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

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