Friday, October 28, 2016

Coming Full Circle - Pliny 2016

When Rachel and I started this blog, we were beginning our journey into untextbooking. We've shared our successes and failures, our ideas and research. Now, we are beginning to come full circle. Both Rachel and I have successfully defended our Master's theses and we both used our original inspiration in untextbooking as part of that process: Pliny the Elder.

This year, our third full year of this process (four if you count the half year of work and half year of research), and we've come full circle. This year both of our classes are reading Pliny the Elder again. Both of our classes chose to read about fantastical creatures. Rachel and I are taking two different, if similar, approaches and we are reading different pieces, but we are both drawing on and improving upon what we did four years ago.

The next series of posts is going to detail some of the activities and unit building we've been working on. I plan to write, in this post, about how I am building my units and in subsequent posts about specific plans and ideas that I've been developing.

Nota Bene: this is a lengthy post. I have decided to break it up with colours and images of work I've done thus far. Please feel free to comment with questions if I am unclear at all!

The Overarching Goals

Since we use standards based grading and untextbooking, there isn't a specific vocabulary list or grammar list I want to reach. Rather, those come from the authors we are reading and high frequency lists that we rely on. We want our kids to be able to read literature in Latin, so we use high frequency lists to help inform our teaching. 

The Authors

I decided that I wanted the main author to be Pliny the Elder, as we decided four years ago. But, I also realised that I wanted to include some stories and things that aren't included in Pliny's work. So I expanded the list to include some medieval authors.

The students chose the unit fantastical creatures last year when they voted, but I chose the monsters we were to read about. I will readily admit that I chose some of them because I've read the stories and fell in love with them. I chose the others based on what I knew student interest to be. To that end, we read/are reading about:


  1. polypus Plinii - a giant octopus invades an Italian coastal town and terrorises its residents and dogs, and eats their food. (Author: Pliny the Elder)
  2. unicornis ferus - the unicorn is a composite monster that is the exact opposite of what our contemporary mythology tells us; further, only a young maiden can tame him. (Authors: Pliny the Elder, Isidore de Seville)
  3. vrykolacae - the excommunicated dead are possessed by demons and they wander the towns looking for specific people to kill; one story tells of a group of children who find one in an open tomb and proceed to use him as a trampoline until stopped by a priest. (Author: Leo Allatius)
  4. basilisci serpentes - the fearsome basilisk wreaks havoc on plants, animals, and humans with its smell. They say looking at it can kill a man. (Authors: Pliny the Elder, J.K. Rowling)

It's all about perspective

In our standards, a lot of those for Latin II this year deal with students expressing themselves, their opinions, and backing them up with evidence and discussion. A few weeks ago I was speaking to a college professor (not a foreign language teacher) who said one of the biggest issues he sees is students who cannot work out problems on their own or express their own views or thoughts. They want to be given a list to memorise, a series of correct answers for a test, but that is not how many college classes work, nor is it how life works. What he said re-validated my purpose this year to get the kids more comfortable talking about and expressing themselves and their ideas. 

For this unit, we approach each story from three levels:
  • What does the story tell us?
  • What does science tell us?
  • What does urban legend and contemporary mythology tell us?
These three perspectives not only serve to bring more student interest into the class (seeing Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony on the screen certainly got a reaction), but also provide multiple perspectives from which a student may draw connection and information. Students were expected to discuss the stories from these perspectives, not only speaking about the culture and history of the Romans, but also understanding connections to contemporary times and their own personal interests. 

Building the Unit

To build this unit, I followed a pretty similar process for each story. I will detail the activities in other posts. To compare, here is Rachel's post on a unit she built four years ago using Pliny the Elder's work.

Step 1 - Identifying key vocabulary

I relied heavily on the authors for vocabulary, even the stories I was not familiar with. I read the original Latin and used frequency lists to determine what words were high frequency. I did keep some low frequency words in, but this was because they were essential to the story. To give you an idea, here is the vocabulary list for the polypus story:

ascendere - to climb                                                        videtur - it appears
adflatu - with his smell                                                   cognoscere - to recognise
inauditus - unheard of                                                     mare - sea
polypus - octopus (Pliny's word)                                    lacus - lake/container

The vocabulary differs from story to story, but I use a variety of methods and activities to build repetitions and confidence in the vocabulary. 

Step 2 - Edit/Adapt stories

My goal was to keep to the originals as much as possible, if not in form, in story line. So far, I've been able to do this 100% (which makes me exceedingly happy) and in doing so, I've realised a few things:

  1. When we read excerpts or translations, we often miss the best parts. -- prior to this, I'd only read excerpts of Pliny for class or for research (although my research opened me up to some new parts of his work) and some only in translation. By going back to the Latin and really reading it closely, I was able to get great stories and descriptions and a great list of vocabulary
  2. By relying on given knowledge, we may miss something interesting, vital, or cool. -- I readily admit that I did not know about all these stories originally. Some I learned in classes, some from individuals, and some from my own reading. What I discovered, however, is that if I relied only what I remembered, or a single passage I was familiar with, I missed whole portions of the story that were, often, more interesting than what had been shared with me originally. This is no one's fault (otherwise we'd be sharing pages and pages of stories for days and days), and yet I think it is important to find sources for this reason. 
  3. By sticking to what may be called a "canon" or "accepted" or "approved" reading (depending on who you are, where you are, and what your program is like), we limit our knowledge and range of interest. --  Medieval literature is often overlooked in favour of Classical Roman writers (particularly those whose stories appear in textbooks or whose work is most often discussed in our wider circles), but I think this can be a mistake. I think we need to widen our horizons. I don't mean we should ignore those great authors (I have been made more certain that Caesar is awesome) but rather, we can combine and support them with other more contemporary or lesser known authors.

    Without medieval and contemporary works, I would not have had half the story of the unicorn to share (how to defeat it). Nor would I have had any of the vrykolacae story, which is uniquely Greek and medieval. Nor would I have had something to compare Pliny's discussion of the basilisk to.

    Yes, this required me stepping out of my comfort zone. It required some time and research from me. However, I think it was worth it and I know my students' Latin, understanding of Roman culture, and ability to express themselves in English and Latin are better because of it. 

When I took the originals, I tried to keep the vocabulary as close as I could (bearing in mind frequency) and the structure, if I felt it was appropriate. What happened was a marriage of Classical, medieval/contemporary, and teacher written stories. 

In the image to the left, you'll see a portion of the unicorn story we read in class. I want to point a few things out that might make this process clearer. Throughout this story I married Pliny's own words with Isidore de Seville's and my own (which were heavily influenced by the two authors. Below is the text again, but with mine, Pliny's, and Isidore de Seville's colour coded. 



dixit in India animal ferissimum esse. unicornes erant feriores quam omnia animalia. reliquo corpore equo similis, capite cervo, pedibus elephanto, cauda apro, uno cornu nigro media capite erat. nemo negabat ferum unicornem esse. nemo unicornem vivum videbat.

vocabatur rhinoceron a Graecis; Latine significabat “cornu in nasu.” erat unicornis. unum cornu in medio* capite pedum quattuor habebat. cornu acutissimum erat. cum elephantos pugnaret, elephanti in terra ceciderunt. quam ferus erat unicornis. etiam homines unicornis necabat.

erat fabula; omnes cognoverunt qui naturas animalium scripserunt

My edits mostly include original vocabulary, but word order or grammar is changed to make it clearer to students. This passage does not shelter grammar, but rather vocabulary: sticking to words that students know/are learning and using grammar that is needed. 

* this was a typo in the image that has since been corrected. It read "media". #reasonswhyautocorrectisawful

Step 3: Develop your teaching strategy

I mean this to say - How will you capture students in the moment and find something for them to grab on to. We teach using Comprehensible Input, so I drew from those activities to build my lessons for my stories. The basic thought of how this works for my class is:

  1. Keep it a secret! Don't give the monster's identity away until you absolutely have to!
  2. Delay it! Fill the space with vocabulary reinforcement and CI activities to build suspense. 
  3. Explain it! When you finally reveal, plan a day to discuss products, perspectives, and practices to students to help them see points of view and understand the stories better.*
* Credit to Robert Patrick for this work.


Bearing these in mind, I have a basic outline of activities that I do for each story:

  1. A dictation of some kind (will be in next post).
  2. Vocabulary Reinforcement through:
    * movie shorts
    * TPR
    * TPRS
    * One Word Images
    * etc.
  3. Reading of the story and follow up activities (will be in future post)
    * Reading Option A
    * Read, Discuss, and Draw
    * Reader's Theatre
    * Reading Experts (also in future post)
    * Read Dating
    * Timed Writes
  4. Products, Perspectives, and Practices Discussion (will be in future post) -- This combines the story, science, and legend. 
  5. Assessment
Using these steps, I've built each lesson around our stories. I look forward to sharing them with you.