Thursday, November 17, 2016

Coming Full Circle - using Pliny to hold interest

In my first post, I discussed building my unit and in my second, I talked about some variations on dictations that I've been exploring. In this post, I want to talk about a few ways I am playing with student interest and keeping things compelling.

General Recommendations

Often I will hear students talk about things in the hall, during guided study (advisement), and before or after class. They won't be helpful to me at that moment, but if they seem important to the students, I'll figure out a way to write it down or store it in memory until it is. This has helped immensely in building this unit in a few ways:

  • Pop Culture References - These are most helpful when we have our cultural discussion days, but they are helpful in that I can pull stories students know and reference them and bring them into a discussion comparing our culture with Roman culture. So far, My Little Pony (unicornis story), American Horror Story (vrykolacae story), Harry Potter (unicornis story), and a few others have all proven very useful in our discussions. While this may seem weird or off topic, using it to discuss Roman culture and opinions has proven important. Students need to be able to identify with something in some way and this is one way of doing it.  
  • Bacteria - Believe it or not, I've had a group of students who have believed, completely, that bacteria must play a role in our stories. They have argued for it and fought for it, much to my and our class's amusement. When I decided to do a creepy story (vrykolaca) I ultimately chose what I did because bacteria plays a role in the science. I could have decided to step away from this focus, but it fits in our ultimate goal of being able to understand perspectives. 
  • Santa - This is not quite come up in class yet, but students made many references to the European idea of Krampus and Santa. They took what they understood in Latin about the vrykolaca (large and round, hair on the face, stretches out) and decided it was an evil Santa type figure, similar to the Krampus. They were incorrect, but it created great discussion driven by student interest and made this story even more compelling for them. 

In Choosing Stories

There have been many discussions and argument regarding targeted vs. non targeted CI. Without opening up a large forum for discussion here, I want to address one way I use both in my classroom. I never want to curb student discussion based on student interest. I also want to expose students to the wonderful world of Latin literature from all the periods - Classical, Medieval, and Modern. To do both, I take into consideration a number of things:

  • A spiral sort of curriculum that we have in our program - Many groups place heavy emphasis on a vertical curriculum which should prepare kids for the most rigorous course in that subject. I like to argue for a more spiral format. As students progress in a course, they visit and revisit ideas, increasing their skills in that idea. If I know students might revisit this idea in another class, I feel slightly more compelled to offer it in my class. Here are two posts on this topic: one on student choice as we offer it and one on how the spiral worked last year in Latin I
  • Using shorter readings in some units to allow student input - Whit this particular unit, I purposefully did not choose two of the stories and waited until students expressed some feedback on our first one. When students started asking questions like, "did the Romans have a unicorn?" and "Are they all just versions of real animals?" I included the unicornis story and the basaliscus story. 

In Artwork

Not all kids like to draw, but all kids like crafts in various ways. I've worked to provide multiple opportunities for kids to use what they like and what they know in the classroom in this unit. Here are some ways I've accomplished that. 
  1. Lenticular Art - Rachel wrote about this last year and I revisited it this year. I had nearly forgotten about it, but then found it when I was trying to find an activity to see just how kids were connecting to the stories that I had ultimately chosen (even if based in student interest). We did this project and the requirements were:

    * Choose a monster we've read about and illustrate it as one perspective of your work. It can be any part of the story, but the monster should be portrayed accurately.
    * Connect this monster to something specific that has importance to you. It can be anything, but it should be specific so that I, the viewer, am clear on what is important to you and how it relates to what we've read. 

    Ultimately I got a wide variety of works of art. Many related to movies the kids enjoyed or stories they were familiar with. Some related scenes from our stories to current events that the kids were moved by. Some related ancient perceptions of monsters to the animals we consider "weird" or "gross" now. The variety was quite lovely and I am overall very pleased with their work. The kids loved this, despite its logistic difficulties in cutting and folding and appreciated the opportunity to have a say in how they expressed their opinions in my classroom.
  2. Cultural Discussion - I will write more about this in my next post, but I have used our culture discussions heavily to let students express their interest and choice. This week, after reading 3 of our 4 stories (and just before Thanksgiving break), we did an activity where students were to relate our story/monster to one they knew. They had to do research, use Latin, and science to build their argument and they were graded based on clarity and detail. Some examples:

    * Relating the Roman unicorn to the Indrik Beast - The Indrik beast is of Russian origin and relates to the unicorn in themes of savageness, purity, and innocence.
    * Relating the Greek vrykolaca to the legend of Slender Man - The students related these two through their creeping/stalkerish presence and the requirements for them to attack/leave their victims.
    * Relating the Roman polypus to the Kraken of Norway - Many students discovered that Roman authors had also written of the Kraken, which created an interesting connection they had not thought of. They also related these two in size, ferocity, general description, and contrasted them in the nature of their "attacks" and setting. 
  3. Timed Writes - You can read about the specifics of timed writes here. While most of ours this semester have been rather normal, using specific stories, our last one allowed for student choice and resulted in some fairly interesting considerations and experiences. Our last timed write (last week) covered the polypus, unicornis, and vrykolaca. We did it shortly after reviewing all three monsters again and, in the spur of the moment, after watching their excitement and passion talking about the monsters, I decided to open the timed write to student choice. I did this because I knew they were ready by the quality of discussion and their desire to continue the discussion. The prompt I gave students was to pick any of the three monsters we'd read about and write about it. This opened the floor to a whole series of questions and my answers:

    * Wait, we get to pick? of course.
    Can we write about all three? of course.
    * Can we make up a story about one specific one? hmmm..... of course.
    * Can we name ours? give him a name that fits his ferocity.* Can we write a love story? of course.

    And it went on. Students wrote for around 15 minutes in Latin II that day. No one stopped early. Everyone wrote furiously. I was actually excited to watch them write!
  4. The Invisibles - This is an alteration of a CI activity/idea/class/etc. that revolves around storytelling that creates characters that students have complete say in. While I have not read everything on this topic, and would not feel comfortable trying to explain it all away, I can tell you how I altered it and what I did with it. I got sick in the middle of one week when the weather changed (my allergies are bad when that happens). I knew I was going to be out the next day, so I left this assignment for my kiddos to complete. When I came back, I took their descriptions and rewrote them as an activity. I would read the description out loud three times and kids would listen and draw what they think they heard. Then, I projected their student created art on the board and we discussed. Students like seeing their own work, especially if they recognise it from the Latin description, and seeing how close they get to what others drew. 


I have spent a good bit of time reading arguments for or against student choice. I agree with both sides, especially as a Latin teacher. I do feel as though there is a reason to read some works that are teacher chosen/written. I love exposing my students to a world they didn't know existed and discussing with them the nuances of that world and seeing their reactions. I also agree that student choice is key to learning language. Stephen Krashen's Comprehensible Input Hypothesis is the core of my teaching and part of that is student interest (the compelling piece).

So, I try to marry both as best I can. It takes work, but it is worth it to me. I also love learning and this large unit, compiled using what I know and what they want, has really allowed me to learn a lot. I've never considered myself good at science, but I now know more about decomposition, and the differences between Indian and African rhinos than I ever thought I would need. I also got to impart on the kids one of my interests which I proclaim from the rooftops - cephalopods. The kids learned more about cephalopods than they ever thought they wanted to know, but they enjoyed it. So much so that it is now somewhat of a joke in some of my classes.

This seems right to me - through conversation between teacher and students, using student interest and teacher knowledge, we learn language. This is how we learn in most situations I feel.

How are you gauging student interest? How do you include it in your classroom?

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