Friday, January 17, 2014

Untextbooking: What Does the Fox Say?

I've been feeling the need for something bigger lately. Teaching chapter-to-chapter has ceased to be all that fulfilling. I tend to feel like my students are missing out on a bigger picture, and that I am failing to offer them Latin as a complete experience. Luckily, I've recently received some divine aid from Muse #10, the much-ignored muse of teaching.

Since it's nigh unavoidable, I assume many of you have heard this song:

I was exposed to it as the song gained popularity as a youtube sensation and internet meme--and now I even hear it periodically on the radio, which is worth mentioning because it is really just a funny parody song by a Norwegian comedian.

However, I was suddenly inspired one day while I listened to some students attempting to sing the song. It's basically a bunch of animal names and sounds, all of which would make a great foundation for some Aesop. In case you're not familiar (my husband assures me that you probably are), Aesop recorded common Greek fables that were also popular in Rome. They highlight common Greek and Roman values, customs, and assumptions about social order, and a good percentage do so by using animals as main characters. These make for a great way to keep culture contextualized and in the language.

So now I have some end goals, and even one of my steps on the way. But I've had those before. The thing that has changed is my own knowledge of activities and methods to bring students to Latin that contains new vocabulary and new grammatical structures without it being hard.

I've practiced TPRS (for our write-ups of various aspects go here, here, here, here, and here) for ten years now in my Latin classes, and enjoy it.  And I've felt that it's possible that TPRS alone would let me prepare students for Classical Latin authors, even with their huge and varied vocabularies and grammar.  However I never took the plunge; it seemed like a huge change and too much work, I was comfortable and familiar with my textbook, what if I was wrong and ruined a whole generation of students--there were a lot of excuses not to do it.

But now, with a larger toolbox I'll discuss below, I have fewer excuses and more drive to leave the textbook behind.  As I write this, the unit I'm creating is just that--in the process of being created--and so as I finish aspects of this unit I'll add their links to this post.  Miriam and I are both experimenting with big ideas this semester, and I'm as excited about her Google project as she is about untextbooking (not a term I made up, but one I'm totally taking over for my purposes).  Having a great friend to support me in this endeavor helps stoke my courage.

The Toolbox

My list of tools is actually still growing.  I have a wonderful group of friends and colleagues who also read research and blogs, and are willing to experiment with their classes to figure out what works for them and what doesn't.  They also share their knowledge (thankfully!) so I get to benefit from it.

I have two tools that are currently the center of my untextbooking: dictationes and embedded stories.  Each tool, when added to CI techniques like TPRS and WAYK (we have posts here, here, here, and here), allows for even more repetitions of the vocabulary and a really strong reinforcement of the grammar I choose to focus on.


Dictationes are what they sound like: I dictate sentences to students, they write them.  That might feel like nothing new, but it gives students a chance to gauge their spelling and aural comprehension of Latin, and, since I have them check their own spelling and we review through the sentences to make sure students understand every word, dictationes become a great way to introduce new vocabulary and grammar structures (a great detailed explanation is offered here).

For my current purposes I am actually creating sentences that specifically cater to the grammar structure I want to emphasize and repeat the vocabulary words I think my students need most.  I like to start a unit with a dictatio as a great intensive introduction to the new forms.

Embedded Stories

Like the dictatio, embedded stories are not my creation.  I think every TPRS-based teacher has blundered into something close at times, but not as a concerted effort and not in an organized way, so I really appreciate this form of Comprehensible Input.  Embedded stories are really the tool that caused me to realize that I can leave the textbook behind.

Embedded stories can be traced back to Laurie Clarcq (she has a very charming story about her inspiration here), and they are wonderful tools to scaffold the more difficult texts I want my students to read.  As I started using them to scaffold the longer texts in my students' textbook (which is rarely difficult grammatically, but tends to throw an overwhelming amount of vocabulary at students), I started realizing that the embedded stories could empower me to tackle pretty much any text I wanted my students to read.  That's when the discontent I'd been feeling towards the textbook (I have yet to meet a Latin textbook that aligns to CI, limits its vocabulary, or moves away from strict grammar sequencing) finally came to a head.  I got permission to start this semester with my own units, created with authentic Latin texts in mind, and I started creating the unit that I will be posting here.

Image Property of Wikipedia

So, What Does the Fox Say?

It barks.  Just in case you weren't sure.  But for my purposes, it's an ancient mystery that my students will be expected to unfold and, yes, sing as a means to learn animal names and sounds.  Once students have worked their way through the song, they'll read two of my favorite Aesop's fables: "The Fox and the Cat" (wherein the fox brags about her many skills but the cat's one skill turns out to be the most useful one) and "The Frog and the Bull" (wherein the frog blows herself up in order to be as big as a bull).  We'll talk about the cultural significance of the fables' morals.  We'll play with the fables, perhaps draw them or simplify them into children's books (that part of my lesson plan isn't formed as of this writing).  Throughout, students will be inducted into much more "difficult" vocabulary and grammar than they had worked with before.

After the fables, I am planning to introduce them to the "scientific" thought of Pliny the Elder by choosing a relevant animal passage or two.  This will have to be seriously scaffolded, but I believe that by the time we arrive at the actual Pliny passages, my students will be ready to read and comprehend them.  This will be the end of the most comprehensive and well-rounded yet cohesive unit I have ever taught.  I am really excited.

So far, my students have done the dictatio and worked on the vocabulary.  I gave them a handout and they figured out quickly what they were learning.  There were groans ("I hate that song!") and sounds of glee ("This is your best lesson so far!"), both of which are great--they imply an emotional reaction to something they are reading in Latin.

So here it is, as it develops (remember that I will keep adding to it as I develop aspects of it--and since it's on Google Drive, I'll also be adding to each page and correcting any mistakes I notice along the way)*:
Overarching Lesson Plan
"The Fox"
Materials Created for the Song 
Handout for Students
"The Fox and the Cat"
Materials (Including the Story, Embedded Version, and Dictatio)
Handout for Students (Writing these)
"The Frog and the Bull"
(These materials will be written next)
Pliny the Elder
Did I mention I'm excited?  Because I'm excited.  And as we all know, an excited teacher is a better teacher.  I think these lessons will be the best I've ever offered in my classes.

*Edit: I should mention that the non-handout materials are basically not formatted because they're the notes I keep to teach from.  Also, there are contributions (none attributed because I am a poor friend) by Miriam Patrick here and there.


  1. "The thing that has changed is my own knowledge of activities and methods to bring students to Latin that contains new vocabulary and new grammatical structures without it being hard."

    That's it, right there. The whole ball game. Well said!

  2. I just wrote a whole long comment, and it got eaten. for the love of heaven. Okay.

    Long story short - with regard to untextbooking, we're right there with you. I threw it out the window with the ones last year, and now, looking at them (as twos) as compared to my threes, the differences are stunning. I made this sort-of rash decision mostly because I found I wasn't, frankly, GOOD at teaching the book, the kids weren't looking forward to our work together, and now they are. The texts are theirs, there's buy-in, and we're getting closer to realizing our potential together. I have freedom I would NEVER have had, I do things in an order I think makes sense (we learn the ablative first, for example), I can do what I think is best for them, and my ones know expergiscor and conor, because I haven't been able to come up with a good reason they shouldn't. We've started doing SSR at the beginning of class (my Latin II and IIIs), and they read whatever they want - Olivia, Cambridge, Oxford, Marcus Aurelius (by request of one oddball :D), Minimus Mini books, Anthony's Hobbitus Ille - and one kid, who would NEVER have survived Traditional Latin 101, ripped through Tres Ursi and some others and then said, "What do I read if those are too easy?"

    All that to say - untextbooking ho! This should be about what we CAN do, not what we HAVE to do, so I say that the fox can darn well say whatever he pleases (you may take that as metaphor)! :)

    1. I am glad to see where you are taking this too--I think there will be so much more freedom to teach students really useful vocabulary and grammar that they can actually experience in a real way as opposed to isolated instances that maybe show up once (or never!) in a chapter and then disappear.

  3. Lovely to have found this! I just released my own version of Quid Dicit Vulpes and people immediately directed me here :)