It’s the first day of a new semester in my teaching world – four new classes for students, three for teachers, a fresh start for everyone. Of course, as my students and I jokingly pointed out Thursday afternoon, it’s “such a long time” and “such a big transition” to go from Latin I (fall semester) to Latin II (spring), or from Latin III (fall) to Latin IV or AP (spring). But even the small changes – different seating arrangements, changed class rosters, the return of old friends, new faces who had started their Latin study elsewhere – are important. They mark new beginnings at a time in the school year when everyone would otherwise feel stale, tired, old, and frustrated.
We began our time together – our “visit” Thursday afternoon – with a brand-new activity where everyone listed favorite and least favorite aspects of their prior language learning. I’ve skimmed over the responses and will spend more time with them later today.
One important thing I said Thursday – and will say again, many times, in upcoming weeks and months – is that changes in language proficiency levels feel painful and horrible. Latin II is when many students experience the first of those – from the Novice who understands familiar words and phrases to the Intermediate learner who grasps main ideas and details. From the Parrot to the Survivor, as one poster in my classroom says. It’s like taking the training wheels off the bicycle, I tell them. You know how, in theory, and people are supporting and cheering for you. But it’s still painful and difficult, and sometimes you fall.
Factory-model schools are terrible at falling. We have a noble goal of expert performance, a noble-seeming desire to avoid pain and difficulty. So we simulate expert performance, expect students to become experts by watching, yell and label when they don’t, then fall back on teaching about things (so you can easily pretend to be an expert) and testing for recall.
Everyone knows – but can’t articulate – that it doesn’t really work. But it’s easy – so easy – to fall back into the soft, comfortable trap of “what we’ve always done.”
Have I fallen into that trap too?
I’ve been busy with a necessary, but less enjoyable part of the semester transition: grading final exams. Everything I really need to know, I probably learned from my students’ Individual Oral Responses, where they read Latin out loud to me and summarized what they’d read in response to a few questions or prompts. But, for a whole constellation of reasons, I also felt compelled to administer and score an Individual Written Response (two passages, one familiar and one unfamiliar, with comprehension questions and a self-assessment rubric) and a Collaborative Written Response (some grammatical analysis, plus a section of choosing the right Latin form to translate the English sentence into Latin, and self-assessment rubrics for both of these subsections).
And then I got sick. And grading the exams took longer than it should have, since my energy level was low.
To be fair, I did learn some things from the written responses. I learned that most of my students are pretty good judges of their own proficiency. I learned that a few are very hard on themselves and a few others – but just a few, in a nice contrast with Rod Baird’s students – have an over-inflated sense of their language proficiency. I learned that N feels she worked harder on this exam than she ever had on anything in her life, and that Other N, who also worked hard, likes to write little summaries “just in case.” And I learned – or relearned – to trust myself, not to think I’d been useless or counterproductive just because V or W or X appeared to be tuned out in October and November. Over and over again, V, W, X, and their alphabetic friends rose to the occasion, solidly demonstrated Novice High proficiency, made up for those nail-biting moments in the fall.
But were those discoveries – and the self-discoveries for students – worth the time spent taking and grading the exams? Were they worth the lives of forests of innocent trees?
Why am I still clinging to those written responses? Partly, I suppose, because I always prided myself on giving long, hard exams when I was a new teacher. Partly because, in those days, several students complimented me on the quality of those exams and on how much they learned – about Latin and about themselves – from taking them as well as preparing for them. Partly out of inertia – even though I write new ones each year, it’s easier to write them than not to write them. Partly, out of a lingering attachment to the factory-model mindset: exams are supposed to be long written documents, and I’m supposed to spend hours grading them, just like Ms. X or Mr. Y. (Actually Ms. X intends to use the Scantron machine, but she can’t remember how to operate it, or it breaks, or there’s a long line, or something’s wrong with her answer key. Or something.)
Like Ms. X fumbling with the unfamiliar machine, we all struggle when the process isn’t clear, familiar, well-known. And we struggle when it’s too familiar, when we can do it half-unconsciously. As Debbie noted yesterday,
I think of the unspoken list of the missing characteristics and skills that some teachers moan about. Perhaps this is where we begin? By identifying the skills, by speaking them out loud we form a commitment to them rather than a having a blurred vision of what is missing – a blurred something that we can ignore because we haven’t made that commitment to it.
That kind of naming is hard, important work; it requires real commitment and real action. Factory thinking rewards empty words, discourages real commitment and real action. Is that why it’s so scary to leave the soft, cozy factory trap?