November Writing Challenges

I’m a big fan of process over product—so much so that I don’t love sharing a bunch of ready-to-go class texts. I’ve been hesitant because the process of creating a text together as a class is more important than teachers having a print-and-go option. Granted, some of those for cultural exploration are available despite strongly encouraging teachers to focus on the process of writing their own. This all goes back to the #ACL100 presentation I gave with John Piazza and John Bracey, with contributions from David Maust. We showed how to do that under a “connect, explore, create” framework. Check out the Slides if you missed them.

Why the fuss? The idea is simple: when teachers don’t know what to do, they take anything pre-made and use it. Sure, this accomplishes one thing, the end, but what about the means? When the point is going through some kind of process that results in those products, it makes sense to focus on supporting teachers honing those skills. This is goal #1 of this post. For goal #2, I’ve been writing Latin using very, very few words, but my students could use more voices than just my own! Latin novellas being published still span quite the range. How about some more books at the lowest of levels?

Writing Challenges
November is time for the national writing month trend, so I thought it’d be a good way to get more teachers writing fewer words of Latin. At first glance, that doesn’t seem right, but what I’m talking about is setting parameters like writing a very short text using 20 unique words. I encourage teachers to use whatever grammar they need to express ideas, especially those that tend to be delayed until “advanced” study. However, sheltering grammar is a lot easier than limiting the number of words used to tell a story. Sheltering vocabulary is a particular skill that gets us the most leverage, but takes some practice. Let’s hone that. Consider this self-directed PD.

So, over the next weeks I’ll be adding some challenges to the Latin teaching community, for the Latin teaching & learning community. Submissions will be anonymous—or not—and the spreadsheet will be shared with everyone to view, copy, and read. That means if 10 Latin teachers each submit a short story using a particular set of words and some parameters, every Latin teacher with the link will have the option of reading any number of them with their classes. The best part? We can reasonably expect the texts to be of a similar level given the parameters. Latin 1 is about to get a whole lot of reading options. Well, maybe. That all depends if you’re up for the challenge!

Challenge #1
Write a short story about an animal using any of the following core verbs and function words:

  • esse, habēre, velle, īre, placēre
  • et, quoque, quia, sed
  • ā/ab, ad, cum, ē/ex, in
  • ergō, iam, nōn, subitō, valdē

Plus, the following additional words (excluding names, and different forms of words), scalable to your challenge level:

BOSS level sheltering: no more than 5 additional words
CONFIDENT level sheltering: no more than 10 additional words
NOOB level sheltering: no more than 15 additional words

Here’s the form for Writing Challenge #1. And here’s where I’ll put the stories once they start rolling in.

FAQs

How do I begin?!
If you’ve never written Latin for the beginner by sheltering vocabulary, start with three basic sentences. From there, fill in some details, and start to repeat words in different combinations of sentences. Break up longer ones into two or more, adding a new detail to each one. Count up everything, then add/remove individual words and sentences to get your story.

What if I use “nunc” instead of “iam?”
Bro, just submit using “iam,” then change your own text by doing a quick ALT+F (or whatever) to replace with words you use, or words your textbook/department forces you to use. Same goes for adapting other contributors’ stories.

How few is too few?
There really isn’t a bottom to this. If you can write a paragraph of Latin using five words from the core/function list and manage to use only two additional words, do it! A very short story using under 10 words is certainly BOSS level sheltering, and it’s gonna be SUPER helpful for beginning Latin readers.

How long?
Good question. A story with the full 34 words that amounts to just four short sentences isn’t gonna help beginning students very much. The key is to recycle words so they come up more than once, twice, thrice, or more! Maybe the result is a full page, big font, with each sentence on its own line. Maybe that’s block text of two to three paragraphs long. Depends your sheltering level. If you do manage to use just 10 of those words, you’re gonna run out of things to say at a certain point.

What kind of additional words?
I have no interest in getting into a semantic debate about any word, whatsoever. If it’s Latin, and appears somewhere, and you could make a reasonable case for using it (but no one’s gonna ask you to do so), use it. If all your students are native French speakers and you want to use 15 other words that look a lot like French ones, please do. Remember, anyone who contributes can grab any story and adapt it however they see fit. I might take your uber-Classical vocab and riddle it with late-Latin. Your choice & my choice.

Weekly Work & Automatic Grades

Anyone who’s looked at a cluttered gradebook at the end of the term knows the feeling of “gee, I guess we didn’t need to do all that.” The gradebook should contain evidence of learning to show growth, and result in a course grade. We really only need 10-15 pieces of evidence per quarter to do that. That is, 40-60 for the whole year is plenty. Here’s how to get evidence of what students have been doing, as well as a weekly score for each student with a process that’s completely managed by students themselves!

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The 1-Class CALP & Comprehensible Content-Based Instruction (CCBI)

At iFLT 2019, Martina Bex presented on content-based instruction (CBI), only with an important caveat you’d expect from the conference: a focus on comprehension, hence CCBI. I was delighted to see how similar her three steps were to the framework I’ve been developing with John Bracey, David Maust, and John Piazza, which we presented at ACL’s Centennial Institute. Martina uses slightly different terms taken from Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe the same process we’re using (hers on the left, ours on the right):

Knowledge = Connect
Comprehension = Explore
Analysis/Synthesize = Create

Martina’s presentation showed how simple the process can be, making the concept of teaching Roman content in Latin more approachable. How? The format she shared was for a single class. Of course, the idea is not to teach random new content every day, but instead to have each day’s content within a larger unit, but still, this “bite-sized” approach feels more manageable for anyone looking to teach content in the target language. So how does that differ from the unit template the John’s and I shared at ACL?

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Writing Requires Focus: Weekly MGMT Sheets

**See these examples of how weekly sheets have been used**

I’ve known for some time that ending class with Write & Discuss is a great way to focus students’ attention on the target language. I’ve also known that a simple dictation is pacifying, albeit boring (hence why I think I’ve done only one of these this year). Both of these activities require students to write, and both of these activities are nearly distraction-free because students have a writing task to do. It comes as no surprise, then, that we should be using writing as a MGMT tool…

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Admin-Friendly Sneaky Input Activities

Here are 4 sneaky activities that don’t seem like input at first glance. I call them “admin-friendly” because when there’s conflict over providing CI, it’s usually someone in a position of power who just wants to see the kind of schoolwork that makes more sense/is familiar to them. Unfortunately, that kind of observable schoolwork is output, or something completely non-communicative, or not even in the target language. I must admit that these 4 activities appear output-heavy, but they aren’t, so pay attention…

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Input-Based Strategies & Activities

**Updated 5.24.22**
**Here’s the list of older ones I haven’t used in a while**

When choosing the class agenda beyond the Talk & Read format, it dawned on me years ago that I couldn’t remember all my favorite activities. Thus, here are the input-based strategies & activities I’ve collected, all in one place, and that I currently use (see older ones above). Everything is organized by pre-, dum-, and post- timing. You won’t find prep-intensive activities here beyond typing, copying, and cutting paper. Oh, and for ways to get that one text to start, try here. Enjoy!

**N.B. Any activity with the word “translation” in it means translating what is already understood. This should NOT be confused with the more conventional practice of translating in order to understand.**

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Required Homework: A Prep-Free Solution

My go-to homework is to read/reread a text from class. This is largely the honor system, banking on students finding the text compelling. There are those who want to see EVIDENCE that reading took place, though. Under such conditions, I don’t really want to hold a reading quiz the next day in order to catch and trap students who had too much Science the night before. Thus, I need a solution…

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HQ (High-Quantity) Reading & Pisoverse Vocab

One Second Language Acquisition (SLA) idea is that teachers mostly control only the quantity and quality of input—the sine qua non of language acquisition—with the learner’s internal syllabus acting as a major constraint. Conventionally, Latin teachers have been preoccupied with quality of Latin over quantity, which is likely the opposite of how to acquire a language! Furthermore, quality* has different interpretations, especially concerning its comprehensibility.

Recently, John Piazza has been promoting HQ (High-Quantity) Reading—of texts students understand—on the Latin Best Practices Facebook group, and with good reason. Blaine Ray’s recommendation is reading 32 pages a week (half in school, half at home) beginning in the 3rd year, which is quite the challenge for a profession lacking a high quantity of understandable reading material (i.e. texts written with a reasonable number of words, and NOT what some consider appropriate texts)! Right now, there are a couple of ways Latin teachers are working towards that goal…

1) Novellas
2) Writing personalized texts

There are about 17 novellas written with sheltered vocabulary for the beginning student, which I’ve been updating on a list, here. These novellas are ready-to-go sources of more understandable input than has ever been available in the past, offering thousands of Latin words for students to read in compelling contexts. As an author of some of those texts, I can share some stats. At this point in the Pisoverse, there are 4 novellas, and 2 readers. This winter, there will be a 5th novella of 58 unique words, which will end up being the longest in the Pisoverse at over 3000 total words! These 8 texts are written with just 300 unique words across them all—a reasonable amount for students to understand by their third year, no doubt containing some new words (because high-frequency is context-dependent). The total word count of these 8 texts is over 16,600. That’s a lot of Latin—twice as much, in fact, since this past October! So, the Pisoverse alone is just one huge source towards the 32 pages/wk goal in the third year. Approx. half of that Latin is available completely free for projecting/printing on each publication’s blog post,which you can find on the Novellas tab.

The other option is to write personalized texts for your own students. Here, “personalized” could mean texts based on details learned in class about the students themselves, or adapted ancient texts on topics that students are interested in. Writing personalized texts for your students daily is one way to provide copious amounts of CI. This is a high-leverage practice, and doubles as the least expensive option (yes, novellas are inexpensive, but 5 copies of all current 17 could run $500. This is quite low when it comes to classroom resources, yet remains a hard sell in underfunded programs in which teachers haven’t yet advocated for text budgets like ELA courses). So, writing personalized texts is one inexpensive way to provide the most comprehensible reading material, yet it also might require ditching some practices teachers ASSUME they must do, yet contribute very little to acquisition:
  • Instead of creating worksheets…
  • Instead of designing a 1-2 page quiz…
  • Instead of grading quizzes at home, or during planning time…
  • Instead of creating a translating activity…

…write personalized texts daily for your students!

Not sure where to begin when it comes to writing for the Novice? Read this, this, and this!

*Quality is usually synonymous with Latīnitās, which will be debated ad nauseum, ad inferōs, and beyond, yet another take on quality of input is in the richness and clarity of meaning. The ancient unadapted short sentences found in “Wheelock’s” and “Learn to Read Latin” textbooks hold very little meaning for the beginning student—not to mention some degree-holders—which calls into question the quality of input if only few can understand that level of Latīnitās. After all, even the best examples of single-sentence Ciceronian Latin can be meaningless to most! Quality, then, can be seen as messages that hold a great deal of meaning, and not just messages of a particular style consistent with great ancient authors.