This week’s guest post comes courtesy of Eleanor Arnold, a Latin teacher in Athol, MA. She has some frank and honest reflections on her first year teaching struggles and how she turned things around.
My first year as a high school Latin teacher was a trainwreck. The kids and I were both miserable. They hated Latin, and I was starting to hate Latin too. I was trying to teach Latin the way I had learned it and successfully taught it as a graduate student through charts, parsing and translating. But for these students and in this setting- rural poverty, students with little or no expectation of going to college- it just wasn’t working. A more experienced teacher would have handled things better, but they got me instead.
Midway through the year, I found out about Comprehensible Input, which you can learn more about at LIMEN. I spent the rest of the school year going to workshops, reading blogs, and experimenting. Things improved. Basically, the goal of every activity is the same: expose students to Latin they can understand.
To ensure understanding, the idea is to “shelter vocabulary” tightly to a small group of words that have the highest frequency in Latin literature. The students have the time to internalize the words, rather than “learning” them for a quiz and then forgetting. There’s no “hard grammar” anymore. I taught indirect statement in Latin I by presenting it in conversation every day for a week, and they have no problem understanding it now. They memorized noun and verb endings, but our goal is always comprehension, not production or identification. When we read in our native languages, we don’t think about the grammar or play “find the verb.” We just read, and pictures appear in our minds. I want my students to experience that with Latin, and bit by bit they’re getting there.
You don’t have to use spoken Latin to do CI, but it helps. The more I speak with my students, the better they read. It’s as simple as that. For me, a wonderful side effect of speaking Latin is that I get to engage with the language I love in a totally new way, and my Latin is improving as a result. You also don’t really have to be very good Latin speaker to use it in a Latin I classroom, but I find that the more I do it, the better I want to become.
I have had to let go of a lot of things I believed in. I don’t worry as much about accuracy any more, so long as my students understand the gist. Assessments are totally different: they’re based on comprehension, not translation. The goal now isn’t to parse, but to actually read. Because we’re not working on a word-for-word level, I can help struggling students without it feeling like cheating. When a student gets something almost right, I can celebrate with them instead of chastening them because the tense was slightly off.
As for results? They are learning Latin in a way they never were last year. Even the lowest performing students can read and write some Latin. It’s certainly not Cicero, but passages that would have taken them two hours to translate last year take fifteen minutes now. Enrollment is up for 2016-17. Incredibly, I’m not doing any more prep or grading than I did last year, and the prep I do have to do is more interesting than making up a translation test or vocabulary quiz. Last year, I’d hear “I hate Latin.” This year, I hear “Latin is my favorite class.” Kids write things like “Tyler optima est” on my board. Another classmate may insert a “nōn” in there, but it’s all good: they’re playing with Latin instead of fighting it.
There’s no magic bullet for language learning. I’m still tired at the end of the day, and I still struggle with classroom management and participation. But we’re not miserable any more, and even the bad days are more interesting and productive than my good days were last year. I’d call that a success.