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That “Problem” Class–Part 1 in a Series

It’s my 6th period class.  It’s Latin 3, and there are 33 of them in the room. This is after lunch for these students and the next to last period of the day.  I have taught many of them before. They represent the full spectrum of the demographics of the school.  Almost every day, it’s a struggle. I see us become our worse selves (I don’t think anyone has reached worst–yet).  What I struggle with is gaining and keeping their attention.  I know that they have at this point of the day little attention left to give.  They are also intelligent and creative people. They can also be aggressive and resistant on almost any issue.  They are beyond “sitting still and being quiet” and other traditional classroom conventions. Perhaps the better point is that some part of me still expect traditional conventions to be a given without having to cultivate any sense of common cultural meaning between me and them!

Last summer I bought and read Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Beacon Press, 2016). I came back to school in the fall and convinced my 4 other Latin colleagues to read and study this book together as a professional learning project. I’ve been working for many years now on my own whiteness in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Emdin is challenging me with language and ideas that I would not easily have discovered on my own. (The enigma of white privilege: it not only elevates white people to access everything in the culture, but it insulates us against seeing that, much less knowing best how to deconstruct it). This blog series is about what I am learning as I put into practice Emdin’s”reality pedagogy.”

The first step is to form a cogen group.  Cogen is short for “cogenerative.” A cogen is formed with four students in the class who become my advisers who help me create a better class experience. Emdin says that the four students should represent the demographics in the room.  Per his instructions, I spent time pondering that and made a list of four students who filled that requirement.  Then, last week, I asked each of them if they would be willing to meet with me on Tuesday morning at 6:55 for a meeting that would last 15-20 minutes.  I needed their help.  I would bring snacks.  I assured them that they were not in trouble, and that this was a secret group–so not to tell others.  They agreed.

I went to the store the night before and bought cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip muffins.  Honestly, I worried that they would forget to come even though I personally reminded each of them on Monday.  I also (per Emdin’s suggestion) asked an Assistant Principal to stop by during the meeting to congratulate them on being chosen to be my advisers.

At 6:55 the first student arrived.  Within 3 minutes, all four were there, had taken some food and were gathered in the circle.  Emdin says that this first session has two goals: to establish the rules for the cogen and to let them have a positive experience of helping you with something.  That something should be simple, and one of his suggestions is “what is something I can do at the beginning or ending of class that will make our experience more positive?”

As one young man was entering, he asked me: so, Dr. Patrick, how is your morning so far? I told him that it was still pretty rough for me since it was so early.  He responded.  “Yeah.  I think that you never get to see us except on the bad side of the day.”  It was a simple but very revealing comment. He was calm, sleepy and thoughtful. I agreed with him and brought that observation into our short discussion.

While they enjoyed their food, I explained what a cogen was and that I appreciated their willingness to help me make our class a better class. I told them that our cogen group had three rules (straight from Emdin):

  • There is no special person in the group–especially me just because I am the teacher.  While I am the Latin expert and quite frankly the expert on teaching, I am not an expert on their experience or what it means to be a 16, 17 or 18 year old.  I am not an expert on what it means to learn in my class or what it means to be a student in this school.  We all bring some expertise to this, and that’s why I asked them to help.  None of us is special. All are important.
  • There is only one mic.  I had already begun using this idea and phrase in class to mean: when someone is talking we all agree to give them our full attention. It also means that everyone gets equal time.
  • We all agree to work on and take individual responsibility for the ideas that will make our class better.  We leave our meetings with an action plan, and we are all responsible.

They were in immediate agreement, and so we moved on to our one task for the day.  What can I do at the beginning or ending of our class to make class a better experience?  Immediately one student asked:  by better do you mean make everyone happy or do you mean dealing with individuals who may just not want to be in the room that day?  It was a great question and the short form of my response was that I’d like something that would work for both possibilities.  I did note that I always try to be aware of anyone who looks like they are in distress, and I do let individuals leave to take a break, go to a counselor, et al.

Here’s the plan they formulated which does, indeed, respond to both aspects of his question:

  • Begin class with 5 minutes of “check-in.”
  • Check-in can be something that you want to get off your chest.
  • Check-in can be a “brag about me” where you share something good that has happened to you.
  • They acknowledged that this is not enough time for 33 people to check in, but that it would begin to create the sense that this is safe place where what they are going through is important.

In the midst of this, the Assistant Principal arrived.  She joined our circle and congratulated them on being asked to be my advisers.  We did brief introductions and summarized what we were doing.  She was genuinely excited and asked to be kept apprised of how this was going.  She left, and we brought our time to an end.

This felt SO GOOD!  It was genuine interaction with students from the “problem” class. I will tell you that I have been ashamed of that fact.  I am a veteran teacher. I am confident about what I do and how I do it. Building trust and relationship with students is the core of what I do.  Yet, this class did not make that mark.  Often, it was just the opposite.  I attribute that to “the drift.”  You know the drift. It can be any myriad of things that allow us as teachers to slip away from what we know is solid work in human relationships. It can be the simple fact of aging! You will never be as close to their ages as you are this year. It can be other major things going on in your life. It can be the demoralization of bad state, district, school or department leadership. It can be problem parents. It can be the difference in cultures of being a white teacher among young people who are from many different cultural backgrounds. (I presume that the majority of teachers reading this will be white because 75% of all US teachers are white).This short little first cogen experience tapped into some common humanity that simply transcended all of that.

On the afternoon of this same day, the class came in.  Immediately the four students made eye and verbal contact with me that was friendly and familiar.  The connection was made.  I began class by introducing a new thing called check-in.  For five minutes anyone who wanted to vent or brag about themselves could.  Immediately two of the four in the cogen volunteered (took ownership) and several others in the class followed–both brags and vents.  It truly changed the atmosphere in the room to something much more positive than usual.  This is a good start.

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!

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We Are Not Alone: Discovering a Nation of Advocates

One of the central challenges we are trying to address in this blog (that of shrinking and/or homogeneous classes) is magnified in, but not limited to, Latin programs. Although I was frustrated and disappointed to hear it, I was also somewhat relieved to learn that modern language teachers and programs frequently suffer from the same problems that Latin programs suffer from: lack of retention beyond the first two years; homogeneous and exclusive upper-level classes, consisting mostly of white children whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy; an increasing focus on study of the language itself as preparation for the reading of too-difficult texts in the 3rd and 4th years; and test preparation becoming an increasing priority in “honors” courses.

Does this sound familiar? It does to me, after over a decade spent teaching Latin and interacting with other Latin teachers. But I was happy to discover that there are many many more modern language teachers out there who, like us, are trying to address these problems in order to save their programs and maintain a sense of relevance to their school culture.  In an excellent example of this effort, Grant Boulanger, a Spanish teacher in Minnesota and finalist for ACTFL’s 2016 teacher of the year, has isolated this problem as he sees it in modern language programs. In this article, he argues that if teachers can focus on the 90% target language goal set out by the ACTFL (and by making sure 100% of that 90% is comprehensible and relevant to students’ lives), teachers can realistically work toward a second goal of 90% retention through all four years of a language.

In addition to pointing out the problem, he is suggesting a few solutions and strategies which are rooted in the research of how people learn language, and the fact that anyone can learn a second or third language if it is presented as a tool of communication rather than a subject of study (i.e. linguistics, philology). What, specifically, does Boulanger suggest for making this happen? I offer a few quotes from his article, with my own reflections on how they could have a positive impact on Latin classrooms

“Language educators are gatekeepers. We impact students’ ability to be accepted by post secondary schools.”

The history of our discipline is tied in with the notion of exclusivity. Whether or not we realize it, Latin teachers in particular serve as gatekeepers. This can happen on-campus, to the extent that Latin students are likely part of a cohort who organize their entire schedule around an academic track, which others do not have access to. Beyond high school, we know that Latin looks very good on college applications. If we do not allow all kinds of students to be successful in our Latin classes, we deny certain students this important benefit. Again, we are gatekeepers within the school and beyond.

“Conversations must shift from simply retaining students to ensuring that programmatic and pedagogical decisions intentionally acknowledge and address educational equity for students of all backgrounds.”

Here Boulanger is addressing the important causal connection between pedagogy and retention. Sometimes teachers think of equity as providing individualized attention outside of class (a burden that many teachers take on without compensation). But if teachers are implementing more equitable practices in their daily work with students, meeting their needs in class, this may in fact mitigate, or at least reduce, the additional work that so many teachers do for the sake of their struggling students

“…when the focus is on learning about the language, with an unbalanced emphasis on manipulating discrete elements of the language, we unintentionally advantage some students. Well-meaning teachers may inadvertently be contributing to the problem. What we teach and assess, how we teach it and, most importantly, why we are teaching are all factors that contribute to the confidence and trust our students have in us and in the language learning process. Without high levels of confidence and trust, our students will not voluntarily enroll in higher-level language courses.”

In the interests of “rigor” and “high standards,” language teachers often provide instruction and assessments that are not necessarily effective in promoting acquisition, but which reinforce the gatekeeping and exclusionary practices that the teachers themselves thrived in, while undermining the confidence and success of students who are from different backgrounds.

“Emphasizing comprehension allows all of our students to experience high degrees of success, without added anxiety associated with production before they are ready. ”

When we require students to produce spoken and written language too early and to a degree of accuracy that is not level-appropriate, we often do so at the expense of providing input, which studies show is more effective in fostering production of language, than output-oriented practice.  One takeaway here is that focusing on providing comprehensible input will allow all students to have a successful experience in the language, while more efficiently helping them make progress in their language proficiency in terms of what we know about how the brain acquires language.

I think an understandable and legitimate response to this line of argument could be: “Why can’t we help marginalized students to reach these high standards, rather than change the nature of curriculum and assessment? Isn’t it discriminatory not to expect the same results from all students?”

This would be indisputable if (a big “if”) the high standards and results assumed in this objection actually represented language proficiency. Boulanger’s article (and this blog) is inviting teachers to re-think our traditional notions of what it means to be proficient in a language. He is asking us to consider the important distinction between proficiency (which is based on using a language for the purpose of communication, something that pretty much everyone is capable of doing well),  and a set of skills on the other hand, which may have some overlap with proficiency, but by its very nature rewards students who have been prepared by their upbringing, and who have more support in their lives and communities.

Notice that this is not a compromise of rigor or academic seriousness. Rather, we are channeling this rigor into developing skills which are content-based and communicative in nature, and therefore in line with what we know about how language functions in the brain. By setting high standards that are acquisition and proficiency-based and therefore are by nature equitable and do not favor one socio-economic or cultural group over another, we can move forward in our work with confidence that we are supporting all students in our classrooms, and not leaving any of them behind because of where they come from or where they’ve been.

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The Inclusivity of Latin? II

The question was posed on my last post about where one might begin to find resources, and I think this is a good place to start when considering whether or not this language and culture we so love is, in its nature, inclusive. In my opinion, we must expand our view of what is part of our accepted Latin canon in order to discuss this, however. Allow me to start by saying that I am not saying we should ignore the typically accepted list of authors that students, and we, should read. I do ask that we consider what use these authors have in our rooms, or the selections we choose, if they only promote a part of Roman culture. To that end, I’d like to share a few examples of what I’ve done in my own classroom.

  1. Vergil – The Aeneid – Typically, one reads this in 4th/5th year from the AP syllabus. Last year, Latin I students read an adapted selection from Book IV regarding Dido’s death. We read this considering Dido, rather than Aeneas, and the idea of virtus.
  2. Livy – Typically, this author is considered when regarding certain aspects of history, including the Punic Wars. Students, this year in Latin II, had already decided they wanted to read about Hannibal. Rather than reading from Livy, however, we read from Cornelius Nepos and Silius Italicus. We also focused on Hannibal and Carthage, rather than Rome.
  3. Caesar – De Bello Gallico – Typically, one reads excerpts of this early on, and follows up with AP syllabus selections in 4th/5th year. Last year, Latin I students read a teacher created story about Caesar and his wives/loves. Then, students used this work, indirectly, to discuss geography and virtus.
  4. Pliny the Elder – Naturalis Historia – Not typically considered part of the general canon, my students have read quite a few selections from this author. I have a personal interest in that my Master’s thesis relied heavily on work with Pliny. We used this text to discuss proto-racism, geography, and history. We also used this to connect to medieval and modern history, art, and science.

These are just the authors we have encountered in part this and last year. Next year, I intend to include more. In my next posts, I will expand on each author, one at a time, and discuss how I handled this in class and used the resources I’ve found to make my classroom, and my content more inclusive, and to take advantage of the inclusivity present in Latin literature.