Posted in Uncategorized

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!

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

Posted in Uncategorized

Neurodiversity in our Classrooms

One of many types of diversity that characterize our classrooms is neurodiversity. As Nick Walker, the scholar behind Neurocosmopolitanismwrites,

We are a neurologically diverse species: the enormous innate variation among individual human bodies extends to our brains, which differ from one another like fingerprints. This diversity of brains means a diversity of cognitive styles, a diversity of innate cognitive strengths and weaknesses, gifts and peculiarities. This is what is meant by neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity thus refers both to the fact of variation among “fully healthy”* brains and to the fact that many brains function differently from such “fully healthy” brains in some way or another (sometimes called neurodivergence). For instance, persons may process visual or auditory stimuli in ways that are different enough from the average to be noteworthy. Persons may be inclined to pay attention to different things, or for different lengths.

Consciously thinking about neurodiversity is fairly new to me, and I am no expert on its implications for teaching and learning. But I invite us to ask questions similar to ones that my colleagues on this blog have often raised:

Does the neurodiversity in our Latin classes and programs mirror the neurodiversity of our schools and neighborhoods at large? If not, should we want it to? Why or why not? What do we do or could we do to take the fact of neurodiversity seriously?

Many of us have developed close relationships with our schools’ guidance counselors, special education teachers, and occupational therapists to learn about how we can help the students they work with thrive, and to emphasize our eagerness to do so.

In parallel with these efforts, we can continue to learn about and make the most of aspects of human experience and learning that may transcend many neurological differences. Some possibilities that come to mind are stories, exploration, and creativity. We can also learn more about what diverse human brains tend to have in common in how they process and create language, and work together to figure out what this may mean for how we help students learn languages in general and Latin in particular.

As I dip my toes into actively exploring a neurodiversity paradigm*, I’ve found Nick Walker’s blog Neurocosmopolitanism especially helpful. Some language teachers have also begun to blog about relevant topics. A great example is Elicia Cardenas, who has shared how she is conducting a “sensory occupational therapy experiment” in her classes.

Whatever thoughts you have or actions you take with respect to neurodiversity in your classes, there is a pertinent principle that applies to all education, but may offer special richness in a language course, given the role of language in exploring and communicating the content of our minds: Get to know your students as well as you can, as much on their own terms as you can, through interactions both with students themselves and with their supporters—guardians, teachers, counselors. And consider and enjoy the ways in which a language course in particular can thrive on students’ getting to know each other better by communicating in the target language.

I would love to hear what you learn in the process!


*Check out Nick Walker’s thoughts about shifting from a “pathology paradigm” to a “neurodiversity paradigm.”

Note: Don’t forget that it may be illegal for you to discuss openly the particular ways in which any given student contributes to neurodiversity in your class. Be sure to find out both what is legal and how specific students and families want or don’t want to talk about neurodivergence.

Posted in Uncategorized

Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (2 of 3)

My last post followed this logic:

  • ALL humans can acquire a second language.
  • Few humans learn about languages.
  • Programs based on learning about Latin are exclusive.
  • Programs based on acquiring Latin are inclusive.

This post addresses how to base a program on acquiring Latin. I’ll begin with an important systematic change that otherwise keeps Latin programs exclusive:

**Stop grading and assessing the identification, manipulation, and/or production of forms.**

Without a doubt, this is the most unintuitive concept for any traditionally-trained language teacher (especially Latin teachers) to fully grasp, but it’s really Step 1. Why? All of that knowledge, drilling, and forced expression has very little, to absolutely no affect on acquisition, and has kept Latin classrooms exclusive and elite. Even if it did, your “struggling” students illustrate that not even daily “practice” guarantees mastery within just a few years, which then leads to exclusion if you expect said mastery. An inclusive classroom is not based on conjugating (i.e. even if it occurs sometimes), which is something you simply must acknowledge and change. If your situation requires you to test these things, realize that your program is already at risk of excluding students. See my posts over at on Reporting Scores vs. Grading on how to not count any of that towards a student’s grade, and instead report scores in a 0% grading category that satisfies most department/school requirements.

**Begin grading and assessing for meaning.**

The student who doesn’t understand the case system, but does understand events in a narrative is doing exactly what leads to acquisition (especially if, or maybe ONLY IF they enjoy the narrative content!), and such an expectation fulfills our updated Standards. The student who retells or summarizes a text in the past tense when all of the forms are present is doing just fine. Even the student who interprets the meaning of vocandum as “having to do with ‘calling'” is right on track. Accuracy increases over time with more language exposure, so your expectations should take that into account. If students understand most of the Latin they listen to and read most of the time, they should get the equivalent of an “A.” N.B. grading as NOTHING to do with acquisition, but certainly something to do with keeping your job and keeping students in your classes. Very few people continue doing something they have low efficacy in, so diminish or eliminate those numbers and letters whenever possible.

There you have it—the first change you need to make—even if it’s just a change of perspective. If you don’t, you risk making class more onerous (vs. rigorous) and even more exclusive once other changes towards basing a program on acquiring Latin are made (i.e. beginning to speak Latin yet still explicitly teaching grammar, and continuing to grade and assess just as before).

My next post will continue on how to base your program on acquiring Latin…

**Read the third follow-up post**