I have returned from my seventh ACTFL! The conference continues to be the perfect place to get new ideas, connect with like-minded teachers, and celebrate languages and culture.
One of the most exciting parts of this year's ACTFL Annual Convention and Expo is that it not only had record attendance (8,500 attendees!), but it had record attendance by Latin teachers. We had around 250 Latin teachers in Boston this year, and there was not one presentation session devoid of Latin presence.
I attended a mix of Latin-focused presentations, Comprehensible Input presentations, and research presentations. I've put my notes below—I didn't really take notes directly, but am using my memory and my tweets to rebuild what I learned, so please let me know if I misrepresent anything.
Research and Theory
I believe that it is important for us to not only know why language learning is important, but to be aware of the most current research in language acquisition and to be able to explain our methods and approach to teaching using that research. I can explain every thing I do to my students in terms of SLA research.
Tea With BVP (Live!)
Aside from the excitement of meeting the amazing Walter, Angelika, and BVP themselves, there were several key concepts in Second Language Acquisition theory that were discussed (if you are unaware of Tea with BVP
, it is a weekly podcast over SLA, featuring Bill VanPatten, a lead researcher in the field).
- Explicit linguistic systems do not turn into implicit systems. There was time spent discussing whether explicit and implicit systems within the brain communicate with each other, but it was agreed that one does not turn into the other. What this means for us as language teachers is that no matter how many times we tell students that Latin has no helping verbs and they need to use the imperfect indicative active voice to translate “was sleeping” correctly, students will never internalize that knowledge so that it is their first instinct. However, if we spend enough time using “dormiebat” students will use it too, because that will be what sounds right to them.
- Authenticity is a loaded word, often used to limit input resources, but it should not be allowed to do that. BVP says that any comprehensible input is authentic if it requires a student to construct meaning and interact with the language meaningfully. Especially interesting is his statement that what is really important is to bring texts to learners that are “authentic to the level students are at in the moment.” He also clarified that the context of the classroom is its own authentic context. Therefore, whatever we are using in our classes, as long as the materials allow students to negotiate meaning and understand in the target language, we are using authentic materials.
- There is no research yet that clarifies whether SLA truly can never result in native-like language or the real issue is that people learning a second language simply have fewer hours of input. BVP pointed out that a five-year-old has had almost 30,000 hours of exposure to input in his or her first language. Each year of high school provides students with circa 180 hours of exposure in ideal conditions. Even after five years in the same language program, a student might have 900 hours of exposure. There is no comparison.
- Despite attempts to coopt the term “communicative” for specific methodologies, communicative approaches include a large array of methods (including Comprehensible Input) and are still the best means for teaching language according to research. We are not in a “post-communicative era.” A communicative approach utilizes meaningful language engagement for real communicative purposes. Anything that does that is communicative.
- Student-centered classrooms look different in language classrooms. That is, while in a student-centered history class students might be doing much of their own research and designing their own method of presenting their work, a language class fails students if they are not given enough input and interaction in the language. So they must be teacher led. However, as BVP pointed out, teacher-led and teacher-centered are two different things. He compared a student-centered linguistic interaction to a linguistic interaction with a 2-year-old: any conversation with a 2-year-old is centered on the child, naturally, with lots of questions (e.g., "Do you want to see the doggie? The doggie? Do you like the doggie? Do you want to pet the doggie? Is the doggie pretty?"). The conversation is almost always controlled by the 2-year-old's interests and needs.
I am inspired after live tweeting this and typing it up to do that for every episode. It helps me clarify my thoughts regarding the episode as well as maybe helps those who, like me, have trouble learning aurally (I have to be doing something physical to be able to pay attention to something with no visuals). If you don't have trouble with listening to podcasts, but don't have an hour to give to it each week, you could check out Lance Piantaggini's summaries
SLA Principals to Practice with Carol Gaab (@CarolGaab) and Bill VanPatten (@teawithbvp)
Language Teaching Methods and Activities
I thought I took better notes (read: tweeted) more about Carol Gaab’s and Bill VanPatten’s practical applications of SLA research to their teaching, but it seems that I was completely caught up in the experience and took almost no notes about practical application. Which was at least half of the purpose of the presentation. I do get a little star-struck at ACTFL.
The first big concept BVP imparted is that language is different than other subjects. Language is not subject matter—we don’t use it consciously, so it is not the thing we study. We learn to use it. So it cannot be assessed the same way, language structures cannot be taught the same way, and language classes should never look the same as classes on other subjects. To learn language, it must be used communicatively.
In the same vein, we communicate for a reason or a purpose. We don’t communicate to practice communicating. That means repeating dialogues or rote memorization of responses does not lead to acquisition. Only engaging with text (visual, written, or spoken) that is comprehensible causes your mind to form a mental representation of the language you are learning. The text (or source of input) must be at a level that the learner can understand or it will have no lasting impact on a student’s abilities. And there is nothing we can do in our classes to overcome the internal factors of language acquisition. Students will acquire language at the speed and in the order they can. Acquisition is stage-like and ordered. It won’t be altered by explicit instructions.
|BVP asks students to read Spanish for a purpose, a task they need to |
complete. He colors certain words to help them notice the forms he
wants them to internalize.
Which means that focusing on language forms (grammar) has no lasting effect on acquisition. Trying to force students to learn and use the forms is a distraction from the real impact communicative language teaching has on student learning.
That does not mean that grammar has no place in language teaching; it means that it has to be meaningful and in context. If there is focus on form, it should be input-oriented and meaning-based. One example of this sort of focus was provided by VanPatten: to help his students subconsciously assign import to the word “soy” in a text that he was using to discuss actors with his students he colored the word blue each time it occurred in the text. That way it was subtle, but there, and his discussion with his students was not “’soy’ is used with permanent traits like country of origin,” but about the content, and the students had a communicative purpose to guess which actor was being described by each paragraph.
The point both BVP and Carol Gaab made was that grammar does not help you communicate; it helps you communicate more accurately. Not because you memorized forms, but because when tense makes a difference in the meaning of a sentence, knowing which one means what you want it to is useful. This is still contextualized form—it is not independent of meaning or purpose. This was boiled down to the words “when grammar impacts meaning, it’s time to clarify.”
So, what does all of this mean for our classrooms? That we should build tasks that require meaningful use of language. VanPatten said that “tasks are the backbone of communicative teaching,” because they give practice with a text that engages the learner to think in the language instead of about the language.
This is probably my most important takeaway from the presentation, and something that is going to change the way I teach (it’s not a good ACTFL Convention if I don’t need to rethink how I teach!). I know everything I do in class has a purpose and helps teach language, but sometimes it’s obviously me asking students to do something because it will teach them and not serving a purpose outside of language input. I need language to be the unconscious means to accomplish some smaller goal.
I’m excited to figure out how that will work in my own classes.
Being surrounded by some of the greatest teachers in the nation means we got a chance to learn some of the most creative, engaging, and effective approaches to teaching language.
Impacting Fluency with Listen & Draw, Role-playing, and TPR + Story with Blaine Ray (@BlaineRayWrkshp) and Haiyun Lu (@Haiyunlu)
It was exciting to attend a presentation by the charismatic Blaine Ray and Haiyun Lu. Their energy and joy is contagious, and hearing about Ray’s progression into TPR and from TPR to storytelling from the man himself was amazing.
Both Ray and Lu emphasized the “illusion of simplicity,” the tendency of language teachers to feel that what they are teaching is easy because it is easy for them. Most language teachers overestimate how well their students understand them because of this bias, and it is important to not only make sure that we are teaching slowly, to the eyes, and with a lot of interesting repetition, but to consistently check for comprehension. Call out TPR commands without miming them. Ask students to make a fist if they can follow commands and choose one of the kids with a first to demonstrate the commands. Call out chains of three commands at a time to make sure they are comprehending larger chunks of information at a time.
So instead of counting repetitions, teachers should be assessing students regularly to see what they know. But by assessing, I don’t mean a formal memorize-this-list or prepared test. I mean unannounced and often informal assessments. As Ray and Lu reinforced at their presentation, we should be teaching kids, “not until they are getting it, but until they are SO getting it.” We need our students to comprehend the languages we teach, and since we tend to overestimate how well they understand, checking them at random is the best way to be sure that there is no hesitation in their comprehension.
The power here is that students are getting real language that they really understand.
Some practical ideas from the presentation:
- Develop class signals to clarify whether you are addressing the entire class or just an individual student.
- Give the students six sentences containing their vocabulary words and ask students to put them in order.
- Give students sentences and ask them to decide where they fit best in a new story.
- Use the same vocabulary in a new story (Miriam and I do this often! It’s a great way to get repetitions in without being repetitive).
- One word image: ask either/or questions making sure to lead the class through vocabulary goals. This will allow you to control the conversation and be sure that you focus where you want to.
- Give students images, they describe the picture and explain the action shown; you could make a quick test by providing four pictures and letting students choose three to describe.
- Co-create characters, settings, pets, etc., with your students. This gives them ownership and the communication in the language has a purpose.
Party Like It’s MMXVI: The Fun and the Fruit of 21st Century Latin Teaching with Justin Slocum Bailey (@IndwellingLang)
How to Teach Novels with Darcy Pippins (@darcypippins)
I met Justin almost a decade ago at a Rusticatio
hosted by SALVI. We were both interested in teaching language in the language, and both excited by the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in Latin. He’s made of energy and enthusiasm (a little checked at ACTFL this year by a cold that stole most of his voice), and is one of TPRS’ coaches—their first Latin coach!
Justin’s presentation had a ton of interaction so my notes (tweets) are sparser, but it was really instructive and gave me new ways to think about how to utilize traditional TPRS activities in my own classes.
Justin started with a declaration that 2016 means input and interaction in Latin—not learning about Latin. This is an important distinction; learning about Latin means charts and grammar rules, while input and interaction in Latin require using the language to do what it evolved for: communication. This isn’t because Justin (or any of the rest of us in the room, to be honest) dislikes grammar. He pointed out that we love learning about Latin, but focus on form does not create the chemical changes and connections that shape your brain to reflect that of a native speaker of the language.
And TPRS does not mean no grammar. Grammar comes up naturally because any conversation requires many different grammatical forms. In CI philosophy, it is considered important to “shelter” (limit) vocabulary while allowing grammar to take the form most suited to the moment; you don’t avoid the passive voice because you haven’t defined it for your students. You just do it. And answer any questions that come up.
Justin introduced us to a brain break called “ovum-->pullus-->draco”: he has students play rock, paper, scissors while chanting a line of meter (our example was “vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus”). The winner grows (or evolves, if your students prefer Pokémon terms) from an “ovum” to a “pullus.” Then students have to find another student at the same level (ovus plays ovus, pullus plays pullus), play, then evolve. All while chanting Latin poetry. Once most students are dragons (or at any point you decide has been long enough), you can call an end to the game and focus them on reading or listening again.
When Justin told us a story in Latin, he used a powerpoint with pictures to go with the text. He also had student actors who stood by during the reading from the power point, then were instructed to act after the reading. This gave Justin a lot of control over the actors, and a reasonable excuse to repeat the sentences everyone just read, but this time to instruct the actors and make sure they are displaying the correct actions. That is much more compelling repetition than traditional circling!
I was excited to attend Darcy's presentation both because I am still trying to figure out how to teach novels (but SO excited to finally have some for Latin) and because she was one of the wonderful people in Oklahoma who mentored newbie TPRS teachers (like me) when I was first teaching. She was amazingly supportive of all of us!
Darcy “hooks” her students onto novels via culture. As a prelude to La Guerra Sucia, she had a principal come in and remove a student from the class—a student known as a good student who does not normally get in trouble—to help them think about the confusion and terror the Argentinians felt during the Dirty War. Once you have students interested in what they’re about to read, the hard part is done—now you just have to figure out the best way to make it comprehensible.
Darcy gave us a whole list of ways to review vocabulary and encourage student practice with the words. I only tweeted two of those (it’s hard to keep up sometimes!); both of them are inspired by Jimmy Fallon.
- Box of Lies (you can see Jimmy and Jennifer Lawrence play here), in which her students open a mystery box (Darcy said she uses a suitcase so it blocks the other player from seeing what is in the “box”) and either tell the truth about what is in their box or lie about it. The other player guesses, then takes a turn.
- Word Sneak (Jimmy and Steve Carrell here), with a list of words they have to work into conversation as naturally as possible. I imagine this would require more proficient students, but it would be fun.
Darcy put up a list of reading strategies as well, and there are some really great ideas and practices listed here:
- Never ask novice students to read aloud. I am 100% with Darcy on this. It is scary to be on the spot, and for some students a bad experience reading when they are not ready to can shut them off to language completely. I read Latin aloud when we chorally read, and of course they hear it spoken when I ask questions or discuss an image with them.
- Read aloud to your students. I haven’t actually tried this with novel teaching yet. I do read aloud when we read chorally, but that is not the same. This allows the teacher to add tone and mood to the reading, and give feeling to the words. I plan to try it with the next novel.
- Paired reading. I believe in pairs and small groups for reading. This allows students to check what they understand against the person next to them, and this is a much more comfortable way to interact with the text (so causes a lower affective filter).
- Audio books. Would be neat. There are not so many of those in Latin yet, but I’m hopeful.
- Read 15 minutes a day. This practice really caught my attention, because so far I have shoveled huge chunks of text at a time down my students’ throats and it is good to be reminded to go slow. Darcy pointed out that we need students to really take in the novella’s story, and they can’t pay close attention for long spans of time. So rather than have them read for an entire 55 minute period, she incorporates 15 minutes of reading, and the rest of the class is spent on reinforcement activities. This strikes me as genius. She says that she gets through around one novel a quarter doing this.
- Students tweet the book from the perspectives of the characters. I like this, and it inspires me to consider going a step further. I live tweet conferences, students live-tweet events, movies, etc. We could do a live-tweet “event” with a specially chosen hashtag aimed at catching all their tweets in one place. Lance Piantaggini put together a set of posters for Latin exclamations that would be perfect for this kind of activity.
- Reader’s Theater. But bigger. Darcy sets the task for the entire class to put together one film. Students are in charge of props, directing, lighting, effects, costuming, etc., as well as acting in the film. They can add characters if needed. Darcy says that you need to be sure to film every student during Reader’s Theater so they can see themselves on the screen. She also lets students choose their jobs, and many students specialize over time. Lastly, she as the teacher writes the script for Reader’s Theaters, which allows her to highlight certain scenes, focus on culture, etc. Students watch the film afterwards and they discuss it as a class.
There was so much more she told us, but these were my biggest takeaways. Teaching a novel has been an interesting (and exciting!) transition for me and figuring out how to make the reading better and more engaging for students who don’t usually enjoy reading in their native language is, well, sometimes boggling.
The ACTFL Standards for Classical Language Learning
ACL unveiled an early preview of the new ACTFL Standards for Classical Language Learning this summer at Institute, and this is a more complete document though it is still in draft form. You can find the draft, a comparison chart between the new standards and the old, and a quick summary of the standards here
Some important points that came up at the presentation:
- The standards are not meant to be prescriptive but descriptive. These are meant to reflect regular good teaching practice, and not meant to list off things that must be done. As Bill VanPatten often points out, languages are not like other subjects; you can list off things to be covered in a history class, but language teaching requires repeated focus on the same skills.
- The standards have been designed to be inclusive of all types of teaching—to that point, the language of the document has been carefully chosen to encompass as many methods as possible. Rather than being used to punish teachers, the hope is that the standards can be used by teachers to support good practice, no matter what practice that might be.
- The culture standards are divided into practices and products, like the modern language standards. This is a move toward normalizing the Classical languages and asserting our place on the national language field. And we need to take a place there; part of the new resources being produced for Latin now (like the seven Latin novellas that are out) is due to Latin finally being recognized as a language equally worth courting (as well as some frustrated Latin teachers writing their own).
- There will be sample learning scenarios available so teachers can see the standards in context.
- Progress indicators will be listed to help you identify at what level your students are performing, again matching modern language standards.
- The committee worked to avoid limiting the standards to one set of texts; they are inclusive of Classical, medieval, renaissance, or even neo texts.
Final Thoughts and More Notes!
I gained so much from ACTFL this year and really am excited about next year in Nashville
as well as ACL Institute
this summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan (if you've never been to ACL Institute before, there's scholarships
). I think it's really important to meet and think with other language and Latin teachers to get great ideas and grow as a professional.
If you can't afford to attend a conference on your own (which is no surprise), don't be afraid to ask for money. Even if you are told no, you are showing interest in training and growth, which should be appreciated by your administrators and coordinators. I ask principles and our curriculum coordinator for the district for funds, and I apply to scholarships and grants. Sometimes I'm told no. But I've gotten more than I expected, and didn't risk anything in asking.
Some of the other awesome people who went to ACTFL took notes. I'll try to add links to any other posts I find about ACTFL here, and I'll start with the amazing and thorough notes Ellie Arnold took and shared with the Teaching Latin for Aquisition facebook group
Here are Ellie's ACTFL Notes
and Preconvention Paideia Workshop Notes