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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.

Posted in CI Mission

Growing a Latin Program (2)–The Working Parts

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.

Bob Patrick

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Latin’s Dark History With Light-Skinned Learners

Rereading John Bracey’s post got me thinking again…

I used to work at a school that prided itself on being “part of a multicultural community,” but that tends to be the type of thing you find written on a school’s website that’s just for show, or to check a box for NEASC accreditation. I can say that it certainly wasn’t obvious from my Latin classes. In fact, if I didn’t have to walk down a different hallway to use the restroom, I wouldn’t have known that there were so many students of color in the school! I’ve asked myself, just as John put it, “why were so few black and brown students in my Latin classes?”

With a student body of 39% non-white, you would expect there to be more than one student of color in the AP Latin course, but no, there was only one. In contrast, I had 4 non-white students in Latin I—a number that was closer to representing the rest of the school, though nowhere close to the school-wide demographics. This, of course, is representative of the low retention rates we expect in traditionally exclusive programs, but what exactly causes students of color to drop out in the first place? John was looking into why they don’t sign up initially, but there’s also the matter of why the ones who DO sign up don’t continue. The latter issue probably has to do with the same reasons all students drop traditional language classes after 2 or 3 years, namely, the unbalanced and no longer supported practice of explicit grammar instruction and, expectations of hyper-accurate translations, but there’s not enough data to look at because of the the former issue.

The data we do have, though, shows that something remarkable happens to level the playing field when we base our programs on acquisition, so I encourage everyone to think about improving access to Latin via inclusive practices, and eliminate the ones that lead to exclusivity. Yet, what will it take to enact change? I, for one, even voiced my concerns about the exclusivity of the Latin program at that school I was teaching at, but others didn’t want to face the issue. A cowardly move, perhaps, and uncomfortable at the very least, but no one said that fighting discrimination was going to be easy!

So, what are you doing to help, how have you made inclusiveness part of the conversation in your department/school, and what advice do you have for others looking to make a difference? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Posted in CI Mission, Standards

Growing a Latin Program (1)–A Story

Our Latin program at Parkview High School has grown from 130 to almost 700 in the last 12 years.  Those of us who teach in the program are clear that teaching with comprehensible input practices and a commitment to all kinds of learners has been key to this growth.  As I look back, I am fairly certain that while there were many turning points that led to this growth, there was one moment that tipped everything. Here’s what happened.

The program had grown enough for us to have a second full time teacher.  Caroline Miklosovic had joined me that year (2009-2010).  We now use Rachel Ash’s handy tag to talk about what we do:  Comprehensible, Compelling and Caring.  Caroline is the very embodiment of Caring in the classroom.  After our first year together, we realized that there was still a whole “class” of students who were never even considering Latin, and we were confident that they could be successful with us.  (NB. Confident does not mean absolutely sure, so there was some risk in what we then proceeded to do.)

I had several conversations with our Curriculum administrator and convinced her that we were looking for those students who routinely fall through the cracks.  They might or might not be the following: special ed,  thought of as successful, be students of color (I mention this because whether we recognize it or not, Latin programs have tended to be very white ), or be on free and reduced lunch program.  They very often are those students for whom no one is thinking about Latin as a course of study.  The curriculum administrator agreed to talk to school counselors about identifying and coaxing a group of 30 students into a Latin 1 class. Caroline would teach this class, and we would be trying something that not too many folks were confident would work.

That year, not one of those students failed, and most continued on with us for 3 or 4 years. We repeated the plan, and had success with the class again. Two years later, Rachel Ash joined us, and the intention was for her to teach that “special” Latin 1 class.  That year, something happened. For some reason, all of those students couldn’t be placed in the same class, and they were mixed into all of the other Latin 1 classes.  What I think actually happened was that by that third year, counselors, the special ed department and administrators were convinced that all kinds of learners were going to be successful in our program–because they were. We’ve really never looked back since then because our program now is made up of all kinds of learners across the full spectrum of our school.

I recently did a demographic study of our school and those who take foreign language in our school.  I can say with data to back me up now that our Latin program (in fact, our entire FL program) looks like the face of our school.  Of the 3000+ students in our school, just over 20% are taking Latin (by comparison, 30% take Spanish and 5% each in French and German).

This is what we now know works for all kinds of learners in a Latin program that is Comprehensible, Compelling and Caring.  I list these without explanation.  That will be a follow up article.

1. Total commitment to teaching with Comprehensible Input
2. In levels 2-4 student chosen themes of study
3. No homework
4. Standards based grading with three important commitments:
A. Assessments look like the teaching and learning.
B. The 80/80 rule: at least 80% of the class must make an 80% or higher in order to move on with the instruction.
C. Regular opportunities to re-assess any standard that fell below 80 with total grade replacement
5. Routine (at least twice a year) survey of students about what is helping, what is not, and
what changes they would make to the way we teach and learn Latin.  The highest ranking information, time after time, is to change nothing.

Moving our program into uncharted waters with the aim of including all kinds of learners in the Latin program was risky and scary when we first did it, and it continues to be risky and scary, though in a different way. That initial risk is probably self-explanatory.  The current and ongoing risk is that we are now committed to teaching Latin to a new group of students each year (in Latin 1) who bring a variety and non-conformity to the traditional Latin teacher expectation that all of us still carry around inside of us.  Every year, walking into a Latin 1 classroom requires us to try to really see the human beings who are in the room and re-calibrate what Comprehensible, Compelling and Caring language teaching looks like so that it meets this group, this year, in the ways that will work for them.  There are no lasting laurels to wear in this approach.  There are wonderful moments, and we do have this huge, diverse Latin program.  I think we would all agree that the risks involved are worth it.

Bob Patrick

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The Inclusivity of Latin?

White statues, medieval paintings of white Europeans in Roman garb, portraying the gods and famous men, modern “documentaries” with white Hannibals, golden haired women, and the absence of Africa, except in passing: is this what Latin is? Is this what is left of the Classics?

If this first statement/question angered you: good. If it made you question our resources: good. If it made you want to fire off an email or comment to me sparking debate: good. I’m glad. I had trouble writing it, and yet, as a student of Latin in my teenage and young adult years, rarely did I question it.

As a teacher, the diversity in my classroom and discussions with modern teachers opened my eyes. One of the ways modern language teachers reach out to the diversity in their rooms is to point out that France isn’t the only country speaking French. There are many countries in Africa; there is Haiti; who can forget New Orleans, that all speak French. Spanish isn’t solely spoken in Mexico or Spain. South America is filled with many countries, filled with people of hundreds, no thousands, of origins. So… what about Latin?

Over my next few posts, I want to discuss this. I want to talk about the reasons why we should question our canon; why we should use a variety of artwork (classical or not); why we should question our resources. I want to talk about the effect these changes have on my students and I want to talk about the effect these changes have had on me.

So, I’d like to pose these questions to you:

  • What do you notice about the diversity in your room?
  • How often do you (intentionally or not)…
    – only use statues of figures?
    – only use historical or medieval art? (and to what extent do these paintings show only white Europeans)?
    – show the gods/goddesses as white?
    – mention the ethnicity of figures who are not native to Rome? (Hannibal, Dido, etc.)
  • What effect do you think it has on students if they do not see anyone in Roman history who looks like them, especially considering:
    – how often Rome is spoken highly of?
    – how long the Roman empire lasted?
    – the influence Roman culture/history/language has had on us today?
  • How often do you show movies/shows/documentaries that only include white actors?

You can comment on them or not, but I think this is a starting place for these discussions. They may make us uncomfortable, but change comes from a place of discomfort, especially in such important work.


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Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (3 of 3)

Look, I don’t want to have to say it, but I have to say it…you need to start speaking Latin.

It’s true that the universally agreed-upon sine qua non of language acquisition is Comprehensible Input (i.e. understandable messages one listens to, and/or reads), which could, theoretically, be limited to ONLY written messages, but don’t stop there when basing your Latin program on acquisition! Continue reading “Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (3 of 3)”