Floors and Ceilings, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re not a subscriber to the Latinteach listserv, you may not know about the passionate and highly encouraging discussion over there about the idea of “Latin as foreign language” vs. “Latin as philology” or, as one of my colleagues and friends said, Latin as “deliberate reading.” I really don’t see a conflict between the two! After all, how can you possibly do deliberate, careful reading of a text if you don’t have a good command of the language in which it’s written? To take an extreme example, I don’t think I could say anything intelligent about a Russian text, even though I “know the alphabet” (or did twenty years ago) and could probably manage to look up several of the words in a dictionary if I had enough time. But I obviously don’t have any sense of the connotations of those words – why the author chose one word rather than a synonym, or what suggestions a particular phrase would raise in the mind of a native speaker. I could, of course, read a translation of the work if one happened to be available, and then I could probably say something sensible about the plot and characterization – but I certainly wouldn’t be doing philology, in any meaningful sense of the term, with the actual Russian text. Too often, I’m afraid, Latinists of the past century-and-a-half have tried to short-circuit their way to “deliberate reading” without actually developing proficiency at reading itself!

I’ve been re-reading a remarkable book by Dr. John Townsend called Leadership Beyond Reason, which is about integrating the emotional and intuitive sides of ourselves along with the logical and rational sides in our dealings with others – and especially with those, like our students, for whom we function as leaders. Dr. Townsend reminds his readers of a really important point: Happiness, he says, is a wonderful by-product of the things we do in life, but if we set up happiness as a goal or outcome for ourselves, we’re likely to be miserable! Stop and let that sink in for a moment.

In a comment I made yesterday at Fireside Learning, I mentioned this idea and related it to the ongoing discussion over there about creativity and academic standards. I wonder if knowledge and skill, which we so often set up as goals for instruction, should really be seen as by-products of a quest for understanding? After all, if my goal (the ceiling, in our continuing metaphor) as a teacher is to impart a list of knowledge and skills, I may well fall short and some of my students probably will. But if our goal or ceiling is to develop understandings that are based on a given set of knowledge and skills, those become the floor on which we build the understandings rather than the ceiling toward which we reach in vain. We may well still have some construction to do to make sure that everybody’s floor is stable and level, but the work will be much more satisfying – and a lot more of our learners will probably end up mastering that set of knowledge and skills!

So how does this floor-vs-ceiling paradigm work in an actual class? And how does it work with materials like the Tres Columnae Project stories, exercises, quizzes, and virtual seminars? It’s not so much the activities themselves that change as the attitude and sense of purpose. (Michael Gerber, the famous writer about entrepreneurship and small business, makes an oddly similar point in his description of “the business plan that always works” in one of his books. The document, he says, looks similar to any other business plan, but the process used is utterly different.)

First let’s consider a quick physical-class illustration – one that many teachers are already facing, or soon will, as the school year begins with their Latin II students. Most likely, the teacher feels a need – or the students have made it quite clear that they need – to review the noun cases, verb tenses, and other grammatical concepts learned in Latin I. But what are some possible purposes or goals for this activity?

  1. You might want your students to be able to identify ancillam as an accusative singular first-declension noun and quaeram as a first-person-singular future indicative active verb. That’s a recognition or knowledge-level goal.
  2. You might want your students to be able to make the forms of ancilla or quaerere – to decline and conjugate. Those are application or skill-level goals, but on a fairly low level.
  3. You might want your students to be able to use the forms to understand a passage that they’re reading – perhaps you want them to translate the passage once they understand it, or to answer questions about it, or to illustrate it, or to do something else with it. These goals involve some skill (application and analysis) and some understanding (evaluation and synthesis or creation).
  4. You might want students to emerge with a deeper, more coherent sense of how Latin morphology conveys meaning – definitely an understanding-level goal.

Of course, you probably want your students to be able to do all of these things! But which goal is most likely to help them get there? The way I’ve ordered the list, each new goal encompasses the essential learnings of those before it. If I aim for #4 (and I have to confess I don’t always do this, but I should!), my students will probably be pretty good at #1, #2, and #3 by the end of the process even if they don’t entirely master #4. (And how exactly would I measure #4 anyway?) But if I just aim for #1 or #2, my students probably won’t all get there – and even if they do, will their efforts necessarily bring them any closer to #3 or #4?

If my goal really is #4, I suppose it could be measured in several ways:

  • Students might participate in a Socratic Seminar on the topic of Endings and Meanings.
  • They might write about their understanding of Latin cases or tenses and how that understanding has deepened.
  • They might create an original product (an illustration or model, for example) that shows the relationships between different cases or tenses. I once had a Latin III student who built such a model because she felt confused about Latin verb tenses and moods and wanted to be able to see and feel the relationships. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for her), I let her keep it! 🙂

So, if that Understanding is the ultimate goal, we obviously need to make sure that students have the knowledge of noun and verb formation and the skills of identifying and analyzing inflected forms – not to mention the skills of using inflections to comprehend a connected passage. There will obviously be assessments along the way that measure the knowledge and skills – and those assessments may, in the end, weigh more heavily in the students’ grade than the culminating assessment does. But by seeing students knowledge and skills as sign-posts rather than the ultimate goal – as floor (or maybe walls or support beams) rather than ceiling – I’ve changed the focus of the class completely. If I’ve done my job well, students can clearly see how this knowledge, this skill, this exercise or other activity is connected to the bigger goal – and they can also chart their progress toward attaining that goal. Motivation and focus increase, and complaints about “why are we doing this?” tend to decrease.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Is this an excessively rosy picture? Or have you found that students do, in fact, get caught up in bigger goals and find their achievement increasing?
  • Can you see how differentiated activities are not only necessary, but much easier to plan with a big-picture goal in mind?
  • And can you see how materials like the Tres Columnae Project can make it easier to support students in their quest for big-picture goals?

Tune in next time, when we’ll look at some specific examples of Tres Columnae Project materials that support big-picture goals. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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