New Beginnings, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I was working on the first draft of this post, I found this interesting message on the CambridgeLatin listserv. It seems that a colleague of ours is trying to find or devise a “placement test” for his new Latin I students; he says that the other language teachers at his school use a similar process. My first response was similar to that of the one other teacher who has responded so far: he questioned why such a thing would be necessary, since Latin students presumably are starting ab initio. Then I started thinking of possible reasons to pre-assess Latin I students:

  1. Perhaps the other language teachers at our colleague’s school have a lot of heritage-language speakers? They would most likely come in with significant oral language skills, but they might need some work on reading, writing, and more “formal” aspects of their heritage language. In that case, perhaps our colleague is following his coworkers’ process without considering their reasons. (But wouldn’t it be nice to have a heritage-language Latin speaker in your class?)
  2. Perhaps some of this colleague’s prior students have come to him with the “I know everything” attitude that often afflicts teenagers? In that case, he may want to burst their bubble with an “impossible” task to show them that they do, in fact, need some instruction and practice. I have occasionally used this strategy myself; I’m not proud of myself for that, since I do think there are better ways to reach most over-confident learners, but it does sometimes work with a particular personality type. On the other hand, it sometimes backfires and causes less-confident students to become paralyzed with self-doubt or to believe that “it’s too hard” or “I can’t do this.”
  3. Perhaps the classes are oversubscribed and our colleague wants to “weed out” some “less-qualified” students, or some students who don’t fit the profile of what a “perfect” or “typical” Latin student should be? As you lectōrēs fidēlissimī know, I am firmly convinced that every learner is a “perfect” Latin student … but I also know the unfortunate tradition that reserves Latin for the “special” or the “elite.”
  4. Perhaps some of our colleague’s incoming students have studied languages, say, in middle school, but haven’t received formal course credit for their work? That’s occasionally an issue in my face-to-face teaching world, where it’s possible for students to receive high-school credit for language courses they take in middle school – but it’s also possible for them to take exploratory courses that don’t receive credit. I’m not sure that a formal, pen-and-paper “test” is the best way to check for prior knowledge, especially so early in the school year.
  5. Perhaps our colleague wants to discover students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to meet the learners’ needs better? That’s a big part of the differentiated instruction approach I’ve tried to describe in posts like this one and this one. For example, if you have a group of strong first-language readers in a class, your approach to reading-comprehension tasks will obviously be different from what you’d do if most of your students had trouble decoding first-language texts. Students who are comfortable with analytical tasks would enjoy certain kinds of grammatical instruction that would baffle and frustrate their less analytical peers. Students with a big English vocabulary will approach derivative work in a very different way from those with a smaller vocabulary, and the benefits for them will be very different. Students who have interacted with a variety of cultures may respond quite differently to cultural study from their peers who “know” that “our way is the only way” or “our way is the best way.” It’s good to find out about these things early on, both to avoid the kinds of unpleasant surprises I mentioned in yesterday’s post and to avoid unnecessary frustration for learners.

After thinking about all the reasons a teacher might have for pre-assessing Latin I students, I realized we need to address some related questions:

  • Other than a pen-and-paper test, what are some other good ways to learn about your students’ strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences?
  • How might a teacher use the Tres Columnae Project materials for pre-assessment as well as for instruction with beginning Latin students?

I’ve given a lot of thought to that first question. On the first day of class, I have my new students complete several pre-assessment tasks that you might not think of as pre-assessments. First they fill out an information card which asks them about prior language study and about their favorite and least favorite school subjects. Then they complete a learning-style inventory. Then, after an introduction to my expectations and the requirements of the course, they work in small groups to brainstorm and record ideas for what’s known as a K-W-L chart: a list of things they Know, Wonder, and have recently Learned about Latin and the Roman Empire. (Obviously there aren’t many L’s yet, but we’ve done a pronunciation activity and learned some words for classroom objects by now, so those are sometimes listed.) In my face-to-face teaching world, the groups record their ideas on sticky notes and we put them up on a class chart, where they stay – and are added to – for the rest of the course. By the end of Day 1, then, I know several things about my new students:

  • From the information cards, I have a preliminary sense of their learning preferences (especially when they tell me why they like or don’t like their favorite and least favorite school subjects) and of their language backgrounds.
  • From the learning style inventory, I have a fairly good sense of the kinds of learning activities they enjoy – and, equally as important, the kinds that they dislike.
  • From the K-W-L activity, I know “what the class knows,” and from observing the students’ interactions in the small groups, I have a sense of each student’s knowledge and of his or her typical pattern of interactions with others.

All three of these tasks could certainly be automated through the kinds of exercises and surveys you can see at the Tres Columnae Instructure Demo course. I like the idea of a face-to-face K-W-L activity, but the learning-style inventory, in particular, could easily be done online. The advantage for me and for my face-to-face students is obvious: the results are easily, effortlessly tabulated and sorted, and they can be preserved “forever.” We’re not a one-to-one-computing school, but there are enough computers in my classroom that students can rotate to complete the survey over the course of the first few days of school – or, for that matter, they can be asked to complete the learning survey at home by a particular date. For that matter, since almost all of our students come to an Open House before the start of school, they might even be asked to complete the survey before the first “real” day of class if possible. In the same way, if you want to pre-assess students’ reading comprehension, or their English vocabulary, or any other set of Knowledge, Skill, or Understandings that’s important to you, it’s easy to do that electronically, and early in the year. The survey tool now available through Google Docs’ spreadsheets would be an easy way if you want to make your own “stuff” and don’t want (or don’t think you can afford) a paid Tres Columnae Project subscription.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you see other ways to automate the collection and tabulation of “routine” but helpful data?
  • What other types of data might you want to collect to help you meet your students’ learning needs?
  • Do you have any concerns about data security that you’d want to address?
  • And what about actual face-to-face instruction once you have the data you want? How might the Tres Columnae Project materials help you there?

Tune in next time, when we’ll address these issues and look at a possible sequence of Tres Columnae Project materials in a one-computer Latin classroom. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on August 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] what I’ve typically done here, in response to that “placement test” post I mentioned yesterday. In the interests of avoiding chaos – and because most of our students haven’t yet […]


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