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.

Comprehensible Input

I have long held the belief that Latin, like any other language, can and should be spoken.  To that end, I have been attending SALVI’s Rusticatio Virginiana for quite a few years.  Needless to say, it changed my life.  This year, SALVI added an amazing new program called Pedagogy Rusticatio.  The thought behind this was that even if YOU can speak Latin, actually getting your STUDENTS to speak Latin can get, well, lost in translation.
This year’s Pedagogy Rusticatio focused on Comprehensible Input (CI), with presenters Jason Fritze and Bob Patrick, with appearances by Nancy Llewelyn and Evan Gardner of Where Are Your Keys.  We focused on TPR, TPRS, and Embedded readings–both teaching them, and creating them.    Simply put, we focused on making sure students LEARN and RETAIN language by actually working with it.
There’s a quote that came out of the workshop–I believe it was Bob Patrick who said it:  “One will produce language when they are ready and not a moment before.”  I think this is something we all have to remember.  I know it sure helped me as I went in to my seventh (!?) Rusticatio!
The ACTFL guidelines for proficiency in a language explain a lot if you take a look at them.  To put them more simply, here is the “Party Taxonomy” that Evan Gardner uses to explain them.  It looks like this:
“There are 4 levels of being able to use a foreign language, but you can extrapolate this to ANYTHING.
1) Tarzan at a party–sheer vocab and memorization; barely full sentences. (e.g. Teacher: “What do you like to eat?” Student: “Hamburgers!”)–think Sesame Street
2) Get to the party–can you ask the appropriate questions and understand the responses to get to the party, dressed appropriately, bringing the right things. (e.g. “May I bring a guest?” “Yes, and I’d like you to bring a cake as well.” “Ok”)–Think Dora The Explorer
3) What happened at the party last night?–Can you talk about an event in the past, present and future? (e.g. “Tarzan went INSANE at the party last night! He got out of control and was throwing couches out the window! So the police came and arrested him. This morning, he called me to ask about baling him out of jail, but I have no money, so I will have to call my mom and see what we can do.  I will never invite Tarzan to a party again.”)–Think Larry King
4) What if parties were illegal?–How does that affect our cultural, economic, and social standards and day to day life? Can you think about something in the big picture and almost philosophically. Think about being on Charlie Rose’s show.”
Learning to use (levels 2 + 3) or thinking deeply about (level 4), is soooo much better than learning about (level 1). I’ve used this to get my colleagues thinking about where they want their students to be throughout the year. Not just my language colleagues, either.
I think this applies a lot to what we are doing. We want the students at 4 eventually, right? Well, you’re not going to get there by sitting on 1! You need to USE your knowledge and apply it. For we teachers, this is where the work we do comes in, I believe.
Too often, we try to speak Latin, and we get scared because it isn’t easy for us.  If it is hard for us, we think, we could never use it with the students!  They would be overwhelmed.  That is where Comprehensible Input comes in.  I will go into all of this more in my next post.  In the meantime, check out this awesome post by Rachel Ash!