a LOT of stuff in this one post to review come August. After all, I plan to take a full summer break. No PD. No posts?! Maybe. Who knows, but having all my work done in order to set up next year’s success feels real good, and maybe the consolidated resources will help you, too.
I got thinking about what I’d say my core practices were if anyone wanted to learn more about CI and get an overview of what comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) looks like. Would it be a list of 10? Could I get that down to five? Might it be better to prioritize some practices like the top 5, 8, and 16 verbs (i.e. quaint quīnque, awesome octō, and sweet sēdecim)? Would I go specific, with concrete activities? Or, would I go broad and global, starting with principles and ideas?
I highly recommend that you do this just as an exercise during a planning period this week, making a quick list of your core practices. Doing so required me to sort out a few things in the process, and helped organize and align my practices to certain principles. Of course, terms and definitions can get tricky, here. I just saw that Reed Riggs and Diane Neubauer refer to “instructional activities (IA),” which covers a lot of what goes on in the classroom. It’s a good term. I’m using “practices” in a similar way to refer to many different methods, strategies, techniques, and activities that all fall under a CCLT approach, as well as general “teacher stuff” I find to be core as well.
Another reason for this post is that I’ve seen the “CI umbrella” graphic shared before, but that doesn’t quite fit with my understanding of things. Rather than practices falling under a CI umbrella, I envision CI instead as the result of practices under the umbrella of CCLT. I also consider such an approach a defense against incomprehensibility—the first obstacle that needs to be removed—and I thought a more aggressive graphic of a “CI shield” might best represent that.
Not every teacher shares how well their students are doing—probably out of fear of being criticized—and I don’t blame them one bit. This data is often kept under lock and key, so it’s hard to get a sense of whether all the talk amounts to something. SPOILER ALERT: it does. The reports I’ve seen on how well students have been doing under a…NOT…grammar-translation approach tend to attribute success in different ways, though. Today, I’m looking at two such programs to see if we can narrow down what contributes success:
69% of Latin V students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
Focus on reading
Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
Uses LLPSI (Lingua Latina per se Illustrata)
Uses novellas & other sources of input
Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat) when students ask
CI is necessary, but not sufficient for acquisition
Extensive interaction is most important
64% of Latin IV students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
Focus on reading
Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
Uses novellas & other sources of input
Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs =cat)
CI is necessary, and sufficient for acquisition
Interaction is important
The results are very close by the end of each program, and there’s definitely more in common than not, but what isn’t in common makes for differently-enough teaching and learning environments. Both are just as successful, but what can we attribute that success to? Let’s look into those differences a bit more…
We’ve noticed that asking questions online takes a looooooooooong time. Whether it’s processing the question (in Latin) and coming up with a response, or tech delays like unmuting and typing into chat, there are definitely obstacles to this most basic way to engage students. Here are some solutions…
I’ve written about establishing meaning not once, not twice, but thricebefore today. It is perhaps the most fundamental equitable practice a language teacher can use to provide input. There really is no discussion here—a student must understand the input (CI). That’s step zero. So, the teacher must tell students what words mean! The only discussion lies in how teachers establish meaning. This discussion doesn’t have to be complicated, either, yet it has turned into a debate that keeps cycling ’round and ’round. At the heart of the debate you’ll find two perspectives on how to establish meaning…
“Hence, if someone does not have a natural faculty of memory, this practice cannot be used to unearth one…” – Cicero (de Oratore 3.560), trans. James May in How To Win An Argument, 2016
OK fine, the grammar-translation (GT) method has been used for a few hundred years. It’s still the dominant practice for teaching Latin, and widely known. However, what is there to the method, really? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it turns out the method is quite simple. GT actually consists of presenting students with textbook grammar rules they apply to words in order to understand the target language. As a method, then, teachers present rules, but what is GT—really—for the student?
I posit that the entirety of GT can be reduced to memorizing. This makes it less a method, and more just a process. Students listen to or read about textbook grammar rules, and then recall and apply those rules in order to derive meaning. To be clear, this is a fairly complex way to arrive at step zero—establishing meaning. With GT, students not only must do this for themselves, such as consulting dictionaries and grammar notes, which accounts for a lot of “the work,” but the conscious process requires a decent amount of cognitive demand. Actual interpretive communication, on the other hand, either listening or reading, is an implicit, unconscious process, and effortless. In order to effortlessly apply textbook grammar rules while also recalling word meanings, though, a very good, if not uncanny memory, is required. Memory, then, is both paramount to student success with the GT method, as well as something we have no control over…