Reflections on Teaching 3

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.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Teaching

  • Roy Starling

    Excellent article. I have also been using some CI strategies in my Latin classroom based on my experience teaching Spanish using the TPRS method. I wonder, though about what I see as the false dichotomy many CI enthusiasts set up between traditional methods and CI approaches. I taught using a very traditional method for years and only rarely heard anyone say they didn’t like Latin. In fact, even though one might see lots of “charts” in that class, many students really enjoyed the class and we were able to read some excellent literature in the third year. Likewise, I have found CI approaches to reach a lot of students who struggled with grammar-based methods and deepen the understanding and fluency of allstudents- even those who prefer traditional approaches to learning languages. Both approaches have merits, but almost every article I’ve read (relating to a variety of languages) promoting CI starts with the supposition that students all hate traditional methods or never gain fluency in those approaches. I think that is not a good starting point for an argument in favor of a method that has a lot of benefits.

    • Ellie Arnold

      Hi Roy,
      Thanks for your comment! I think that’s a fair assessment. I certainly have a few students who prefer the more traditional way, but given my (lack of) teaching experience, it was a lot harder to make grammar-translation palatable to the rest of them. Even those who like the traditional grammar and memorization stuff were frustrated with how slow I had to go to make it work at all for the others. So, so much depends on the teacher and the materials available. Also, all of us who are doing CI Latin are still including grammar instruction, as far as I know, which is definitely not CI. My kids almost all like it when we do charts because we sing them.
      I think the key thing that CI has going for it versus G/T is that “compelling” is so closely tied with the basic concept. Because CI blogs etc. tend to stress “compelling,” we as teachers are constantly reminded to aim for it. When we do G/T, there’s no such focus. A excellent teacher in the right place at the right time can make grammar compelling, but student interest is not stressed as an intrinsic part of G/T in the same way it has become a part of CI.
      Further, I think often with G/T we get frustrated because we’re trying to pull students toward an understanding: “why don’t they get it? why don’t they listen? why don’t they know any English grammar?” With CI, there’s again a built-in emphasis on starting from where the kids are. I find that in general it is a more empathetic method. Again, I’m not saying G/T can’t be compelling and empathetic. Indeed, with an excellent teacher, it absolutely can be. But at its most basic, it’s not. CI is, and I think that’s its strength.
      At the risk of opening a can of worms: As for fluency- well, what do you mean by that? Is Latin fluency the same as fluency in a modern language? CI teachers tend to say it is or at least should be, whereas traditional Latin teaching tends to say it’s not (cf. reading vs. translating). That fundamental divide in terms of what fluency means sets us up to butt heads.

  • Samantha Adamczyk

    I really enjoyed your article; thanks for sharing it. I think the benefit of CI for my students would definitely be increased understanding and retention. I have really amazing students but even they forget vocabulary and grammar when it is only learned for a quiz or as part of a grammar chart. Do you offer AP Latin? I just wonder how the transition is for your students once they reach that level. This is my first year in my school and I am seeing the drawbacks of the grammar method because decoding a passage of Caesar or Vergil is very difficult for my grammar centric kids. But the AP curriculum does have a lot of grammar in it… so just wondering how that fits in.