Monday, October 13, 2014

The Untextbooked Classroom: A Glimpse

I have this problem that comes up as a teacher who frequents other teachers' blogs and twitter and Google+ to learn about new technologies and methodologies and research concerning education. I get all these great ideas sent to me from every angle. And I only sometimes know what to do with them.

It's one thing to have a great idea clearly lined out, explained, and detailed with step-by-step implementation--much like the diy blogs I follow--and entirely another to have a vague clue of something that would be better for my students but having no earthly clue how to make that happen in my own classroom. It's frustrating. I want my students to have the best possible chance at success, and for me to know of a technique that could improve their chances but be unable to enact that idea is bordering on torture at times. I have racked my brain repeatedly to decide how I could bring certain technologies into my classroom in a relevant way, I have struggled with big ideas like SBG and Flipped Classrooms and Student-Centered approaches (especially difficult in a foreign language class), I even cobbled together many of my CI approaches through trial and error when I first started teaching--with lots of tears and late nights and stress and failure--because I just couldn't find someone to help me see it step-by-step.

That's why Miriam and I work to make sure we don't just offer up ideas, but show you how we use them in our own classes. And why I'm writing this post. Untextbooking feels like a big idea to me, and while I've posted about it here and here, and Miriam has recently posted about it here, I am not sure either of us have given you everything you need to be successful in implementing it in your classes. So in this post I'm going to give you an idea of specifically what we're doing (of course we're working together), what one of my units looks like, and the technology I use (and how I use it) to keep my class and myself afloat while I do this.

If you feel like you can't, you don't have time, it's too much, etc., I encourage you to just try one unit, one piece of authentic text that you are excited about and think your students will enjoy. At worst, it doesn't work for you. At best, you'll discover the joy I did in sharing something you love with your students.

Preparing a Text

Choosing a text. This part is extremely important. When I decide what we're going to read in my classes, I look for two things: 1) Is it compelling? 2) Can I make it comprehensible?

Steven Krashen has recently done studies that prove something we all should already understand--in order for students to want to read something, it has to be compelling to them. They have to want to read it. I usually start choosing a text to consider because I'm excited by it. It was fun to read, the story was unusual or action-packed or dark (I have a dark sense of humor and my students often do also) or just plain weird. If I think my students would enjoy it too, I look at the text again, but this time from the standpoint of where my students are in terms of their current Latin skills.

Then I decide whether I can make something comprehensible to my students, which is another thing definitely required for them to read and enjoy something--very few students are okay with struggling through a text whether or not the story is compelling. I look at vocabulary and grammar, though my larger focus is vocabulary. Most grammar can be eased into through proper preparation, which I'll talk about in the next section, but vocabulary has to be known. If I have to define every word, then it's not reading, and there's no flow (Keith Toda talks about the importance of flow on his blog here). So I look for pieces that I can teach with no more than 10 added vocabulary words and grammar constructions (which I often teach as "vocabulary" with a particular phrasing that we learn to substitute other words within--a traditional TPRS approach). I think deeply about where my students currently are in their Latin learning, and I consider whether they can handle the text either in its current form (almost never for lower level students) with some vocabulary instruction, or whether I can, by creating a couple of embedded stories (dicussed here within my first untextbooking post), make it completely approachable and comprehensible to my students. If I can't, I have to discard the idea. I recently did that with a great text by Pliny the Younger about a Roman heroine valued for her bravery and Roman values. It was hard to discard the text, because it is so rare to see a woman celebrated in Roman writing for anything other than her beauty. But the vocabulary was too varied for me to be able to bring my students to it in 10 vocabulary words and two embedded versions.

Preparing the text. I first look at a text and underline the things that my students might/should struggle with: unknown vocabulary words, foreign and non-intuitive grammar structures, particularly difficult word order. Out of those, I choose the items I'm going to teach. I have actually put together a vocabulary list based on things my students will be expected to know by the end of the year and the 50 most important verbs that a group of Latin teachers I highly esteem compiled (I may do a post later on about choosing words to teach--I almost segued into it here). As much as possible, I stick close to that list. If I choose words outside that list, it is because they are high-frequency words and I think my students will need them later on. I choose grammar constructions as vocabulary too, but generally I only like to choose one at a time, so the rest are left to the next steps.

After I've chosen what vocabulary (and grammar) I'll be teaching, I look at what is left over. I gloss any remaining vocabulary--in the text because looking down can disrupt flow--and consider the best course of action for the grammar constructions. Certain constructions are best treated as vocabulary and so are glossed. Many can be untangled for students by embedding them.

My last step in preparing a text is to embed it. This means writing lead-in forms of the story. This is where I might arrange words in a simpler word order for students to comprehend (sometimes that's all that's needed) or take grammar and reword it into something familiar that students will understand easily. This year, I'm going to be trying something new that Keith Toda has suggested--I'm going to leave some of the information out of my embedded version. That way there's still a reason to read the original text. There's still a surprise left. It's still compelling. Keith ran into some of the same issues I did when doing embedded versions. Yes, the kids get it, but by the second (or third) time reading the same story, they often aren't interested any more.

After I've done all of this--compiled vocabulary and grammar structures for teaching and embedded the text--I use different methods to create as many repetitions as I can without it getting too boring or repetitive (which I'll cover in the next section).

What a Unit Looks Like

Okay, to be honest, I'm fortunate. I share my Latin program with two fabulous teachers (the beauteous Caroline Miklosovic and the ubiquitous Bob Patrick) and I only have one prep. If you teach a more frequented language, that's not shocking, but all of my pre-Georgia teaching experience was as a singleton Latin teacher with at least four preps at any time.

All of that to explain that I am only teaching Latin I this year. Last year I only taught Latin II. I am working with the teachers in my building and Miriam to develop a textbookless approach (at least a preliminary one), and I only have to work on one level at a time. That does allow me a chance to really focus in on one group and decide what is best for them at any given moment without having to balance another group in my head. If it makes you feel better, I am teaching extended day with an extra class, so I'm not simply at leisure, but that chance to focus my energy and creativity is really helpful.

My units are generally broken down into three phases: 1) introducing the vocabulary and grammar, 2) readings, 3) repeated interaction with readings. Depending on the level of embedding, 2 and 3 may be repeated for a given unit.

I have a few go-to activities for each phase, which I'll list with links below, so that my class doesn't get repetitive. Especially when rereading a story, there needs to be variety in the kids' routine.

Introducing vocabulary and grammar.
1. Dictation. I have described dictations before, but here is a write-up by Keith that I think nicely describes how he breaks down creating and using dictations in his class. The great thing about a "dictatio" is it is intensive and repetitions are naturally embedded in the process.

2. Micrologue. I like doing this as an alternative to a dictation. Students write less, and the images make it at least a little less monotonous. Here is a quick description of the process.

3. TPRS, especially asking a story. I do this a lot, and I like to do it in conjunction with either a dictatio or a micrologue as a means of reinforcing the vocabulary that was introduced in those.

4. PQA. This can be an easier way to practice vocabulary than TPRS, since it can simply relate to real life for students. I especially like it for topics like family, since students like talking about their own families or to make families up (I tell students that if it's said in Latin, it's true for our class, whether or not a student says he has eight mothers or five spouses).

5. Movietalk. Miriam has already written a post about this, and it is a really effective way of engaging students in something with the ability to teach a lot of vocabulary. It generally takes me a class and a half to complete all of the steps.

6. Fill in the blank. This is something that is especially helpful if what you are teaching is a grammatical construction. Write part of a sentence on the board (recently we worked on comparatives, so the sentence was "nemo est _____ior quam _____" or in English "no one is ____er than ____") and let students play with filling in the blanks. I usually give a time limit, then let them compare answers, choose their best, and we share them with the class. I write their shared answers on the board and we review them as a class. In the process, students are getting repetition after repetition of the structure.

This is usually the most consistently structured activity in my classroom. I ask the class to read a text (or embedded reading) silently first, and depending on the class, I give a time limit or ask them to look up when they are finished. Then they work through the text with a partner. Lastly, we do a choral reading, so that everyone in the class is completely sure what the text says. That's how we approach every reading before we move on to activities, and it's simply because I want to make sure students both have a chance to internalize reading flow and be certain that their understanding is correct. I finish everything out with an intensive question and answer session over the story (most commonly referred to as "circling").

Interaction with Readings
I have a few go-to activities with readings to choose from, few of which are my own creation. It is really helpful to follow Keith Toda's blog to find activities, because he tends to do great weekly overviews of things he does in his own classes and there is a lot of variety. It is the most helpful blog I've found for overviews and step-by-step instructions.

For my most recent set of text, after the reading, we did parallel universe, picture review (where literally I draw a bunch of stick figure illustrations of the reading and we circle them--it's also a good way to review vocabulary), sentence matching (I give them a copy of the pictures from the picture review--I like to pair these activities--and the sentences that go with each picture and students have to match and write down the correct sentences with the correct picture), and the word chunk game (which I call "trash ball").

I will be working on a post later this month or during next month that will be completely devoted to the different activities I use to repeat readings without becoming monotonous.

At the end of any unit, there needs to be a means of telling whether students have learned what I want them to learn. I wrote about my retake policy concerning assessment, and Miriam wrote about hers as well. Miriam suggested and I agreed that this year we keep our units and assessments short, since we are required in our district to devote 45% of students' grades to summative assessments. So my assessments are short, ten question quizzes, and students are quizzed almost every week. The questions are written in Latin and are over the final version of the text we are reading. There is no multiple choice, just open-ended questions that they are expected to answer in Latin. I just want a quick glimpse into whether or not they are navigating the language.

Technology to Keep it Simple

Google docs and drive. There are four of us working together locally to help each other untextbook. We are using Google drive (which used to be docs) to share everything mutually. For example, as I make Latin I materials, I create everything in shared folders that all of us can access. Whenever any one of our group needs something for Latin I, he or she can access it there. What makes this better than simply emailing a document or entering it into dropbox is that I sometimes make mistakes, and if I need to edit a document, I can do so in the drive. Once I've edited a document in the drive, everyone only sees the edited version. This does mean that if you want to create a shared folder with someone, and allow that person to edit (you can control that setting), it needs to be someone you trust not to alter your work so much you're no longer sure you created it.

The other wonderful thing about creating on Google Drive is the ability to share my work with my students. Whenever we read a text, I hand it out on physical paper. However, if a student misses a day or if the student loses the handout or wants to read over the text at home, it can be available to him online. There is a small process to make sure it's visible even to those who don't use Google, but it's only one extra step. Under the "File" menu, choose "Publish to the Web" and then choose to publish the work to the web. That's it. After that, set the sharing to "Public on the Web" or "Anyone with a Link" and put the link somewhere your students can access it. Even more wonderful, since it's a Google drive document, if you make a correction at any point, it automatically updates for anyone viewing the document--including your students.

Lastly, I never have to take my school laptop home. I can update Google drive documents wherever I have access to the internet. Last Tuesday, while I was waiting for my son to take the stage at his chorus performance, I quickly created an activity I needed the next day in class. The best part is that I created the activity on my phone. Then I got home and did some quick edits, because my phone typing is not the best. But the moral here is that I can work on the stuff anywhere and it's right where I need it.

Miriam wrote a tutorial on Google Drive a while back that takes you through some of the opportunities it provides with graphics to help.

Padlet. Padlet is one of the easiest tools I have found for quickly posting information for my students. Once you have a padlet set up, you literally just double-click anywhere to post information, links, files, etc. This is my Latin I padlet. You can see that I have a running list of readings for my students that I can add to at any point. I can drag the boxes around, resize them, or just delete them if they are no longer relevant to my class. I have even created padlets with public editing options for my students to turn in web-based work and to view each others' work. It is a very helpful tool.

Google Calendar. I keep my Google calendar open on my computer at school and my home computer and it even takes up a full page on my phone. Just like Google Drive, whenever I update the computer, it updates everywhere. I have my Latin Google calendar embedded on my website so my students know what I have planned and can reference it on any given day. I also share that calendar with my fellow untextbooking colleagues who can use it to help themselves plan. And I have it for easy reference whenever I need to look back to find out what we did a month ago in class.

If I make a class plan, and something unforetold, such as a pop pep rally, interrupts my plan, I can drag my plan from one day to the next. There is no need to delete or to start over. And when I make the change, all of my calendars reflect it. In addition, currently we are assigned duty stations for nine weeks at a time. I can click on the first Thursday duty, type "Morning Duty every Thursday for 9 weeks" and it will literally fill in nine Thursdays for me with the title "Morning Duty." Google Calendar makes my life and my teaching life much, much easier.

(We have not written a Google Calendar tutorial yet, but either I or Miriam will someday in the near future, I am sure.)

That is really it. Those three tools are enough to make my life without a text book as simple if not simpler than it was when I had a book to tell me what to teach.

So What Now?

Hopefully you will feel comfortable creating at least one unit. I think bringing an authentic language reading experience into your classroom is worth it, whether or not you decide to ditch the textbook.

I can say that my students have responded positively to the lack of textbook. My students who left the textbook in the middle of the year last year were glad for the change, enjoyed the authentic materials more than the textbook (compelling is so important!), and at least one now intends to teach Latin without a textbook when she finishes college. This year, I have students who generally are much more secure in their personal vocabularies and able to read with ease; they get excited about the material (at the moment, we are covering basic mythology; I am basing my cultural teachings on the National Latin Exam curriculum); they are not afraid to take on new texts as I present them.

After this year, after I have a chance to sort and compile what I did, I hope to make my materials available to everyone who wants them (I just need time to make sure everything is correct and that I like all of it and that it had the effect I wanted it to have). And as I add more, I will publish those on the internet as well. Hopefully others will do the same and we'll have a richer network of materials than any one company could have provided us.