More Quality and Quantity, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! It’s a week of beginnings and endings in my face-to-face teaching world: the end of a grading period, the beginning and end of midterm exams, the departure of some students whose families are moving. It’s a time for taking stock and reflecting … and it’s also been a very up-and-down week. Monday afternoon I felt as though I’d been completely unsuccessful with three students in particular, and yet, by the end of the day on Tuesday, things seemed to have turned around for at least two of them. I also had wonderful, positive conversations with the mothers of those two. They both continued to have some struggles (and, at times, to be extremely unpleasant to me and their classmates) for the rest of the week. But as I write this on a sunny, cool Friday morning (the first day of a three-day weekend in my face-to-face teaching world), I feel more hopeful about the two of them than I have in a very long time.

The experience of midterm exams in my face-to-face classes is often a bitter learning experience for my less-responsible, less-mature students – the ones who haven’t yet taken Ownership of their learning in particular. They certainly have wake-up calls along the way in the form of smaller, more targeted assessments … but those can be easy to ignore. As you know if you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus, I have some reservations about large, summative assessments in general – but if they’re going to happen (and, by policy of my face-to-face school district, they’re required), I want them to be a real learning experience and a real indicator of my students’ progress with all the Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings they’ve developed at the half-way point in their courses. The sober faces – and the false bravado that some of my students like to put on as a mask – were good indicators that this year’s exams achieved both goals. I’ve looked at them, but am waiting until later today (or possibly tomorrow morning), over a cup of coffee or tea, to do the actual marking and grading. If it were just a bit less windy, I’d sit outside in the late fall sun … but wind and exam papers don’t mix well! I’d also have a very disappointed dog if I were outside and he were stuck inside – and a very difficult time concentrating if he were outside with me.

Of all weeks, exam periods really bring out the industrial side of factory-model schools. The very existence of a midterm or final examination implies the kind of post-production quality control I mentioned in Monday’s post, of course. And since factory-model schools are all about attendance and seat time, my poor students are stuck at school all day – even when some of their teachers have “nothing” for them to do. After years of schooling, they’ve come to expect such wasted time … so much so that they often resent being asked to “do work” on such days. I was able to find an engaging – and utterly different and self-contained – learning opportunity for them yesterday, the “makeup exam” day, but it was a painful struggle. There were several times I felt like the foreman at a factory where the workers were about to strike … or maybe the vīlicus on a Roman farm where the servī were considering rebellion! 🙂 My hope is that within a few years, schools (and assessment techniques) will change to the point that this paragraph seems hopelessly quaint and outdated! And I hope that the continuous assessment model at the heart of the Tres Columnae Project will help to lead the way.

But in a time of huge changes and shifts across society, it’s hard to know what aspects of any institution will need to change and what will need to stay the same. Is it more difficult, or just different, I wonder, when the institution is a school? Like all institutions, schools are fundamentally a conservative, restraining force – and what’s more, they (I should say “we”) exist, at least in part, in order to maintain the social order, to socialize young members of society into their “expected” or “proper” roles. That can be difficult, to say the least, when the social order is changing! And it’s always difficult to find the right balance of structure and freedom or opportunity for young people who are on the cusp of adulthood, but not quite there yet … especially when they make poor choices, or when they abuse the freedoms or opportunities that are provided for them.

When I was first planning the Tres Columnae Project, it seemed to me that a self-paced, collaborative learning environment would make it easier to strike the right balance between structure and freedom or opportunity for our learners and subscribers. After all, unlike a student in a factory-model school, a Tres Columnae subscriber presumably

  • comes to us by choice rather than by compulsion;
  • is free to work at his or her own pace, rather than at a “forced march” dictated externally;
  • can linger over difficult or intriguing points until his or her curiosity is satisfied; and
  • can become a co-creator, not just a consumer, of the learning materials by making Submissions to the project.

But just as my own face-to-face students sometimes make poor choices and abuse their freedoms and opportunities, the same is certainly possible for Tres Columnae subscribers … and for participants in any learning environment. What structures might we want to put in place to help them? Or is the process of making – and learning from – poor choices an essential part of growing up?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time for more – and for an exciting preview of Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Floors and Ceilings, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I mentioned on Saturday, we’ll be thinking more about how to use the Tres Columnae materials with a “real” Latin I class in this week’s posts. Some of us, who have already returned to school or are just about to do so, may want to look away 🙂 and preserve the illusion of the endless summer. For me, though, that last “week of freedom” is an important time to think about the big picture of what I’ll be doing in my face-to-face classes … and about what I still need to do with the Tres Columnae Project materials to make that happen.

If you’re not a member of the Fireside Learning Ning, you may not have seen this Newsweek article about an apparent decline in American children’s creativity over the past twenty years. The discussion at Fireside Learning has been very interesting, too! (If you’re not a member, and if you’re interested in getting to know a really thoughtful, committed group of teachers and learners from all around the world, I’d recommend it highly!) I’m not entirely sure that creativity has declined – I think it may just be expressed differently, as I mentioned in a comment I made over there. I’m really curious to know what you all think: do you find that your students today are less creative, more creative, or differently creative from those a decade or more ago? My sense is “differently creative” – especially when I think about all the new forms of online creativity (fan fiction, various kinds of contributions to social-networking sites, construction of virtual worlds, just to name a few) that my students are involved in. At the same time, a lot of my students are very shy about sharing what they’ve created, especially with adults … but that’s not exactly new, is it? I don’t think I ever shared my not-so-wonderful adolescent poetry with any of my teachers, for example.

But I do fear that schools have become less supportive of divergent thinking – and of the kind of divergent-to-convergent thinking described in the later parts of the article. Sadly, in a world of standards, the predictable response by schools and teachers is to see those standards as the “ceiling” or aspirational goal of instruction, and then to devise curricula that approach the standards in a mechanical way. But I don’t think that’s inevitable, and I certainly don’t think it’s the best approach.

In my own classes, and in designing the Tres Columnae Project, I prefer to see standards as the “floor” on which the curriculum and learning activities will be built, not as the “ceiling” to which some of us might ultimately arrive. Of course, there will always be a few students who need a boost up onto that floor – that’s part of my job as a teacher. But the vast majority of students are already capable of reaching, and indeed surpassing, any curriculum standard you care to name. Another big part of my job is to help students see that – and, of course, to develop (or help them develop) learning activities and structures that will help them far exceed these standards.

As I think about floors and ceilings – and as I look around my own two-story house – I realize that the ceiling of one level is, of course, the floor of the next one. I also realize that you need stairs, or possibly an escalator or elevator, to get from one level to the next. If you’re not familiar with the work of Dr. Art Costa, you might not know about a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes about one-story, two-story, and three-story thinkers – Dr. Costa and his colleagues have developed a wonderful metaphor called the three-story intellect, which you can read about here if you’re interested. It corresponds, to a degree, with our threefold distinction among Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding … but like all of Costa’s work, it’s utterly profound! See what you think when you’ve had a chance to read about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about floor-vs-ceiling approaches recently as I prepare for a new school year, and as I read and participate in some of the recent discussions on the major email lists for Latin teachers. There was one on the Latinteach list about preparing students for the Advanced Placement Examination – I didn’t participate in that one, but I was interested to see what some of my colleagues are doing. In many cases, they seemed to be focused on the first goal of the AP® curriculum (that the student will be able to create a literal translation of a passage on the syllabus) to the exclusion of all the other goals. Now, if you’ve been among our lectōrēs fidēlissimī for any length of time, you know that “literal” translation isn’t my favorite form of assessment – and I certainly don’t think it should be the primary way to interact with a new text, or to try to develop an understanding of a text. But you probably also know that I’m pragmatic about translation; I do ask students to develop translations sometimes in my face-to-face classes, and I do ask my AP® students to work on their “literal” translation skills and to understand the “segment scoring” approach that used to assess translations on the exam. But I certainly don’t ask my students to “translate everything” – instead, I’d much rather have them read and understand everything … and think deeply about the critical issues that are raised by the portions of the Aeneid that they read. We certainly work on translation – and on the other subskills, like scansion and the identification of prescribed figures of speech, that are tested on the exam – but our perspective is different. Instead of viewing the exam and the reading list as an insurmountable hurdle, we try to see it as an engaging but achievable challenge. I think that makes all the difference for my students’ attitudes – and it certainly makes a big difference for mine!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

In this week’s posts, we’ll think about ways that the Tres Columnae Project materials can help all of our students – but especially those who are struggling, or who need a little extra boost – see the curriculum standards they’re asked to meet as an engaging challenge rather than an impossible burden. Whether you end up subscribing to the project, looking in occasionally, or just thinking about us from time to time, I hope this idea of floors and ceilings will be helpful to you. Tune in tomorrow, when we’ll develop the metaphor a bit further and look at specific stories and activities that can change a ceiling into a floor. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on August 9, 2010 at 10:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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Freedom and Opportunity

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! In honor of Independence Day here in the United States, we’ll probably observe a holiday from blog posts on Monday, so I think we’ll begin our series of posts about Casina ancilla and her mysterious illness on Tuesday. Today, with a mixture of patriotic and nostalgic thoughts, I want to share some thoughts about the relationships between the Tres Columnae Project and the “all-American” ideas of Freedom and Opportunity. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I suppose there are several reasons:

  • As the “all-American” holiday, the Fourth of July naturally brings Freedom and Opportunity to mind. I think of my own ancestors, who came from all over Europe (and over a lengthy period of time) seeking … different things, I’m sure, but Freedom and Opportunity were certainly on the minds of some of them.
  • Since I do think about historical issues a lot, I’m also aware of the sad ironies and contrasts that must have accompanied the initial proclamations about Freedom, Liberty, and Opportunity when the Declaration of Independence was signed. So many women, slaves, and men without property heard the proclamations, but where was the freedom for them? And where was the opportunity? Of course, as time has passed, more and more people in the U.S. have gained access to the Freedom and Opportunity they were promised – and I’m profoundly grateful for that! And, in addition to my gratitude, I also feel a strong commitment to provide access to Freedom and Opportunity through the Tres Columnae Project … more about that in a bit.
  • As I was writing the stories about poor Casina ancilla, the contrast affected me. Here I am, with so much freedom and so many opportunities, writing about a person who had almost none! As a female slave in the Roman world, Casina is about as un-free as it’s possible for a person to be! And yet, as you’ll see, some amazing opportunities still open up for her. It’s hard to imprison the human spirit forever, even if you do use whips and chains.

As I was thinking about these issues, I realized that Freedom and Opportunity are woven into the Tres Columnae Project itself. We actually offer opportunities for liberation to all sorts of people – even those within the factory-model system of education that I sometimes describe in unflattering terms. But, of course, even if the system is dysfunctional, most of the people within it are well-meaning and truly desire their students to learn and grow. (And I should add that I’ve spent 18 years working for that system myself! So I hear my mother’s voice talking about people who live in glass houses….)

What kinds of Freedom and Opportunity can the Tres Columnae Project offer?

  • For school administrators, we offer relief from the tyranny of scheduling Latin classes, at least to a degree. As long as there are sufficient computers available (and, let’s note, “TC” runs nicely on mobile devices too – I watched a colleague follow my ACL Institute presentation on an iPod Touch), it may be possible to have students working somewhat independently, but without burdens on a teacher. Also, down the road, I think we can offer freedom from the agonizing decision to eliminate a popular, well-enrolled program if a teacher leaves and no suitable replacement can be found.
  • For Latin teachers, one of my favorite groups of people, we offer all kinds of freedom!
    • to create their own materials, share them easily, and even gain some monetary benefits over time;
    • to escape the “tyranny” of a textbook that’s wedded to a single teaching approach – one that doesn’t work well with the teacher’s personality or the students’ needs, or even one that does work well for many but falls short for some;
    • to escape the paperwork “tyranny” that goes along with distributing, accounting for, collecting, and storing textbooks – not to mention the endless Battle of the Forgotten Textbook or the Misplaced Notebook;
    • to reach different types and levels of learners more easily, especially if those learners are in a multi-level or “combined” class situation; and
    • to engage students in discovery and creation rather than just comprehension and regurgitation; and
    • to help students build Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill.
  • For learners of all kinds, in schools and out, Tres Columnae also offers many kinds of Freedom and Opportunity:
    • to excape the linear, two-dimensional, “dead” world of textbooks;
    • to progress at their own rate, escaping from the “assembly line” pacing of a factory-model approach even if they’re still in a factory-model school;
    • to work with material that’s intrinsically engaging and fascinating;
    • to escape the trap of “motivators” and “incentives,” a broken system that well-meaning teachers and administrators (including one named me!) have continued to use even though we know it’s broken, just because we can’t see another way;
    • to create and share their own learning materials, working together or by themselves; and
    • to bring the whole self – not just the language-learning centers of the brain, but the whole body, mind, and spirit – to learning, and to engage with Latin and the Romans as a whole person.

That’s my Independence Day wish for all of us – Freedom and Opportunity in the context of a Joyful Learning Community, and in all areas of your life!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll begin to look at the story of Casina and her morbus novissimus. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus!

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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