Friday, December 20, 2013

A Tech Take on Review Stations

Teachers are constantly bombarded with the questions "How are you differentiating?" and the inevitable follow-up, "yes, but how are you individualising?" You may remember last Spring my presentation on differentiation for the Foreign Language Association's 2013 conference in Augusta, GA.

Differentiation is something I am constantly working for. In a perfect world, each student would have an individualised lesson plan, one on one time with the teacher, meaningful group work, reflective individual time, and a myriad of experiences and lessons in between. But, we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world, at least in the United States where, all too often, the narrative is about a single teacher placed in a room with 30+ kids for one hour each day, a strict pacing guide, a pre-written final, and evaluation standards written by people who make the rules, but don't have to live by them. It creates a hectic, frustrating, non-conducive to learning environment for both teachers and students.

As teachers, we have the power to create the context within which our students learn and (hopefully) thrive. This year, I decided to play around with this a little in my final exam review. I wanted it to be personal to the students, but there needed to be accountability and I wanted students to work with different people each day. Our school is also beginning to use a "Bring Your Own Device" program where the kids can get WiFi access, so I wanted to test its capabilities too. Here is what I came up with:

The Idea
I decided to do a series of review stations. Each station would be able to be done in groups or individually and they would each have a piece of accountability. Students would be able to choose which station to do each day (in a 50 minute period, they could complete roughly 3-4 stations depending on their speed) based upon what they and/or their group members felt they needed to review. I wanted to test out the BYOD, so I knew I also wanted to incorporate technology as much as possible. This also would serve to cut down on the physical prep I had to do and the amount of clean up afterwards.

The Materials
I separated the test into four basic sections: Comprehension, Grammar, Culture, and Vocabulary. Then, I put 2-4 activities in each section. This is a list of the materials I used, related links (where needed), and what area they were used for:


The Prep
I set up multiple stations within each section as follows. Some, like the presentations, were student created, so little prep was needed on my part. Others, like the Quia and Socrative activities were teacher created, so they did require a little effort on my part. 

Comprehension
  1. Comic Strips - Students were given a list of stories to access in their texts or notes and created comic strips detailing the story. I took these, scanned them into the computer, and created a Google Presentation for students to review on their own/in groups to connect the images with the stories (total prep time: 5 minutes for each story)
  2. Character Analysis - Students were given a list of characters we'd learned about in our stories. They could use the stories in our books and culture section to create a character analysis and draw a picture. I scanned the pictures in and typed in the information to create a Google Presentation for students to review on their own/in groups (total prep time: 5 minutes for each character)
  3. Discussion - Students used the QR code to access the Google Presentations. Students would discuss in Latin what they'd learned (total prep time: 2 minutes


Grammar
  1. Quia Activities - Students would use the computer to access our classroom in Quia and to play a variety of games that went over grammar topics for the final. Students were to take diligent notes during this. (total prep time: 10-20 minutes per game throughout the semester)


Culture
  1. Socrative - Students would scan the QR code which would take them to the student link for socrative. They would enter my room and race against others in the space race I'd set up (upcoming post on this!) Socrative allowed me to download results. This was combined with the vocabulary (total prep time: 20 minutes)
  2. Flash Cards - Students would create flashcards for important topics in the culture section. One side would have the term/location/person/etc. and the flip side would have 5+ facts about them. (total prep time: 0 minutes)

Space Race on Socrative

Vocabulary
  1. Socrative - Students would scan the QR code which would take them to the student link for socrative. They would enter my room and race against others in the space race I'd set up (upcoming post on this!) Socrative allowed me to download results. This was combined with the culture. (total prep time: 20 minutes)
  2. Flash Cards - Students would create flashcards for vocabulary words. On one side would be the word and on the flip side would be: a picture, a derivative, any synonyms/antonyms in Latin, and a sentence in Latin. (total prep time: 0 minutes)


The Results
Overall, I would count this as a HUGE success. There were a few stumbling blocks, but overall both the students and I really enjoyed this. The students were able to focus on what they felt the need to. I was nervous that they would all just do vocabulary and culture or they would all freak out about grammar, but there was a steady stream of activities and everyone always had something to do. I was easily able to keep the kids accountable and work with those who needed extra guidance. Some students chose to work on their own, which was fine. It met their needs and no one minded because they all had the option. I got quite a bit of material to save electronically for next time and they all enjoyed looking at their work online. 

The only real issues I found were with socrative. Some students had trouble accessing the site or the site was very slow. Sometimes it could easily be fixed, sometimes they had to choose a separate activity. That being said, it was easy to set up and the kids loved it! 

Next semester I think I will do this again, but switch out or add on some activities. It really seemed to get students' needs taken care of while allowing me the freedom to work with those who needed it or get other things done in the classroom. By the third day, it ran very smoothly and students didn't need very much direction. Even with the stumbling blocks, I would mark this as a successful review session!  

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lessons I've Learned in Graduate School and Other Places

Okay, Confession: Rachel and I have been light on the posts this year. We are both feeling a little overwhelmed this year. I say this not as an excuse, but as an explanation and as an introduction for this post.

In addition to our full time teaching jobs (extended day in my case), both Rachel and I teach part time at an online school, are working on a new layout and pacing for said school, are in graduate school, work within our professional communities, and are planning on presenting and/or attending many conferences this year. What can I say? We like to keep busy. 

We knew what we were getting into when we signed up for all of these things, but I am not entirely sure either of us expected to feel so tired all the time. It has led to some serious thought on both of our parts as to what we can take away from this and how it is affecting our lives as teachers. So, I thought, what better way to consider these than with our professional learning network: you! So, below you will find some of the most common things I've thought or people have said to me and my reflections. I think you will find a little bit of personal reflection, professional growth, and political commentary. Happy Monday!
  • Wow you must be superwoman! How do you do it?
    • Large amounts of caffeine. Truth be told, I like to be busy. I like feeling organised and like I am bettering myself and my students. For anyone considering getting a higher degree or going to any conference or making any teaching career choice, I recommend these two questions below. I feel confident in my answers to these for the choices I've made and therefore, no matter how tired I feel, it is worth it. This being said, it is also important to have time for yourself. Both Rachel and I have been working together to ensure that neither of us goes until we crash and burn. We've been pretty good about being honest with each other and saying, "hey... um... you should take a break." No Superwomen here, just honest friends.
      • How will this help better me?
      • How will this help better my students?
  • So, do you want to go teach college or something?
    • No. There are some who want to teach at university, I am not one of those. I enjoy teaching high school and while I certainly would consider teaching at university if the opportunity presented itself, it is not the reason I'm getting a higher degree. I am choosing to do this, mainly, for my own mind. I really want to rebel against the idea that a higher degree is only useful at the university level. I like teaching high school and I feel like I can make more of a difference in a high school setting. Sure, it has its issues, and I know that most of my students will not go on to be Classics majors, but my job isn't to create Classics majors. My job is to teach Latin and having a higher degree helps teach and remind me of so many things! 
      • I am reminded of what it is like to be a student and the struggles that entails like being unsure if a teacher is being vague or if I wasn't listening carefully enough and, therefore, being hesitant to ask for help.
      • I am learning new techniques for teaching in general, but also teaching specific authors. I am going deeper into subjects that I may not have considered before. Even things that I think, "I'll never teach this" are giving me new perspectives. It is enjoyable.
      • I am learning about a new portion of my professional community. I am getting to know the people who will be making waves with me and who will be defending their ideas at the same time as me
      • I am reminded of and learning new techniques for studying and researching. I am being reminded of habits I had when I was in high school and it gives me new ways of reaching my students. 
  • You look exhausted. What's wrong?
    • Something one should never say to a person in grad school. Have a grad student? Know a grad student? Are a grad student? Then you know that we are always tired. We are always working and often, we look exhausted because we are, simple as that. I expect the same is true for our high school students - whether they were up playing games (and let's be honest, if Super Mario Bros came on our phones we'd probably have it and be up playing it all night long) or studying for their next test. Some days it is a blessing to be able to get the next thing on the list done. Others, I feel like I'm am more productive than I've ever been. It is the way it is. 
  • Why even bother with grad school? It isn't like it will affect your paycheck that much and you'll spend the rest of your life paying it off.
    • I've heard this more time than I care to think about. It is probably the one thing on this list guaranteed to fire me up enough to argue the point. The state in which I teach, Georgia, has placed severe limits on teachers who seek higher education. Not only have they lowered the amount of a raise you get for receiving a higher education degree, they have severely limited the types of degrees accepted and from where they accept them. What's the point if we're going to have to validate it time and time again anyways?
    • Furthermore, this is the only way to get a raise right now. I have 4 years teaching experience, but I am making a first year teacher's salary. Instead of keeping teachers from abusing the system, all this has done is turn teacher's against higher education and made them cynical about their own educational futures.Why should we if we can't afford it? 
    • I have looked into just about every grant and scholarship I could get. For Latin teachers, the list is already incredibly small. On top of that, most federal and state grants do not apply to us as we are not considered part of their "Modern language" or "language in need" category. So, that puts us in the category of people who take tens of thousands of dollars out to help support themselves while seeking higher education knowing full well that they will probably not get reimbursed and will be paying this off for quite a while. So... why do it?
The short answer for all of these questions and reflections is this: It makes us better teachers, better students, and better people. Rachel and I both love what we do, despite the massive amount of legislation brought against us. I believe that when a teacher stops being a student, (s)he stops being a good teacher. This is part of the reason why I try to be very active and why I decided to continue my education.

Despite all of the restrictions and difficulties put in my way, financially and legally, it is something I want to do. It is something that I know will help me and my students succeed and go further

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Two Sentence Horror Stories

Olim, fur villam magnificam direptam intravit quod
pecuniam vult et quaerit.  Sed postquam nox advenit,
sanguis effundit per ianuas et fur numquam revenit.
(Once, a thief entered a run-down magnificent house
because he wants and seeks money.  But after night
arrived, blood flowed through the doors and the thief
never returned)
A short, sweet, and easy Halloween activity.  Or anytime you feel like writing horror stories, really.

A few months ago, io9 published an article about a recent Reddit activity online.  Participants were asked to write horror stories and post them on Reddit.  The stipulation, however, was that they could only be two sentences long.

As difficult as that is to do, there were many takers and some really great fiction came out of the event.  Read the io9 article I linked above.  It's really amazing how much can be communicated in just a few words.  When I read it, a lightbulb went off in my head and the article was filed away in my brain somewhere under "There Has To Be Some Way I Can Use This In My Class" (long file name, longer file contents).

(I looked at my mirror.  I saw another man.)
Last week, inspired by the holiday and expecting my classes to be at least somewhat active (says ten years' previous Halloween experience--and who am I to argue with experience?), I decided that I had found the right moment to use this idea.

I began the class by handing out and going over a compilation of horror vocabulary, Vocabula Terrifica, that Miriam put together earlier this month.  After running quickly through the vocabulary, I told them about the io9 article and read a couple of the examples in English.  Then I put them into small groups, where they were asked to write Latin two sentence horror stories and illustrate them on a colored sheet of paper.  Lastly, they were asked to tape them on the wall when they finished.  The few groups who finished early were able to go around and read other groups' stories.

It was a nice way to spend Halloween.

My wall ended up so colorful!  As a bonus, my language arts students asked me to read them some of the stories.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Grammar in a Comprehensible Input Classroom

Grammar.  Grammar is what I loved about Latin when I learned it in college.  I still love grammar.  I love it when I teach it to my Language Arts classes (I get excited about participles--I mean, verbs can be so versatile) and I love it when I teach it to my Latin classes.  I honestly love the little nitpicky bits that can be pulled apart and analyzed, then put back together, sometimes with greater and deeper meanings explored.  My heart skips a beat just writing about it here.

But I have wrestled with the concept of teaching grammar for a decade now.

By my second year, I was dabbling in a comprehensible format for my classes.  I wanted all students to learn, not just the kids who have a natural knack for analyzing bits and putting them back together.  Those kids--kids like me--tend to have an easy time in school already, and the fact they could succeed in my class was really no great accomplishment on my part.  I wanted the regular kids to be able to learn and love Latin; more so I wanted the kids who struggle, whose talents tended to lie outside of sitting in rows quietly jotting down notes, to wear Latin like a badge of achievement.  Wow, you know Latin?  Isn't it hard?

However, Latin can be difficult in a comprehensible class.  Not impossible, and most definitely better comprehensibly than not, but the Latin language has a grammar that is distinctly foreign to a native English speaker.  It's inflected--the endings change based on what a word is doing in a sentence, and word order borders on a creative free-for-all.  While I can help my students learn vocabulary with ease, helping them to hear some of the more subtle grammar shifts sometimes can be difficult without moving into direct grammar instruction, which really only helps my logic-minded students who are already scholastically successful.

I have found a compromise for myself over the last couple of years: I have slowly been making and compiling grammar powerpoints that offer the concept completely in context and leave me to decide how much explicit instruction to include (depending on the program I'm part of at the time).  My drawings are goofy and my stories are generally macabre (so is my sense of humor), but the repetition of form is serious, and I usually pair them with circling (described in this blog post) and focusing on the new grammatical structure, all in Latin, with some English translation so they can see the connection.

Recently, I wanted to work on genitives.  I always offer the name of the grammatical structure on the ppt for those kids who just really want to know grammar.  I don't require my students to know the name, though, just to be able to function within the structure, and that's loosely defined by what I see them as capable of at the time.

Here's the ppt I put up:



I then initiated a series of circling for each slide that went as follows:

classis!  erat canis pueri! (aaaaah!)
erat canis pueri quod puer canem habebat! (aaaah!)
canis puerum habebat an puer canem habebat? (puer canem habebat)
puer canem habebat? (ita/certe)
canis puerum habebat? (minime)
ita, puer canem habebat!  itaque, erat canis pueri! (aaaaah!)
erat canis pueri an matris? (pueri)
erat canis draconis? (minime)

And I would circle each slide in this manner.  The big goal was to create the connection between "puer canem habebat" and "erat canis pueri" because both have the same basic meaning and can form that connection for the kids.  The ppt offered me a visual to point to with each step, and the idea of a girl being the daughter of a dragon was absurd enough to bring them back when they began to lose focus (after all, repetition is repetitive).  The next day, when they came into class, they found this worksheet on their desks.  Since it was all about re-establishing the connection that I was building the previous day, most of my students found it very easy.  To double-check their understanding of the genitive phrases (and to reinforce it for students who perhaps didn't quite get it the day before) I had the classes translate the genitive phrases together.  They actually asked that there be questions like this on the test--some asked that this be the entire test.  The questions aren't overly hard, but the important thing is that they require a student to understand the fundamental relationship between a word and any genitive connected to it.

And I think (I am always learning and experimenting, so I won't pretend to know) this is what I want out of grammar instruction in Latin.  Contextualized relationship-building.  Understanding how words and forms connect to each other.

After years of teaching using comprehensible input, I am slowly working my way toward grammar instruction that I like and that makes grammar comprehensible to all students.

(Oh, and in case you want to use them, I have all of my grammar powerpoints available here.  At least, the ones I have completed.  Some of them need work, or I had to make them quickly, so they are short or have mistakes.  I know that, and appreciate it if you send me a mistake so I can correct it!  After I've finished making all of them, I'll go back through and start making them nicer.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Activity: Reader's Theatre

Today I tried to do an activity that I am, self admittedly, no good at: Reader's Theatre.

There are various ways of doing it and it is something I think can be an incredible tool for both students and teachers, so I decided to commit to it and try it in 4 of my 6 classes: two Latin IIs and two Latin IIIs. 

I used three different processes which I will lay out in this post and I will also discuss what worked and what didn't. 

Process One 
Completed with 1 Latin II class
What I did:
  1. Students were given an embedded reading from our curriculum. It focused on four new words (most of which I'd already circled repeatedly with students). Students read a paragraph silently.
  2. I read the paragraph out loud, with emotion.
  3. Students asked comprehension and vocabulary questions in Latin.
  4. I asked comprehension questions to ensure understanding
  5. We repeated steps 1-4 with each paragraph of the story.
  6. Once we finished the story, three students I'd asked to play certain characters came up. The class divided the rest of the parts (hospites, Romani, Britanni) in groups and I was the king/narrator. 
  7. I read the story and all were responsible for responding appropriately. 
  8. Students completed a time write on the story.
What worked:
  • By asking students to act certain parts out prior, they were able to focus on what they should do, and there wasn't any chaos when I presented the theatre part of the activity. I was also able to choose students I knew would take it seriously
  • I was able to quickly gauge student understanding by their reactions. Since we were doing it as theatre, reactions were quick, almost simultaneous with my reading. I attribute this to the reading and discussion we'd done prior. 
  • Students got multiple forms of experience with the story. there was a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic aspect to our activity.
What didn't work:
  • This may not have been the best story to do. It was a great story to test comprehension this way, but not a lot of action, so I feel like the students felt jilted. Fortunately, tomorrow, there will be a more exciting story as a follow up.
Process Two
Completed with 1 Latin II class
What I did:
  1. Students were given an embedded reading from our curriculum. It focused on four new words (most of which I'd already circled repeatedly with students). Students read a paragraph silently.
  2. I read the paragraph out loud, with emotion.
  3. Students asked comprehension and vocabulary questions in Latin.
  4. I asked comprehension questions to ensure understanding
  5. We repeated steps 1-4 with each paragraph of the story.
  6. Once we finished the story, I asked students for volunteers to play essential characters. The rest of the class divided the rest of the parts (hospites, Romani, Britanni) in groups and I was the king/narrator. 
  7. I read the story and all were responsible for responding appropriately. 
  8. Students completed a time write on the story.
What worked:
  • As with before, it was easy to tell who understood and who didn't. I was able to quickly evaluate the skills of the class and see if extra practice was needed
  • Students reported that they felt confident in the story and were able to write about it. 

What didn't work:
  • I am not sure this class was fully confident to volunteer. I did get my volunteers, but only reluctantly. This changed however, after we started acting it out. They got comfortable and enjoyed it
  • This class was less excited about acting it out and it showed in some of their reactions. I may reserve RT for this class only when the story is exciting and elicits exciting responses. 

Process Three
Completed with 2 Latin III classes

What I did:
  1. I told students upfront about the reader's theatre activity and asked for volunteers at the beginning of the class. Students who did not volunteer for a specific role were given a general role (birds in this case)
  2. We reviewed our TPRS story yesterday about Romulus and Remus and finished it today with Remus' death and the Sabine War (a VERY shortened version of it, just the basics). I showed pieces of artwork and asked students to tell me the story piece by piece.
  3. Students were allowed to ask clarifying questions prior to acting it out.
  4. All students got up and acted while I stood in the back and told the story. 
  5. Students completed a timed write on the story. Since this was an upper level class, I asked them to consider the perspectives of Romulus and Remus during their fight and to pick one brother to support in their writing. 
What worked:
  • Students REALLY got into it. Even the ones not usually excited about participating had no complaints. 
  • Students said they felt very prepared to do a timed write after having so many forms of input: me telling the story, discussion of the story, artwork to look at, and Reader's Theatre.
  • Again, I was able to quickly determine level of understanding by watching the students. 
What didn't work:
  • There was a bit of chaos. Students responded appropriately, but there was a bit of goofing off. I feel as though it took away from the overall performance, but comprehension did not suffer and students enjoyed themselves.
-----------------------------
I believe I will do this again. I enjoyed this and now, having done it a few different ways, I feel more confident in my ability to pull it off. I don't know that I would say that I would get rid of any of these processes, but I may slightly change how I do things from class to class depending on the students and the chemistry. Tomorrow I am planning on doing something similar with my I classes where they act out different vocabulary words. Not necessarily related to a story, but the same concept. I will post a follow up with my observations then.

Happy acting!

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Comprehensible Introduction to CI in the Language Classroom

Bob Patrick discusses Comprehensible Input and what it contains.
Over the past four days, Miriam and I have been attending a workshop over Comprehensible Input (CI) in Latin.  The workshop was run by our friends, the estimable Keith Toda and the indefatigable Bob Patrick.  Both of these men have been delving in comprehensible approaches to Latin for years; Bob in particular has been incorporating aspects of CI into his teaching for 11 years.

Each day has had different focuses; and the teachers at the workshop vary from experienced teachers who have never spoken Latin to teachers like Miriam and myself, who have been using CI in our classrooms since we first began teaching.  It's a good mix; the teachers new to speaking Latin in the classroom are able to ask pertinent questions that about things that I know I often take for granted, and the teachers experienced in the method can add advice that the presenters may or may not think of themselves (though they most likely have the same practices).

And of course, I never pretend to know it all.  There are concepts and ideas that have been introduced in this week that I didn't have familiarity with myself.

I should also add that I didn't even get to attend the entirety of every day.  I had to leave early each day to pick up my son from a writing camp (that he chose and loves!), so I'll be linking Miriam's thoughts on the workshop here to fill in the gaps in my descriptions.

Day 1: Vocabulary is more than flashcards.

Our first day of the workshop was led by Keith, who incorporated his ACL presentation (that I have already written about here) into our introduction to a comprehensible approach.  Then we played some vocabulary games--unfortunately, I don't have any pictures (I was too busy playing!) but the games themselves are described below:

Whiteboard Games
These games are best played with whiteboards (you can easily get "whiteboards" made at Home Depot or the like; buy a showerboard and have the nice men cut it up into 1 ft x 1 ft), but you can always have kids write or draw on their own notebook paper.

Latin Scattergories: Give students a time limit (we had 1 minute) and ask them to write all the words they can think of in a certain category.  In the workshop, we did "starting with the letter ___," but you could do grammatical forms, rooms in a house, etc.  When they're done, assign them to a partner and have students compare their words.  Every word they have in common, they have to cross out.  Afterwards, the student with the most original words wins!  You can repeat this as many times as you want, and it can be a great closer for a class to see what students remember.

Fill in the blank: This doesn't sound as fun as it is.  Or perhaps, since I have a morbid sense of humor, I made it fun, but I believe your students will, too, if you create a classroom culture that is open to creativity.  You write a sentence on the board, such as "femina in via ___" ("The woman in the street ___").  The students then fill in the blank with whatever they decide fits.  Pair them up, have them read their sentences to each other (not just show each other their written boards), and decide a sentence to share with the class.  Mine was "femina in via cordia consumit" ("The woman in the street is eating hearts"--because "is walking" just wasn't exciting enough for me), and we had a good time trying to match the morbidity of that line for the other sentences we were asked to complete.  This allows repetition of certain forms and formats, yet still asks students to show off what they can easily recall, which makes it a low-stress review or activity.

Guess the word: With two students (or teachers, in our case) seated in front, facing the rest of the class and away from the board (the important part), the teacher writes a Latin word on the whiteboard behind the two students.  We then draw the word as best we can on our own whiteboards and when the teacher says, show the students our whiteboards.  The students try to be the first to guess the Latin word.  It's important to emphasize a quick turnover on this--don't give your students too much time to draw or the energy will wane. Concrete words such as "navis" ("ship") are easiest--but you end up with more of a 4 Pics 1 Word effect with more abstract concepts, and that can be fun.

Draw a connection: You put 3-4 words on the board and the students use their whiteboards to draw an image involving all of them.  If they can spin it into a connected story in a couple of sentences, so much the better, but as long as they get all the words down in some form, they are successful.  From there, you can have students share their images and describe them to a partner, you can take an image and project it (Keith has a document camera, which is quick and easy, but I also have been known to take a quick picture with my camera and email it to myself, and other options abound) and discuss, question, etc.  An image can become a spring-board for a shared class story or even something to use to open class the next morning as a review.

It was at this point, unfortunately, that I had to leave to pick up my son.  However, you can find out the rest of the day's activities by reading Miriam's post here.

Day 2: What is Comprehensible Input?

Bob took the lead this day, fresh off the plane from Ireland.  This is relevant--he had several revelations that connected language teaching to driving in Ireland.  I won't be able to do his stories justice--you'll have to meet him and ask him yourself--but I can describe some of the revelations and perhaps what they meant to me and my particular language teaching experience.

What Bob had to say first is, I think, one of the most important messages a teacher new to comprehensible input can receive.  Namely, it's a process.  Honestly.  It's a transition from one way of teaching to a completely different paradigm, and few people can simply shift modes like that.  You need training and practice and, above all, a slow, comfortable transition into the method.  Bob pointed out that it has taken him 11 years to reach the point he's at, and he still considers himself to be transitioning.

The next point Bob made that really stood out to me was this: he teaches with comprehensible input because he wants an equal classroom.  He wants equality for all students.  He doesn't want to just teach the elite, "smart" students that traditionally take Latin, he wants to teach them all, including the unmotivated, the ones supporting their own households, the kids who always struggle but work hard, and the kids with legitimate learning disorders.  Every kid.

My motto, when I had to write a teaching philosophy at the end of my first year, was "all students can learn," so this struck a chord with me.  It is exactly why I began researching methods like TPRS before I even began teaching and why I am devastated by any student who does not succeed in my class.  And why, even though it can be uncomfortable, terrifying, and overwhelming, I still encourage all language teachers to find ways to incorporate comprehensible input into their classrooms.

It's really okay to be scared; I didn't know how to speak Latin when I started, and I was scared myself.

Making Cheesecake
After discussing these things with us, Bob had us gather around a table.

"Class, I'm going to teach you how to make a cheesecake."


He pulled out a list of ingredients and rattled them off.  He then put the list on the table.

Next, Bob started pulling out cooking accouterments, including a whisk and various measuring spoons.  He paused with each one, told us the name of each, but said nothing about how to use them.

What you need to make a cheesecake.
Then it was quiz time.  Questions over what each item was and one question that asked us to list all of the ingredients.  We were able to tackle those questions with some ease--after all, we had just discussed it and, generally speaking, were previously familiar with the cooking implements.  However, the last thing we had to do on our quiz was to write an "essay" explaining how to make a cheesecake.  Those of us with prior knowledge had no problems--I've made cheesecakes before, I'm familiar with recipe format, so it was pretty simple for me.  That was about three of us.  For everyone else, there was nothing in what we did that would help them figure out how to heat the oven, mix the ingredients, bake the crust, then the cake itself, etc.

You can see where this is going.  Having a list of ingredients (vocabulary) and knowing the names of tools (grammar) doesn't give you the ability to bake.  Even though some of us were able to come up with a decent description anyway, that was based on prior knowledge (students who have language experience or are already fluent in a second language), not on the information that Bob had imparted.

Even though we offer vocabulary lists and grammar terms to students, that doesn't mean we've taught them the skills necessary to function in the language--even if all you want is for a student to read in the language, as a student who learned grammar-translation, I was very good at analysis and very poor at just comprehending what I was reading.  I love analysis, I love grammar; neither is a good way to help students comprehend language.

Rules of the Irish Road (and Comprehensible Input)
Once we completed and graded our quizzes and discussed the experience, Bob explained how driving in Ireland compares to CI:

  • The directions you are given may not mean what you think they mean.  Bob explained that the way a GPS describes direction in Ireland ("Go left at the rotary") doesn't always make obvious sense to our American training.  In the same way, often you think comprehensible input means one thing (everything must be in Latin!  you can never talk about grammar!), and it's not until you've had some experience that you learn that you were only really hearing part of the discussion.
  • You can stay on a rotary as long as you like until you are sure where you are going.  If you've had a chance to drive a rotary (also known as a traffic circle) before (I have, in Arkansas), you know that you are free to continue going around the circle until you know which road you're actually meaning to take.  The same goes for CI.  You don't have to jump into anything; you can keep working on one part, or trying a little, or incorporating 10 minutes a day, or any number of things, until you figure out what is right for you.  
  • Use tools the way they can best be used in the location.  In Ireland, there are no building numbers. In order to find a location, you have to use a nearby crossroad, and enter that in the GPS.  Which, though less precise than American addresses, can still get you where you want to go.  In the same way, you can customize the way you use CI methodology to your own classroom and your own situation.  
So, what is Comprehensible Input?
Comprehensible Input is regular and constant understandable messages in the target language.  Anything you do that keeps the language understandable is comprehensible input.  All student activities that include reading or listening can be made comprehensible, and if they are comprehensible, students are able to learn.  Very importantly, CI causes unconscious learning.  As Keith discussed on Day 1 (and is described in my blog post here), to acquire a language, to have it for use later on, the learning has to be unconscious.  If a student "learns" something by memorizing a list, it doesn't move into long-term memory, but instead is usually held for as long as it takes to complete a quiz, then dumped in favor of the next list the child needs to memorize.

What CI is not is immersion.  Immersion in a language implies that anything goes; students often are exposed to language that they do not understand, and that tends to be more frustrating than helpful--it's only through understandable messages that students can learn.  For an example of this, turn on an unfamiliar movie in a language you don't know.  Try to understand any of the conversations happening.  Sometimes you might get an impression of what is going on, but generally speaking, you are not going to learn the language this way.  At least, not quickly.

So if comprehensible input is not immersion, then how do you achieve the 90% target language goal recommended by ACTFL?  The answer is as simple as it is intimidating: practice.  Don't start out expecting to hit that 90% goal.  You're not going to do it.  Your students won't suffer, and they won't know you're missing a goal unless you've told them what it is (which would also be fine--sometimes it's nice to have them helping you stay on target).  Start small--20%, 40%, however much you think you can do.  Most Latin teachers have not been taught to speak the language, so often a slow start is the best way to find a comfort level with it.

And it's worth finding a comfort level with comprehensible input.  Direct, explicit grammar instruction (charts, lists, rules) only informs a small percentage of students who are naturally inclined towards grammar and strong in logical thought (you are probably one of those people if you are reading this post).  This is hard to face, or even to see, as a Latin teacher, because as a Latin teacher, grammar and translation aren't just ways to approach a language, they're a lifestyle and life choice.  Most of us completed degrees in Latin precisely because the grammar enticed us.  Which is also why it's hard for Latin teachers to differentiate between true reading and speedy translation.  Many Latin teachers, especially if they have translated a text more than once, can very quickly go through the text and turn it into English.  However, if you aren't forgetting that you're reading and experiencing a movie in your head (as fluent readers do in their native language), then you aren't reading--you're translating, possibly very quickly, but not reading.

And reading--real, fluent understanding--is my personal goal for my students.  I don't want my students taking Latin as a stepping-stone or to improve their SAT scores (though I know that's why many do); I want them to take Latin to learn to think in Latin.

This is as much as I got to experience the theory before I had to head out to pick up my son.  As before, Miriam was able to finish out the day and posted about it here.

Day 3: TPRS

The third day had a focus on the methodology of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and what a year and week of TPRS-centered Latin pedagogy look like.

This inspired me to see what I have posted about TPRS, and it turns out I haven't posted much (just an explanation of the method here and a video of my own lesson here) .  When I reflected on why I haven't posted much over a method that I use almost every day in class, I realized it's because I consider TPRS old news.  I have been using the approach for nine years, have known about it for eleven, and it has existed for at least twenty.  I think I forget that not everyone knows about it, understands it, and knows how to do it.

Aside from my general rundown linked above, here are some observations about TPRS as a comprehensible input method.

TPRS is comprehensible because it "shelters" vocabulary.  What this means is that the vocabulary is limited; you only introduce a few words at a time (generally four or so a day).  Grammar does not have to be sheltered because comprehensibility actually tends to be centered in vocabulary.  Try an experiment in your own class.  Using words you have used over and over in class, speak a sentence that uses unfamiliar grammar but completely familiar vocabulary.  Then check understanding.  There will be kids who recognize you did something different and want to ask you about it.  Overall, though, your class will have at least a basic understanding of what you said, because it's the words, not the grammar, that communicate most meaning.

Bob himself, along with some other Latin teachers (I am in on the conversation, as is Miriam, though we have not been actively participating; I believe for both of us, our online classes take up much of our free time) have been collaborating on a generalized list of the 400 most important vocabulary words for students to learn--based on Latin authors they want their students to read--which is intended to be taught slowly, over three years.

To check understanding in TPRS, you can ask students what something means or test them over their comprehension, but the biggest clue is to teach to the eyes.  If all eyes are on you, all eyes are focused, and students are responding appropriately to your questions (called circling; it is also discussed in my blog post), that generally means they are not only engaged, but they are comprehending what you are saying.  There is a TPRS maxim: Teach to the Eyes.  Kids lose interested when they don't understand you.  When kids start looking elsewhere, when they stop showing any focus, that is when you should take a step back, focus on those kids, and bring them back to the conversation.

If you have kids who have trouble maintaining focus, one thing you can do is assign them a "job" to help you keep up with your success as a teacher.  Several jobs are suggested here, in a blog post by James Hosler; my favorite two are the ones who count your repetitions for you, and the ones who let you know when you slip into English.

Bob also advises a teacher new to the method to just begin using comprehensible input and TPRS with Latin I students, then follow them through their different levels.

And if you're curious what a year in the life of a Latin I Comprehensible Input teacher looks like, here it is (I simply typed up Bob's powerpoints at this point of his presentation):

What a year looks like:

  • Day 1: Cards for circling with balls, teach safety net rules and daily engagement in the first day
  • Two weeks of TPR with classroom objects and commands and circling with balls
  • Circle with balls until you know and have interviewed every student in the room
  • Establish 4 words/phrases for 3 days per week to circle via TPRS and PQA
  • Read Stage stories when students are handling the vocabulary well
  • R and D the story: read and discuss, or read and draw.  Assess comprehension.
    • Teach to the eyes.
    • Ask them questions, Latine
    • Ask them to re-tell the story to you if they seem ready
  • When they seem ready to produce, introduce Timed-Writes, with and without drawings
  • Create portfolios of timed writes and word counts. (Bob uses portfolios as an exam--students have to choose their best writing and write about why they chose those and why it's their best writing.  They give themselves a grade, then teachers check portfolio and decide if they agree with the grade)
  • Begin using embedded readings* when students begin to be overwhelmed with vocabulary.
  • When individuals seem ready, ask for them to retell the story.  Use tag-team approach if students seem reluctant: choose two students who can help each other along.
  • Pop-up grammar (quick, no more than a one-minute explanation IF a student asks a grammar question)
  • As story lines become more complex, use Dictatio to introduce characters and some new vocabulary
  • Create a word wall on which you put the most important words, about 100 per semester
  • Culture and word study can still be done in English discussion periods, for homework, as flipped classroom, etc.
  • Stage tests which focus on comprehension, in Latin with Latin questions and answers, in context isolated grammar (the natural grammar that has been surfacing with the kids), m/c culture and derivatives
  • 80/80 rule: if 80% of students have gotten 80% of the material you can move on

And to move from a macroscopic view to a more day-to-day guide:

What a week looks like:


  • Die Lunae: Dictatio based on model sentences or key sentences from a story.  Reminder of dictatio and engagement rules.  Collect Dictatio and grade as a daily quiz.
  • Die Martis: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers (kids with TPRS jobs) at the end of the period
  • Die Mercurii: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers, quick end of period assessment of yesterday's words: choral or pass out of class.
  • Die Iovis: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers, quick end of period assessment of yesterday's words: choral or pass out of class.
  • Die Veneris: there are options
    • Review word wall and all the new words this week--largely English, point out derivatives.
    • Read and discuss the story you've been asking all week, typed up from Scriptores notes and including artwork from Articices
    • Read and discuss a story, embedded or from text.
    • Timed write.
    • Word chunk game

*Embedded Readings.  Go through a text and mark all the new words for your class.  If there are too many words, shelter the vocabulary.  Choose 4-5 new words that are important, and circle them.  Then either rewrite the story with a synonym to avoid certain words, exclude a sentence if it is not important to the story, or rewrite sentences to avoid certain phrases.  Read this version first, then read the original.  For particularly difficult texts (such as Virgil), you can actually embed at several levels to help students reach the text with a real understanding of the vocabulary and words.

At this point, I had to leave to pick up Phoenix.  Miriam, however, continues the day here.

Day 4: Practical Application


Patrick Yaggy asks a story.
So, the great thing about having teachers at various levels of experience is that we can be mixed into groups that allow a more experienced person to help out someone with less experience.

On day 4, the last day of the workshop, we were asked to break into groups to work on a story together.  Our groups were assigned to choose 4-5 words or phrases, prepare a plan for practicing them out loud, then create an embedded version of the story.  Bob and Keith provided feedback on our repetitions, practice, and stories so we could best know how to improve.

There's not a lot to add here; the practical application was time well spent, though not easily expressed or experienced via typed descriptions.  The best thing you can do is either find a teacher to mentor you through (almost any TPRS and comprehensible input teacher will be glad to do so), so you can watch the method in action and hopefully be watched and coached in turn.

At the CASIE Speakeasy for Gaelic -- a student perspective

     Recently, Rachel and I went to the CASIE Speakeasy's Gaelic presentation. We both went with different intentions and, thus, you will find two blog posts about this. When Rachel posts hers, I will link to it.

A few bits of background on me that will make this post make more sense.


  1. I am a 4%er. I love, L-O-V-E the intricacies of language and I am that student who sits in the front (partly because I wear glasses) and raises her hand and asks, "okay... so what if I were to do this in the language... how would that look". I love the puzzle languages present and I love the rush when I try to put something together myself and I get it right. 
  2. I am a perfectionist. Someone commented to me while there that they noticed how I wouldn't respond unless I was sure I'd get it right. I am also that kid. I get frustrated when I don't get it right and I get upset when I can't figure it out. Sometimes that is mistaken for lack of caring or anger... if it is, it is anger with myself because, as a 4%er, I feel like I should be able to get it. 
  3. I am Irish. I bleed green, white, and orange. I come from two different Irish clans. While we do not have family there now, to the best of my knowledge, we know where they are buried and we've kept our Irish heritage alive within the family. It has long been a dream of mine to learn to speak the language. I have tried numerous times on my own and, as my dad put it after coming back from his recent trip there, it is the language that eludes. So, you can imagine the squeal I let out when I saw that it was being offered -- an hour and a half of direct instruction in the language I have been longing for.
     The thing to remember about the CASIE speakeasy events is that these are full immersion events. The speaker is to speak no English once the session begins. There is a Q and A session in English afterwards, however. Our teacher, Ms. Eilis Crean (founder of The Irish Gift) was teaching us through folk song. We were given a handout with the original Gaelic lyrics, the English phonetic version, and an English translation. Ms. Crean used a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the song, it's history, and certain pronunciation points. 

     After she was introduced, the lesson began. I was poised and ready to take notes. I knew I wouldn't understand everything, but I'd hoped to start putting pieces together right away. Man, was I wrong. Okay, that sentence was hard to write. I wasn't expecting to struggle in the beginning to the degree I did and that threw me for a loop. It wasn't the teaching or the teacher. It wasn't the setting or the materials, it was me! I had gotten caught up in my own 4% that I'd forgotten about the 96%. I'd forgotten to listen. I mean, really listen. I'd forgotten that in order to figure out the puzzle, you have to take a step back and get a sense of things first.
(left to right) Me, Rachel, Eilis Crean

     Once I realised what was happening, I was quick to take a step back and start over. Then, I was able to start picking up things from what she was saying. She gave examples of pronunciation in the language  She had us repeat after her. I knew that even if I didn't get it at first, by the time it got to me, I'd have it... or... I'd be first and she'd correct me until I got it. At first, I was scared (being the perfectionist), but I quickly got over that because she made it clear that we'd speak, even if we were "just" repeating. There was, oddly, some comfort in that. I started scribbling notes.

I want to pause here for a minute and make a note: I've studied many languages in one form or another (9 including this brief session). The three that have stuck are Latin, English, and Arabic. Over the years, I have found English to be incredibly lacking when it comes to language learning. So much so that I rarely take language notes in English. I pause to say this because there may be a situation where a student is taking notes in his or her native/another language. I am not sure this is a bad thing. I can make connections to Gaelic using Arabic and Latin that I cannot do using English. English is not my "language-learning" language. 

     I scribbled furiously. After the session, it was noted that I'd been scribbling all over my paper. The people at my table, at one point, just stared at me. Ya, I'm that kid. I realise it was distracting to them at some point, but, from my perspective in that moment, I was in my zone. I was figuring out the puzzle. It didn't bother my table too much and some of them took from my cue and started their own notes. One of the benefits I think of working with a folk song to learn the language was that I could take notes. We didn't move so fast that I had to quickly scribble and then start something new. I had the time to figure things out in my own way. Things were repeating constantly and I could start to put pieces together. The great thing about a song is that you can look for similarities in the structures and words that stories and straight up sentences don't always provide. From that, I was able to start pulling vocabulary out. 

   
Eilis Crean and her violin
 Ms. Crean went over each line, repeatedly. She'd go over it slowly, speaking, then she'd introduce the rhythm. Finally, she'd introduce the tune. By the time we were to sing, I felt confident enough to be vocal. It was easy to feel confident in this class. We spoke as a class at first, then by tables. I never felt singled out, but I also knew that I wasn't going to get an easy pass and not have to participate. By the end of the hour and a half, I felt confident with the song, if not all the words. By teaching each verse and chorus in the same manner, I was able to pull other vocabulary, like some numbers, words of praise, the command to "repeat", and some other tidbits. 

     Using the lyrics, I started pieces together the history as well. There were certain adjectives that went with certain nouns and there were repeated phrases that, using the English translation, showed clear Gaelic idioms. It was a piece of heaven to me and I had great fun taking it apart and putting it back together. 

     Overall, I think the lesson was great. I feel like I walked away with some immediate knowledge about the language and, as I will detail below, about myself as a teacher and a student. Ms. Crean did a great job and, even though I found Gaelic to be difficult, I am inspired to continue. As a teacher, I feel like that is the goal. Besides teaching the language, instilling passion to continue learning. I walked way knowing three things: I'd forgotten some about being a student, I've learned some things about being a teacher, and I will not give up my dream of learning Gaelic and will sign up for more classes. 

I'd forgotten some about being a student
  • I am a 4%er. I accept that. As a 4%er, I get caught up in the puzzle and forget the first step of learning a language -- the wonder. I imagine that there are quite a few 4%ers in our own classes that do the same. I wonder if they have the thought to stop, take a step back, and wonder?
  • There is joy in figuring things out on my own, even if at a very basic level. I hadn't forgotten this so much as forgotten what it felt like. As a teacher, I need not underestimate that in my own students. 
  • Culture shock is real. This kind of goes back to the first point. That overwhelming moment when your brain says, "oh... no. nope. sorry. NOT going to happen."
  • If I know that I will not be let off the hook, but the pressure of performing perfectly that I already feel is not doubled by the teacher, I will learn faster and will remember more. 
  • I was personally invested in this lesson. Even with the culture shock, I continued on, with excitement. 
I've learned some things about being a teacher
  • I cannot assume that my students will remember to listen, on a very basic level. I need to work with that. I need to make sure my students get that if they are not getting it themselves. It should be low stress and should not be based on the time I have, but the time they need
  • There is a way to remove the pressure of speaking individually while making sure every student knows they must speak. Choral response is a good start and small group response is a good follow-up. Students who need to extra repetition get it and students who are moving ahead get to be leaders.
  • Breaks are necessary. Krashen says i +1; Brain research says that students can only learn for a specific time based on brain age; WAYK says that "full checks" should be frequent and taken very seriously. Culture shock is okay, but only in small doses. 
  • I must find topics that students are interested in, either by my design or theirs, or some combination of both. 
     Ultimately, as a teacher, this lesson reaffirmed for me what I know about Comprehensible Input. Basic skills, small steps, enjoyment, breaks, self interest -- all of these are key pieces. In order for 100% of students to learn, I need to reinforce basic skiills, take small steps, enjoy their accomplishments fully, with them, force breaks when necessary, and make sure they are interested. 

     Even if CASIE is not the venue, I'd recommend some language learning for all foreign language teachers. We need to be reminded of what our students go through. We need to be aware of their struggles and their thoughts while learning something we've known how to do for a while. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Little Truth in Graffiti

A couple of weeks ago, I was monitoring a test.

It was my third test of the day.  I was bored.  This particular test is a state-mandated standardized test that asks teachers to "actively monitor"--meaning no grading, no planning, no computer, only watching students stare at computer screens--students to make sure the test is as secure as possible.  My job was to walk around, not read the test at all, make sure no one is looking at anyone else, etc.

By the middle of the first test I felt like going crazy.  I had random urges to jump around and wave my arms spasmodically in the air, just to change my pattern: weave this way between the computer tables; now this way.  I will admit to a certain level of hyperactivity and a pretty persistent need to keep my mind busy that often requires a pen and paper (at least) to record my thoughts.  This walking in circles thing while watching kids stare at computers, listening to mice click, scroll, click, is about as opposite my natural modus operandi as it gets.  When I first started teaching I used to carry a stone in one hand when I gave tests in my classroom so I could at least fiddle with something, but I didn't bring one to this test.

It was during one of my passes between computer tables that I noticed it.  Thin, shaky lines, obviously originally written to be hidden, but now betrayed by a simple rearrangement of cardboard dividers, spelled out one student's despair in three straight-forward words: school sucks balls.

School sucks balls.

I silently agreed with the concisely authored phrase as I did a quick turnaround just in case students might think they knew my path well enough to steal a glance at someone else's test--a test that contained different questions in a different order than their tests.  In that setting, at that moment, how could I disagree?  There was no learning, no spirit of inquiry, no empathy, nothing that makes school special, in that setting and at that moment.

There was the test.

And, before that, there was preparing for the test.

Teaching this year has been an eye-opening experience.   Before this year, I was already against standardized testing, pre-testing, interim testing, post testing, and field testing (we did all of these this year--none of that is made up).  I follow SOS: Save Our Schools, a movement against testing as a means of measuring student and teacher achievement.  I recognized the invalidity of a standardized test as a means of measuring either intelligence or learning even as a preteen who was extremely good at testing.  I have hated standardized testing for a very long time.

Yet, I had never experienced teaching a class that culminated in a standardized test.

This year was the first year I've taught Language Arts in a public school.  Previous to that, I have mostly taught Latin, an untested field, and have had the freedom to tailor my classes to my students' needs.   If they knew the current concept and were ready to go on, we did.  If they needed more reinforcement of a concept, we spent more time on it.  I created a community in my classrooms; generally my Latin classes have been joyful and celebratory, filled with fun, jokes, and a personal relationship with my students that let me experiment with methodology and let them tell me with honesty what was working for them.

I still had two Latin classes this year, but I also taught three Language Arts classes.

The difference has been astounding.  I feel like I only got to know maybe a fifth of the students very well.  We were rarely creative.  We were rarely laughing.  We were rarely having fun.  I spent most of my time in the front of the room, lecturing, or pacing through the room while kids read, worked on worksheets, filled out forms.

I should say, this is not my school's fault.  My administration is amazing and supportive--I have never seen such a cohesive and reasonable group of principals.  My course team for Language Arts has bent over backwards to help me teach as effectively as possible and has been there for me every time I had a question--and that's been often.

Instead, it's the fault of the current push to punish schools and teachers for past trespasses that rarely have to do with anyone who is now in the field.  The current cry of "accountability" has spawned a testing craze that makes a huge amount of money for textbook companies and hurts everyone else in education, especially the students.

My students never got to experience the joy of enjoying a great book, never got to celebrate characters and revelations, connections between themselves and literature.  Instead, I got to spoon-feed them as much information as I could so they could be ready for The Test.  The Test, a state-mandated standardized test, was worth 20% of their grade.  Everything I did in class ultimately revolved around The Test.  And my kids, already convinced they don't like spending eight hours a day locked in a building being told what to do, found class boring, tedious, uncomfortable, and uninspiring.  So did I.

Every day I had both subjects, Language Arts and Latin, juxtaposed against each other as a clear illustration of the difference between a standardized and unstandardized subject.  Every day I would so enjoy my Latin classes that I came to dread facing my Language Arts classes and their lack of motivation.  It wasn't the students or the subject, it was the way I had to approach both.

All my spoon-feeding and worksheet-pushing achieved its goal; nearly all of my students not only received a passing score on The Test, but received a good score, one that improved their grade average in my class.  However, I know, from their expressions every time we started a new reading, that they got no joy in my class, found no new literature to love, and generally think Language Arts is one more class that they need to "get through" to graduate.

This is no way to educate life-long learners.  As things currently stand, "school sucks balls."

I only hope that, as this current unfortunate generation of students graduates and gains control of our politics, things will change and this trend will be remembered in history as the mistake and disaster that it is.

Friday, April 12, 2013

FLAG Presentation: Creating a Differentiated Classroom Without The Headache

I was honoured to be asked to present at the Foreign Language Association of Georgia's annual conference in Augusta this year. I decided to present on a topic that I have been very self conscious about this year: Differentiation. It seems to be a very popular "buzz word" in education now and often throws teachers for a loop. There are twenty billion definitions it seems and every person has different standards for what it would look like in a perfect classroom. My hope was to provide real examples of differentiation and help take some of the pressure off of classroom teachers when it comes to differentiation. So, without further ado: Creating a Differentiated Classroom Without the Headache!

---
The Rules
  1. Keep it simple - As teachers we can over complicate things, not on purpose, but just because we like to think of every angle of how an activity will work and what it will mean for us and our students. As I've experimented this year with differentiation, I've found the simpler it is, the easier it works and the better it works. 
  2. It's all about choice - Bearing in mind the first rule, this one is incredibly easy to follow. Make it about the students choosing. This is the simplest form of differentiation. You can limit the choices, but ultimately, let the students choose. Provide guidelines, but let them be the keepers of their educational destiny. They will thank you for it and you won't be reading the same 3 paragraph essay/story over and over again.
  3. It's okay to relinquish control, every once in awhile - I made this a rule as a follow up to rule #2. As teachers, we are asked to always be in control of our classrooms. I have found though, that the more you try to control differentiation like you would classroom management, the more unbearable it becomes. It's okay to say "yes" every once in a while when a kid says, "Hey... what about...." You never know where it may go.
  4. The more you do it, the easier it becomes - Practice makes perfect... or in this case, practice makes fun. The more you try differentiation, the less afraid you become and, if you relinquish a little control, let kids make choices, and you relinquish a little control... it can become a whole lot of fun!
  5. You define the parameters, they get to show you their style - Often it is said that we teachers should teach life skills. Why not take this and apply to all classes with differentiation? Define the parameters (grammar topics, sentence limits, vocabulary targets) and let them have creative freedom. This will make the grading process more interesting as well as make it more fun for them (as well as anyone observing your classroom!)
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The Ideas
  • You probably already do it! - You may not realise it, but every time you review vocabulary, grammar, culture, do a warm up or summarising activity... you are differentiating the content. By reviewing, acting out, drawing, giving synonyms, "previewing", or answering those quick "student driven" questions, you differentiate! Point this out to your supervisors, parents, and make note of it. You'll be surprised by how much you do it already.
  • Only Half the Story - Differentiate the content by breaking students into groups and only giving them part of the information (e.g. the first/second half of a story, a list of half the vocab from a chapter/activity/story, a picture that evokes certain words/ideas/phrases, etc.). Ask students to come up with a list of what they think the item is about, what emotions it evokes, what they think is going to happen, what they think happened, etc. Then, share with the rest of the class and start a discussion. If you look at the photos in my presentation (listed below), you can see what kind of words a well put together activity can evoke. Use this as an opening activity, or as a tool of summary, or a pre-reading strategy.
  • Student Choice Assignment - This is all about choice. I collect four grades each chapter/unit --> a classwork grade that I choose, a classwork grade that they choose, a grade from their computer study day, and a quiz grade of their choosing. I reserve the right to collect any assignment, and I set specific parameters for each assignment. Students then choose their best work. This ensures that their grade isn't reflecting a day where they were sick, absent, or what have you and they get to show me exactly what they found valuable or learned. Here are my parameters for the three grades they get to choose:
    1. classwork grade - must be an activity that took the majority of class and pertains to our stories.
    2. Quia lab day - students must work for the entire period on our Quia activities. They may fill out a questionnaire or base their grade off of time spent/notes taken.
    3. Timed Write quiz grade - students complete a series of timed writes (described below). They choose their best and submit for a quiz grade.
  • Embedded Stories - You may wish to read this earlier write up about embedded stories. I find myself doing these more and more. In my presentation (listed below), you see an upper level example based off of Ovid and a first year example based off of a story we read. Embedding involves taking the story and simplifying it. This can take many forms like a wordle or a summary for pre-reading, a very simply version for Day 1, a dictatio (dictation), a more complex version, so on and so forth. The idea is to severely limit vocabulary to make the language become comprehensible for students. You can lead students with an embedded story through a dictatio, a read and discuss, a guided notes session, a reader's theatre, etc. By embedding it, you create 2, 3, 4, even 5 versions that students can learn from and you've increased your way of reaching them. 
  • Timed Write - Start with 5 minutes after a discussion or reading. Ask students to silently write for the entire 5 minutes. Everything they remember. No aids. Ask them to do their best. If you do this consistently  you will find that you can keep track of their progress, as can they. My students often tell me excitedly how their word count has increased or how they notice certain minuscule details about their writing. I love hearing that. When I collect these, I NEVER grade them on grammar. I simply grade them on understanding. As you do this, students will start complaining about the time given. This is when you increase the time you give, eventually getting to 15-20 minutes. 
In my presentation and handout, you will find a few more examples as well as my resources and contact information. I hope you find this information useful and please feel free to contact me with any questions or stories! The more ideas the better! 

Happy Spring and happy differentiating!

Friday, March 29, 2013

How to Make an Ablative Absolute Quilt (From my article in the Classicist)


Today I woke up and (as happens all-too-often) realized that I really had no realistic plan for teaching my Latin II class. I was bored with the normal day-to-day activities that we all do as standby, and wanted to do something a little different.
As I stood looking around my room, willing my desks and chairs to give me an idea, that ever-elusive muse of teaching touched me and I knew what I was going to do with my students—we were going to make a quilt! A paper quilt, clare, because I don’t have the money for fabric or ... (you can read the rest here)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Activity for an Insomniac: Quick, Easy, and No Prep!

Last week I was facing my class after a night of almost no sleep.  Like many teachers, there are those times when my head gets filled with a huge list of responsibilities that have to be carried out in the next day or week.  This was one of those times; I woke and started working out how I was going to get everything done.  Unfortunately this was around 1 AM.  Which meant that when I finally got to school and had to teach around 6 hours later, I had little energy to offer my students.

Often on days where I'm sick or feeling wiped out (which are rare) I fall back on worksheets, which my class receives rarely enough that a worksheet elicits concern from my kids. 

This time, however, my son had just been sick the week before and I had given the substitute worksheets for my students to do while I was away.  I really had no interest in giving them worksheets again.  As the clock ticked closer to our late bell, I finally realized what I could do that would be low impact on me and enjoyable to my kids.

I assigned a comic.  They were required to form small groups (I arranged the desks in 4-person "tables" before class actually started) and write a comic in the passive voice (the grammar topic we've been working on).  Once I had all the comics turned in, I taped them around the hall, far enough away from each other that students wouldn't have to crowd each other to read them.

Lastly, because I wanted them to interact with each other's work, I gave each group seven squares of paper.  The papers were new comic panels, I explained,  for them to write and illustrate new endings for their classmates' comics.  Groups fanned out and eagerly read the other comics and discussed the best way to change each story.  There was a lot of discussion, a lot of laughter, and only a little need for a Latin teacher.   So I stood back and watched the movement and the relaxed Latin atmosphere.  

 I will break this activity out again sometime--it's a great rainy day activity with its natural kinesthetic aspect and light tone.  Yet students had to flex their Latin muscles too as well as solve the problem of writing an entire story in the passive voice (try it--it's hard).

If you've used similar activities in your classes, I would love to hear about it!  Post below.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Date With CASIE (Part II)

I'm not really normally a two-part blogger.  If I have a lot to say, I just sort of put it all in one place and hope you don't get too tired of me halfway through and stop reading.

But this month has been a very, very busy one, and even though I wasn't yet ready to actually blog about the lesson I posted, I wanted to put it up online so anyone who was interested and possibly struggling might have a chance to watch a communicative method in practice.  I don't claim to be the best example, but I do claim to be an example, and when it comes to Latin, there are really too few examples of Latin lessons taught in the language itself.  As an awesome side-effect, another Latin teacher, the wonderful James Hosler, also braved the critiques of his fellows and posted a video of himself teaching using PQA (Personalized Question and Answer--a traditional and effective TPRS technique).

Long introduction.

Myself and John Wilson and Bubo.
I had a really unique opportunity this January.  At a regional conference, I met John Wilson, who organizes monthly Speakeasies for CASIE, the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education.  We talked while I tried very hard to calm my nerves before a presentation (I am always nervous before a presentation) and thanks to that chance meeting, he booked me to teach Latin for one night at one of the Speakeasies.

I really love the concept behind the Speakeasies.  If you are interested in language and language-learning, you can sign up for a free ($1 donation optional) one-hour course in a variety of languages.  Every month, there is a Speakeasy featuring a different language.  They have ranged from Tagalog to Swahili to Polish, and each lesson is taught, with mine being a necessary exception, by a native speaker.  There is one rule for the lesson: it must be taught in the target language.

This rule was harder to follow than I initially grasped, because initially I figured, hey, I teach using spoken Latin all the time.  But though I have used TPRS since my second year teaching, I eventually realized that TPRS has, almost since I heard of it, had no problem with introducing vocabulary in English as long as that builds meaning.  And now I had to figure out how to teach words like quid ("what"), words I have always introduced by simply writing them on the board with their English translations, in context without English.

Quid?!

How do you do that?

I won't take you through the painful process of the many, many false starts I had when creating the lesson I had in mind.  My creative process always includes false starts--perhaps why I encourage my students to write first and figure it out later.  I also won't take you through my final decisions (they're all recorded in the video of my lesson that CASIE and John were kind enough to allow me to make).

Teaching Latin without English gave me a chance to really think about language, how my students process language, how hard it can be to just want a simple word-to-word correlation and have to settle for vague similarities between word meanings.  How do you teach the word "have" and not end up communicating something more like "want" or "love" or any other possible meaning that could correlate with holding something like you own it?  I didn't want the Speakeasy participants to leave feeling confused or unsure of exactly what the language had been communicating.  I easily admit to being scared that I would be a poor representative of the spoken Latin community and more than once the coward in me considered calling up the many wonderful Latin teachers I know and seeing if I could find a substitute.  I felt just as vulnerable as some students feel, when they have to leave English behind in my class, because it's our safety net.  If they don't get it, I can quickly explain in English, then move back to Latin.

I did draw my words.  Many, many pictures.
Perhaps this is a problem that is not too prevalent in languages with fluent speakers and immersion opportunities.  Latin speakers have had to create our own immersion opportunities, which we do, but I know my progress in the language is much slower and more laborious than I would prefer.  My lack of fluency can hinder my bravado sometimes.

Watching the video I made, I see my nerves coming out during my lesson.  My arms are swinging constantly (also a sign of me thinking on my feet) and there are many significantly long hesitations when I realize I'm not sure how to move forward at the moment.

I also see myself having fun.  Because it was fun.  Teaching is fun, and teaching in an environment full of willing and responsive students is close to unreal.  The energy at CASIE and the Speakeasy was so positive and receptive that it would have been difficult to fail.

I am really excited to continue to take part in the CASIE Speakeasies.  I am already enrolled in one for Gaelic and another for Bulgarian.