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Welcome to the Inclusive Latin Classroom

Welcome to ILC!  We are a group of Latin teachers from all over the United States, colleagues and friends, veterans, mid-career and new to the profession.  Between us, we teach Latin in middle schools, high schools, and universities. We all have in common that we have embraced the theories and practices that make up Comprehensible Input.  We are clear that teaching Latin with CI has the power to create an inclusive classroom where all kinds of learners are welcome and capable of progress in the language.

We all want to be better at what we do, delivering the Latin language in understandable messages that are compelling for the success of all kinds of learners.  We know that means continually growing as teachers. We invite you to follow us and to join us here each week to reflect on the issues that face us.

Rachel Ash                                 Miriam Patrick
Justin Slocum Bailey                Bob Patrick
Kevin Ballestrini                       Lance Piantaggini
John Bracey                                John Piazza
David Maust                               Keith Toda

 

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ALL KINDS of Learners–Part 3

This is the last of a 3 part series offered this week.

Recently I was talking with a colleague and friend in the math department of my school about what  I’ve written in this blog series.  He remarked at one point:  “Oh, sure.  It’s like teaching math these days as if STILL only 1% of the student population is going to show up in our classes KNOWING that 100% of them have to take the math we are teaching.  And still that’s exactly what many do.” We are not alone in this struggle to teach for ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS.

There’s another force to contend with: the snare of local and state laws that require certain things of us in the way of testing that make some in our number feel that they cannot do anything but the traditional program. Here’s what we know: You simply cannot plan language acquisition on a calendar, e.g. will master the first two declensions and conjugations by the second week of October. Instead, what we typically do is write “will have been introduced to the first two declensions and conjugations by the second week of October” where “introduced to” becomes “I covered” and “you didn’t study hard enough.”  In these cases, the difficulty of what we can do becomes only more difficult, but I maintain that with enough collaboration and creativity, we can may ways to work around these institutional obstacles so that we fulfill the law but maintain good language acquisition practices.  I also readily acknowledge that there are some districts where the legal clamps in place will simply kill programs despite what the teacher may want to do.  That’s a justice issue of another kind.

We CAN teach Latin in a way that focuses on acquiring the language first.  When we do that, ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS will make progress.  All can be rather easily successful.  Down the road, we can teach them some grammar rules that will help them in their writing.  If we want them to read better, understand better, write better and speak better Latin, we can give them Latin that they can easily understand.  It’s that simple, and it’s that demanding.

Why is it demanding?  Our own reality stands in the way–besides the previously mentioned obstacles:

1. Most of us have not ever actually acquired the language that we “teach.” That’s not an accusation.  It’s an observation of fact. Most of us, because we are elite learners, did acquire the language to some minimal degree just by forcing ourselves to stick with the grammar program.  Even Stephen Krashen acknowledges that for the self-driven learner, a grammar program will yield up the occasional comprehensible input. When that happens, acquisition takes place.  But it’s not enough to make us feel confident in our use of Latin as a language of communication.  A well educated enthusiastic teacher told me once:  “I know how to form the imperative, but I have no idea what to do with it in the classroom.”  Making these changes can be personally terrifying.  It’s not what we thought we were signing up for.

2. We are learning to speak Latin years after we learned the grammar rules, and so we suffer under our own processes.  For us, the affective filter will always be a little too high, and our language monitors will always be on overkill.  I watch with sadness how we treat each other at times with the otherwise new, highly creative and incredibly fun wave of novellas that are coming out at our own hands.  The rush of Latin teachers to criticize the “Latinitas” they find or don’t find in these novellas is a painful demonstration of what “learning all your grammar first” can do to us. (NB I am not saying that Latinitas is something to be rejected.  I am noting how a concern for it diminishes creative efforts, creates animosity and obscures what could be collaboration–which is what happens when one’s monitor is over-developed.) Latin teachers have monitors on steroids, and it’s not healthy for us as a teaching community.

3. The Latin speaking immersion programs that have proliferated over the years (in which I have participated and from which I have benefited), actually work on a grammar-translation base and appeal to elite learners. That’s such an enigma.  We go to these events to become better hearers, readers and speakers of Latin (maybe better writers, too), and yet every immersion Latin program that I know of requires that participants “know all their grammar” as a pre-requisite for the program (though there are signs that some of that is beginning to change).  The implication is that you cannot understand, read, speak or write Latin unless you know all your grammar.  We KNOW that this is not how languages are acquired by normal human beings.

Here’s what we can do that will make a difference–invite all kinds of learners into our programs and help them be successful:

1. Make the delivery of understandable Latin–what we say to them, and the reading we put in front of them–our main focus.
2. Make sure that the content of that understandable Latin is compelling to them.  We must work hard to know our audiences.
3. Keep vocabulary for the four years or five years we teach them well contained, high frequency vocabulary, and use whatever grammar we need to create interesting conversations and readings.
4. Teach them the grammar they need when it arises in the early years, and more directly in the later years.
5. Never test them on the grammar that we are teaching them.  Grammar is only retained when used often, and that is the test.  Help them use grammar that they need to prepare their own writing and formal speaking.  If you are not having them do formal writing and speaking, then grammar is not much of an issue as long as we, the teachers and Latin experts in the room, are using good grammar.

I know that that last item will be difficult for many to swallow.  Passing a grammar test for any language proves nothing except that the test taker is good at cramming material before a test.  This is not a certamen contest.  This is not a contest at all.  This is about acquiring a language that is on the verge of disappearing from our schools entirely.  We don’t have time to play around with what works and what doesn’t.  We know that a grammar translation approach does not work to help ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS acquire the language.  The real justice issue, then, is how to move on from what we know, to what we need to do for the survival of the language and inclusion of ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS in our program.  It comes down to this:  if we don’t turn our attention to the kinds of learners we have never appealed to, what we do will disappear.  What we have to offer is good for all student’s, isn’t it?  And their presence in our programs will breathe new life into the very existence of our programs.

A few years ago after I made a presentation at the then APA on CI and TPRS in the Latin classroom, a former mentor of mine approached me with real interest in this work.  I made the remark that I felt that if we didn’t make these kinds of changes in the way we teach Latin–across the board–that fifty years from now, Latin might disappear from our cultural and academic landscape. He stepped back with a surprised look on his face.  “Fifty years?  We don’t have fifty years.  We are lucky if we have twenty.”

Mine is a plebeian appeal.  We know how human beings acquire language.  It requires understandable messages in the language about things that are compelling.  We are sitting on a literary treasury unlike any other in the world.  We can die with it in our elite learning circles, or we can make it available to ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS.  The ones who are not like us.  In ways that work for them.  There are several justice issues here: what’s good for Latin; what’s good for our culture; what’s good for normal learners.  Pick one if you must.  I propose that the solutions are the same for all.

Bob Patrick

Posted in CI Mission

ALL KINDS of Learners–Part 2

This is the second part of a 3 part series offered this week.

In yesterday’s post (which you can read here) I outlined what seems to me to be the perfect storm in our Latin teaching in the US.  Unwittingly, we do the very things that ensure Latin remains small and dying and prevent it from getting into the hands and minds of ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS.

In our current world of high tech and high stakes testing, even fewer of those elite learners are drawn to Latin and other languages.  In the 2016 report of the MLA, all languages taught in the US saw a drop in enrollments, but Latin and Ancient Greek were the highest losses.  We teachers, elite learners ourselves, no longer seem to be able to convince even other elite learners to follow us down the classics trail, and with our traditional methods, non-elite learners have “learned” that Latin is not for them. They learn that because our colleagues in our institutions all think that Latin is too hard for normal learners.  Even the cashiers at the grocery store, when they see my name tag comment with “oh, Latin is hard.”  They all know about the program we have helped perpetuate.  Latin is too hard for normal people, so normal students, much less students with learning disabilities, won’t consider Latin an option.

And yet, normal students, average learners, students who don’t love to read, who stop breathing at the mention of grammar, who come from a variety of home situations and an even larger variety of ethnic backgrounds are quite capable of acquiring a language, even Latin.  Latin is not different.  I am often amazed at the number of people who want to argue about that.  Once they’ve made their arguments, what they have actually argued is that Latin must be the focus of elite learning circles and that’s why it’s different.

Latin is a language.  It has a large body of literature which most of us agree (even when we agree on nothing else) is why learning Latin is worth the effort–to access that literature on its own terms.  If that is the case, do we not want ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS to access this rich literature?  If our answer is anything but yes, then we have to consider what it is that we are actually trying to protect.  I have never heard anyone admit that they don’t want all kinds of learners accessing Latin literature. I do often hear them resisting any change to how they understand teaching and learning Latin. As I listen to Latin teachers argue for not changing things, these are some of the things I hear them defending.

1)  The tradition of how we teach feels comfortable to us. The cadre of teachers who are ourselves elite learners is one that we enjoy belonging to. We don’t want to lose our membership in this comfortable and supportive circle of people who love what we love. I am very sympathetic to this need to belong and be supported. Taking the approaches that I have often have meant giving this up for myself, and that is painful.

2) It might be that we are hedging against the hard work we have to do to learn to teach Latin as a language in ways that work best.  There are best practices that work for Latin and for ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS.  A growing number of us have been sharing those for over a decade now, and we are clear that it’s hard work to make the shift from grammar-translation to comprehensible input.  Workshops are proliferating at various conferences in which we teach each others how to help ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS acquire Latin.  The result of that is a growing number of teachers stepping outside of the comfortable circle of elite learners, and they are all finding out how difficult this is.  Anyone who pretends that leaving grammar-translation behind for CI and other best practices is easy is not being honest.  It’s hard, and it can be scary.

3) It might be something more sinister–some notion that Latin belongs only to white, affluent people.  No one will admit that and way too many white people want to argue about this.  That very knee jerk reaction ought to give us pause, but it doesn’t yet. What if, in the recesses of our experiences, there is something of truth that needs the light of day shown on it? The truth is that NONE of us has escaped being infected and affected by the system of white supremacy. So, how do we bring that, unwittingly, to our classrooms?  I want to know.  I desperately need to know how I bring that infection and affect into my classroom because most of my students are of Color.  They suffer enough without having to suffer me in self-ignorance.

Part 3 will appear tomorrow.
Bob Patrick

 

Posted in CI Mission

ALL KINDS of Learners–Part 1

(This blog post will appear in 3 parts over the next three days)

I have found over the years in doing Comprehensible Input work, creating classrooms and a whole program based on CI, that there is a motivational feature that I simply cannot assume everyone understands or shares with me. That motivating factor is this:  to ensure that ALL KINDS OF LEARNERS are able to make progress in Latin.

In 2011, I made an address to a gathering at SALVI’s summer Rusticatio.  The title of my address was Latin is Not Different. For several years it was featured on the SALVI website (you can read it here if you wish). I tried to articulate publicly what had been a growing realization for me at the time. The Grammar-Translation approach which has dominated Latin teaching for decades if not centuries by now and which has been each of our experiences who teach has worked along some other realities to make sure that Latin belongs only to the realm of elite learners.  Consider these points which are incredibly short summaries of much longer discussions and research:

1. There is no evidence to support that human beings actually acquire languages through studying the grammar, memorizing vocabulary and translating the second language into the first language.  By “acquire” I mean the ability to read and hear the language with direct understanding without the interference of or mediation of the native language. There is plenty of research that shows just the opposite.

2. Latin teachers and classicists are those elite learners who have “learned Latin” this way.  I include several features in the categorization of “elite learners.”  They (we–I am one of them) are those students who demonstrate over time that they are good at academics.  They receive high marks in general, are acclaimed by their teachers and schools with awards for learning, high GPA’s and scholarships.  They often come from affluent or at least very stable homes where winning at the education game was a reinforced message.  They are often white.  I include this issue because white people have simply had more and uninterrupted access to those who teach, to books and libraries, and they (we–I am white) have over centuries created a culture that serves them first above others.  Look at any gathering of Latin teachers or classicists at the number of People of Color.  In my life time, I have been at many where there were NO People of Color.  Finally, I cannot prove it with data, but I guess that elite learners are also often people with higher than average IQ’s.  They routinely report loving to read, loving grammar, and loving languages–all linguistic and language practices that accompany higher than average IQ’s.

3. Latin teachers, then, go to work and put together lessons and build programs that look like what they have experienced.  In other words, without even having to think about it, Latin teachers create Latin programs for more elite learners.  Even in inner city “charter schools” where the targeted audience are children of Color who do not fit the description above of elite learners, I feel sometimes like they are attempting to create a new wave of elite learners.  Those who are admitted (whether by screening or by lottery) will go to school longer, all take Latin from day one, receive extra tutoring at lunch and after school, take the National Latin Exam, join the Certamen team, etc.  These are all features of elite learning circles.  If the Latin teacher is energetic and creative along with a dash of charisma, the Latin program will sustain itself with a flow of elite learners.  If not, or if the Latin teacher moves, or becomes burned out, or retires–often the difficulty of finding someone to maintain the elite learning circle is too much, and schools shut down Latin programs.

Systematically, over time this drive to recreate elite learning programs with Latin will result in the loss of Latin from our academic and cultural landscape.

See Part 2 tomorrow.
Bob Patrick

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Dealing with Vergil – A New Hero?

In my last post “The Inclusivity of Latin? Part II”, I discussed a few different authors I had looked at in a new way, considering the question of inclusivity. Today I’d like to look at Vergil. I want to start by saying that I am not disparaging the traditional way of looking at any of these authors, but rather, considering the ways we can use what we have to create a more inclusive classroom. One way we can (or rather should) do that, is by not furthering the white supremacist system of whitewashing Roman history, literature, etc. In this and subsequent posts, I’d like to provide a starting place for teachers who would like to consider these classics/classical stories from another perspective.

Vergil’s Aeneid  – The Story of Dido

  • The Story – Consider what part of the story you are going to use. Consider providing background information as well. For my Latin I’s, we read the backstory of Dido including her husband’s death to set the stage for the type of queen she’d be. Often, when Vergil is read, this is glossed over or discussed in a lecture. If we discuss it as part of her story and as equally important as her relationship with Aeneas, we give her depth and make her – as a woman and as a woman of colour – equally important to Aeneas.
  • Qualities/character – This is a great opportunity to bring in the ideas of virtus and pietas. These questions are great for discussion and help give a clear image of Roman vs. non Roman. Bearing in mind proto-racism, the discussion of Dido can take a turn that is compelling, comprehensible, and caring for students. When we consider Dido as her own person, rather than as a stopping place or “character building” experience for Aeneas, it is clear how rich and deep her own tale is. My students connected with her and were moved by her story. Yes, Aeneas will very likely come off as arrogant and as a not great guy. This is okay. They can learn plenty about his heroism in AP. You may consider, however, whether he truly shows virtus and pietas, especially when Dido is considered as her own person.
  • Images – When considering what images you will use to show Dido, I strongly recommend using ones that are true or closer to what she might have looked like. Dido’s background may have some debate or discussion with it, but she would not have been a white or western European woman. You may need to look outside the typically accepted canon of images (i.e. outside of statues, renaissance paintings, etc.). Look for amateur artwork that protrays her as a woman of colour. There is a fair amount of modern artwork or digital artwork that one could use for this. Avoid images where she is wearing typical Roman garb if you can.

I will say a few final words on how this unit continues to play a role in my class.

  1. Students considered Dido’s character from a strong female perspective. We considered her story and her decisions free from Aeneas, although we did discuss Venus and Iuno’s role.
  2. Anna was part of her story as well (as she should be). Later (as will be discussed in my next post), Anna came up again in Hannibal’s story – also as an independent female character who took on Iuno and demanded things from her.
  3. We have continued our discussion of qualities, including virtus and pietas. Dido’s story is brought up frequently when we discuss these and others.

I’d love to hear your questions about this type of unit! How have you made Latin, in itself, more inclusive in your choices of literature, images, and discussion?

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Comprehension Checks

One way to keep the Latin classroom inclusive is checking student comprehension, and doing so often.

Comp checks occur a) when responding to non-verbal cues from students (see Miriam’s Teaching to the Eyes), or b) asking questions in case students are falling through the cracks in larger classes, or just not self-advocating when Latin isn’t clear. The basic comp check questions we ask are in English:

  • “What does X mean?”
  • “What did I just say?”
  • “Did I just say that…”
  • “What did I just ask?”
  • “Did I just ask whether…”

You might want to check comprehension for other reasons, such as engaging the student who appears unfocused. Often, a comp check shows that the student was indeed listening, and does understand, but not always. Comp checks, then, are an additional tool for classroom management (MGMT).

When we check comprehension, keep in mind that we shouldn’t expect a precise 1 to 1 Latin –> English translation, especially when we ask our slowest processors. If they mix up persons, tenses, or leave out anything that isn’t a big content word holding meaning, they’re right on track. Research suggests that each time we encounter a word in a meaningful context we acquire about 5% of the meaning of the word (Nagy, Herman and Anderson, 1985), so the “gist” during a comp check is just fine.

Safe Comp Check
When it comes to our slowest processors, we can honor their internal syllabus by checking their comprehension often, yet without always calling attention to them. One strategy is to do the comp check on the student NEXT TO the one giving you a non-verbal cue of not comprehending. The slowest processor who didn’t understand will have meaning clarified without being called out.

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The Value of Student Feedback

Teaching inclusively in a language classroom tends to look much different from what’s typically expected. This makes sense, considering that conventional practices are based on teaching subject matter, not languages. In fact, most programs even train teachers to teach language only as subject matter to be learned. This must change, but for now serves as the main  reason behind so much misunderstanding.

Last year, the principal first visited my classroom in December to have the only discussion about my teaching since school began. Needless to say, my teaching was not what was expected. There were even doubts as to whether my practices were having a positive effect. I certainly knew they were, but as a teacher in a new school I had very little influence. I figured that student testimonials would be enough to support and validate what was going on. They did. Here are the two prompts I asked students to respond to:

1) This year’s Latin class is different from other language classes you’ve had in the past. What are some things we’ve been doing to help you learn? 

2) What are some things we could change to help you learn better?

In class, I often make statements distinguishing between “knowing about” a language (i.e. learning subject matter), and “knowing” a language (i.e. acquiring). Since the prompts were student-friendly, however, I didn’t bother with the learning/acquisition distinction. Here’s the first response to start unpacking:

Untitled

Notice how this student has already had a negative Latin experience “only learning through the textbook.” Some students with that experience drop Latin as soon as they can. This particular student probably decided to take Latin in order to fulfill college entry requirements, and didn’t expect to be so successful. I’m glad they were surprised! Also note how this student recognizes the benefit of higher exposure to fewer words (i.e. shelter vocabulary). A more common term is “repetition,” but that can be misunderstood to result in drill-like practice, or just lead teachers astray in what the actual goal is of providing multiple exposures to fewer words.

Although the second prompt was designed to elicit criticism of current practices, this student’s response actually supports what’s going on by asking for increase in use of one of them! In fact, nearly every student responded this way to the second prompt. I like how this student values our short Brain Breaks. They are important, but often neglected. If more teacher’s could feewhat it’s like to learn a new language again, we’d be in better shape.

There’s a lot we can learn from what our students say about teaching inclusively, so I intend to unpack more student feedback. In this first post, we’ve seen the following practices used to teach inclusively:

  1. Stop teaching Latin only as subject matter to be learned
  2. Untextbooking
  3. Sheltering Vocabulary
  4. Using Brain Breaks
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Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student”

I hear this phrase a lot.

Many language teachers lament about staying after school to help a “struggling student,” that a student is “struggling” with grammar point X, or that they have a group of “struggling students” in their second year, Spanish 2 class, etc.. When it comes to language acquisition, however, there’s no struggling going on, at all. Bill VanPatten recently had something similar to say on Tea With BVP Live From OFLA (Episode 54).

Unless the student has a disability—not a learning disability, but a communication disability in the native language, which even then might not be an issue because students with severe non-verbal disabilities show signs of understanding language spoken to themno student should struggle to understand language in our classes.

These students might have behaviour issues that negatively impact our daily routine and flow of comprehensible input, but that has nothing to do with language acquisition itself. We are all capable of understanding and acquiring a second language. Therefore, “struggling” is only in reference to something else, usually related to explicit grammar instruction, or forced language production, and the assessments that leave students excluded.

For most teachers, then, a “struggling student” is just a student whose acquisition rate is slower than the curriculum pace—a pace that also excludes most students. **Newsflash** ALL LEARNERS have an internal syllabus that WILL NOT CHANGE just because your program moves at speed X, or you explicitly teach Y. In fact, your program’s curriculum is designed for only one student’s pace. The sad part is that you might not even have a student who acquires at that particular rate, this particular year in any particular course!