With the perennial reports of Latin programs that close–very often as a teacher retires–I remain hopeful and curious about the power that Comprehensible Input has especially when it is coupled with a social justice concern in any particular school. Do our Latin programs look like the face of the school? Whether yes or no, how do we know? Who has crunched the data in order to answer that question? What we have done in our school did not happen over night or one year. It took experimenting with and becoming confident in our skills as Comprehensible Input teachers. Dabbling won’t do in this regard. Mixing and matching CI with other approaches won’t work with all kinds of learners because the at-risk students we have been able to recruit simply cannot stand more instability in their lives. They need to understand on some level that when they are in our rooms, they WILL be successful and they have teachers who know how to support that.
It just so happens that this kind of work is occurring at a time when Latin is slowly disappearing from our schools. It doesn’t have to be that way. I often imagine: what if Latin teachers who are working with Comprehensible Input approaches looked around their schools and began to recruit those students that no one expects to be successful in Latin (or anything else, if we are honest). In my earlier post on growing a Latin program, I listed the specific commitments that we have made which seem to be the hinges on which our program thrives. I want to add some commentary to those things.
1. Total commitment to teaching with Comprehensible Input
What our team has come to see is that the only way for all kinds of learners to make progress in Latin and NOT FAIL is to ensure that on a daily basis, at all levels, three things are happening: a) students receive comprehensible messages in Latin; b) students are invited to work (stories, readings, adventures, games, movie talks, et al) that is compelling to them; and c) students know on some level that they are cared for. With hats off to my colleague, Rachel Ash, these have become our local “Three C’s.” Comprehensible, Compelling and Caring. Simply because they work for all kinds of learners. This does not mean that any of us still does not experience the nagging, the internal demand, the fear, the taunts of other colleagues that make us second guess what we are doing. It happens often enough. But teaching another way also makes promises that I lived out and through for many years: that all kinds of learners would not be successful and that all kinds of learners would not think of Latin as something they would study.
2. In levels 2-4 student chosen themes of study
This is an important aspect of the compelling piece of what we do. In the spring of each year, we give students in Latin 1, 2 and 3 a survey of topics that they might want to study for the next year. These topics are areas of classical study and literature that we each feel competent in (otherwise, we would not offer it), and we allow students to vote on what the topics for next year will be. We also know, for the most part, by then which levels each of us will be teaching. Since we do not use a textbook for our curriculum, knowing in the spring what students want to focus on the next year allows us time to begin preparing–either from scratch or from collected materials.
3. No homework
I started this practice, and my colleagues who have joined me have agreed to it. None of them argued with me, to be honest. I made this move about 15 years ago as a result of two things. a) My own observations were that those who did the homework I gave were the ones who least needed it and vice versa. If I gave a grade, those who could least withstand bad grades received the most of them, and if I didnt give grades even fewer did the homework. b) I read Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth. I never looked back. My own, and now our own standard has become: a commitment to work enthusiastically from bell to bell knowing that we can do what we need to do in that time, and then give students the freedom they need and want after school for other things. Sadly, that often means endless homework from other subjects, but we cannot do anything about that. Not having homework is an appeal to both take Latin and to work hard in the classroom. Not our initial aim, but we enjoy the benefits of that effect.
4. Standards based grading with three important commitments
a) Assessments look like the teaching and learning.
This is fairly self explanatory. Our assessments always list what standards we are assessing, and we ask student questions and to do activities on the assessment that look and feel like what we have done in class.
b) The 80/80 rule.
On any given assessment minor or major, at least 80% of the class must make an 80% or higher in order to
move on with the instruction. This is my own self check as to whether I’ve done my job before I assess. Because I don’t want to find myself having to go back and re-teach, I make very sure that when I give an assessment, everyone in the room is ready for it.
c) Relax, Recreate, and Remediate days.
We schedule regular opportunities to re-assess any standard that has fallen below 80 with total grade
replacement. These are about every three week, RR&R days. Students check their grades on the school portal accessed through their cell phones or other devices, and any grade they have that is less than an 80% MUST be remediated that class period. In addition, any student who is unhappy with any grade (a 93, for example) can also remediate. The remediated work totally replaces the previous grade. With these days in place throughout the semester, we have virtually no failures in Latin.
5. The Big Three Questions, twice a year.
Routinely (at least twice a year) we survey students with three questions. They write them as open ended response, with our without their names (many do sign them). We ask them to tell us about what is helping, what is not, and what changes they would make to the way we teach and and they learn Latin. While we always receive useful information about trends in a particular class, the highest ranking item on these surveys, time after time, is to change nothing. We tell them that we will read each survey, tally the results and adjust our teaching as a result. We are accountable to them, and they are responsive to us.
These are the things that I can point to that my colleagues and I do in common. In and between them, there are many things that constitute the varied personalities and styles that we all have. As it should be. These are also things that I can point to when other ask about our program, how it works and why we think it’s successful.
When we are looking for a new teacher to join us, as we are right now, I can also point those to these items and say: how do you feel about these, because these are non-negotiable. This is another way that we remain accountable to each other and to our students. We make mistakes. All of us will be quick to say that we are always and forever still learning how to do what we do, but we have these guideposts.