Urgent and Important, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Sorry about my lengthy silence! There’s been a lot going on in my face-to-face world, both at school and in other parts of my life, and unfortunately it hasn’t left much time to write, to reflect, or to think about anything but immediately urgent concerns. In the school world, there was the end of a semester and the looming start of another – and, of course, all that goes along with administering exams, grading them, finalizing grades, and preparing for the start of new courses. Losing four days of school to snow and ice (one right before our Winter Break, and three during what would have been final-exam week) certainly didn’t help matters, either! The disruption in our “typical” routine at school was mirrored in other parts of my life, too … I put “typical” in quotes here because, after all, there’s no such thing as a “typical” day (or week or month or year) for a school, a family, or any other group of people. Life, as the old saying goes, is what happens when you have made other plans … and we’ve certainly had a lot of life going on over the past few months.

I’m reminded, though, of that important distinction between the Urgent and the Important made by Stephen Covey and so many others. Urgent things are time-sensitive (those grades have to be finished by Monday! Those exams had to be copied before the students could take them!), but time-sensitive is not always the same thing as mission-critical. Important things are mission-critical, but they may not be time-sensitive. Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, distinguishes among four “quadrants” or categories of tasks – those that are both Urgent and Important, those that are Important but not Urgent, those that are Urgent but not Important, and those that are Neither. Obviously that first group (which he calls Quadrant I) requires our immediate, sustained attention, but most of our tasks fall into either the second group (Quadrant II, Important but not Urgent) or the third (Quadrant III, Urgent but not Important). As Covey wisely notes, if we focus on the Urgent, we tend to encounter more and more urgent crises, but if we can manage to focus on the Important, our lives over time become much less painful. After all, if you deal with the Important before it has a chance to become Urgent, there’s no mad rush to meet the deadlines … and there’s a corresponding reduction in our adrenaline and stress levels. Sometimes I wish I could tattoo that concept onto my own eyelids … or on the inside of my skull, or something like that! 🙂 And I certainly wish I could do the same for a few of my dear friends, some relatives, and a large number of current and former students – unhappy procrastinators all.

As my time of Urgent and Important task overload is coming to an end, I’m reminded that I can choose, each day, to focus on the Urgent or to focus on the Important. And whichever one I focus on, I’ll probably get more of it. For example, I could choose the Important task of regular exercise or the seemingly Urgent desire for a few more minutes of sleep. At home, I could select the Urgent demands of emails (new mail has arrived!) or Facebook updates, or I could choose the Important commitment of spending time with my family.

As new classes begin on Monday in my face-to-face teaching world, I choose to focus on – and help my students focus on – the Important rather than the Urgent. I’m also reminded that the Tres Columnae team needs to keep the Urgent vs. Important distinction firmly in mind as we continue to work on Version Beta of the project. There are many things we could be doing over the next few months, but we need to focus our time, attention, and resources on what’s truly Important to the project and to our Joyful Learning Community.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How do you balance the calls of the Urgent and the Important?
  • What seems most Important to you in your teaching and learning?
  • And what do you think are the most Important features of the Tres Columnae Project?

Tune in next time for more. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 10:10 am  Comments (1)  
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Winter Wonderland

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I write today’s post, I’m looking out at the remains of a huge – and very unusual – snowfall that shut everything down Around These Parts starting on Christmas night. I had an unexpectedly quiet, peaceful day at home yesterday, which I spent watching the snow fall, reading, and occasionally venturing outside with a very surprised and concerned dog. He doesn’t see snow very often, and when he does, he tends to respond in a predictable way: at first, he wants nothing to do with the strange, cold, white stuff that’s covering his favorite territory, but gradually he begins to explore and enjoy … and pretty soon he decides that he likes snow after all.

And so I wonder: Is my dog Jasper a living metaphor for the way that so many learners respond to strange, new things? As I write, he’s asleep on the sofa … and even if he were awake, I don’t suppose I could ask him. But I think of so many students I’ve worked with over the years – and their responses when I ask them to step out of their comfort zones and try something new. Like Jasper, they are usually reluctant at first, though they don’t usually show their reluctance by stepping gingerly, by pulling on a leash, or by looking longingly toward the closed front door of the house. But with time and patience, they start to venture out – though, again, their ventures look a bit different from his hesitant footsteps, questioning over-the-shoulder glances, and tentative sniffs at the strange new stuff covering his familiar surroundings. With even more time and even more patience, they, too, start to run and play and enjoy the strange new world, and eventually they come to find that it’s become a familiar place. Unlike Jasper, though, they do tend to remember the previous strange, new things they’ve encountered – at least, they remember some of them, some of the time! 🙂

Speaking of wonder, I wonder what you’ll think, lectōrēs fidēlissimī, about an amazing talk from the 2010 TED Conference that a friend just told me about. At 17 minutes, it’s a bit longer than the video links I normally share, but I really think it’s worth your time! The model he describes – self-directed small groups of learners, with four or so children sharing a single computer – is very close to the way that I think the Tres Columnae Project ought to be implemented in a school-based setting for best results.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What have you been wondering about as 2010 draws to a close?
  • What new plans and perspectives are you thinking about trying in 2011?
  • When you’re confronted with something new and surprising, how do you typically respond?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to explore these issues of wonder and consider see how the Tres Columnae Project and its model of Joyful Learning Communities might be able to contribute to – and help restore – the sense of joy and wonder in our learners. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on December 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Holiday Wish List

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re reading this post “live” in the United States, congratulations! You must have survived “Black Friday,” traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. (If you’re outside the U.S., you may well be shaking your head in amazement … but that’s another conversation.) As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve developed a “Tres Columnae Project Holiday Wish List” in honor of Black Friday. But no worries! You don’t actually have to buy anything on the list … and none of the items will cause any conflicts in the aisles at your favorite local big-box retail store.

So here’s what the Tres Columnae Project would like to receive from Santa Claus this year:

  • A successful launch of the full Version Beta early in 2011, with all the “core” stories, exercises, and other content in place.
  • Growing numbers of subscribers and contributors, adding, editing, and remixing each other’s stories, images, audio, and video clips as they teach and learn Latin together.
  • Enough subscription revenue for our organization to sustain itself, pay its staff, and continue to grow and thrive. We’d love to grow to the point that we could provide a way for lovers of Latin and the Classics to make a good income (or even a good supplemental income)!
  • The opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of 21st-century Latin teachers and learners – you know who you are, either because you’re reading this blog or because you’ve been dissatisfied with the 19th- and 20th-century tools at your disposal.
  • The opportunity to showcase and share our subscribers’ stories, images, audio, and video clips – like this amazing one by some students at our pilot school in the UK.
  • The opportunity to build a real, vibrant community of Tres Columnae participants … not only in our online environment, but also face-to-face. If we can manage it, we’d like to hold a series of “unconferences” in places that are convenient for our subscribers. That may have to wait until 2012, but we went ahead and put it on the wish list, just in case.
  • The opportunity to co-create with our participants … to build the Tres Columnae Project not just the way that we envision it now, but the way that the community will design it together.

Of course, we should probably ask for a lot of strong coffee, since the other items on our Wish List will take some significant time and effort. How about 32 hours per day rather than the normal 24 so we can accomplish everything? And we might as well go ahead and ask for world peace and untold riches for everyone while we’re at it! 🙂 But if we could get even a few of the items on our Wish List, it certainly would be a Merry Christmas for us … and, we think, for the larger world of teachers and learners of Latin.

Whatever you desire, and whatever your holiday traditions may be, I wish you peace and joy amid the commercial whirlwind of this time of year. Tune in next time, when we’ll look in more detail at some of the items on the Wish List and see if you want them, too. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.


Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Giving Thanks

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s the day after Thanksgiving Day in the United States … the day that has come to be known as “Black Friday” because of its positive effect on retail stores’ balance sheets. I have a “holiday shopping list” for the Tres Columnae Project that I plan to share in tomorrow’s post, but please don’t worry – it does not involve the kinds of items that cause minor riots in the pre-dawn hours on “Black Friday.”

Today, though, I want to focus on gratitude, on the things I’m truly thankful for as a long, difficult year nears its conclusion and the promise of a new year awaits. It’s a long list!

  • My family, who support and love me, and whose encouragement (and constructive criticism) have meant so much in the development of the Tres Columnae Project, Versions Alpha and Beta
  • My wonderful circle of friends, both “physical” and “virtual,” who constantly encourage and challenge me, too
  • My students, even the “difficult” ones, who deserve real 21st-century learning materials, and who need their voices to be heard
  • Their families, who continue to entrust their children to a somewhat-unusual little school, and who then encourage (or at least allow) them to do such an “impractical” thing as to study Latin and the Ancient World
  • Remarkable books, filled with ideas that challenge and inspire. I’ll have more to say about two, in particular, in posts next week
  • The Tres Columnae community as it continues to form … especially Ann, Lucy our amazing illustrator, and Tim who did the thankless work of setting up the structures for Version Beta
  • Resources to meet our material needs, and a growing perspective on what’s really important and needed, and above all
  • The opportunity to live and work now, in these rapidly-changing times, and to be able to take part in some of the changes that are sweeping through the institutions of society.

Whether it’s been a week of thankfulness, a week of shopping, or just an ordinary week for you, I’m also truly grateful for you, lectōrēs fidēlissimī. It still amazes me to know how many of you are looking for something like our Joyful Learning Community, and I’m so glad you’ve become part of it.

grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Returning to Life

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Some of you lectōrēs fidēlissimī have probably been wondering what happened to me in the past few weeks. Many thanks to everyone who’s sent private messages and emails of concern.

Late October and early November happen to be a really difficult time in my face-to-face teaching world. The first quarter of the school year comes to an end, with grades and exams as I mentioned in my last post in late October. I was still recovering from the after-effects of that virus that had sidelined me for a few days at the first of October, too. Then came a set of intensely busy weeks and another virus – an upper respiratory one this time. Teachers and students often say that they’re “sick of school” around this time of year … but apparently my body decided to take that old saying literally this time! 🙂 I did manage to keep working with my students each day, but by the end of the day I was very tired, very drained … and very busy with that online staff-development course about Differentiated Instruction that I teach for my face-to-face school district. The fall session just ended yesterday; progress reports go home tomorrow; I finished grading a large pile of students’ tests this morning; and after a small dinner and a long nap, I realized that I finally had both time and energy to write this post.

As I read back over the last paragraph, I was reminded of several things about teaching in factory-model schools. First, it’s an exhausting process! Since teachers have very little practical help with designing instruction or designing assessments, the hours of planning and preparation are long. At the same time, since teachers’ primary “work” involves direct contact with students, the vast majority of our time is simply not available for the designing part of what we do. Second, it’s an inefficient process! When time is held constant, as the assembly-line approach demands, quality and learning are necessarily variable – and even when you try to run an enlightened factory, the students (raw materials? production workers?) come in with memories of other, less-enlightened factories … or, in some cases, fresh experiences of those less-enlightened factories from the classes they’ve attended earlier in the day. Third, it’s not a very systematic process! Whatever big-picture goals a factory may have – even if they’re sincerely, deeply held by its managers and workers – the daily, number-one priority has to be to keep that production line moving. In the same way, it’s so easy for factory-model schools to fall into the “coverage” trap – to rush their learners through a superficial exposure to a broad-but-shallow curriculum, rather than to take the time necessary for deep learning to grow.

In the past two days, I saw two amazing indicators of this rushing trend – one in an article shared by a friend and one in my own students’ performance on their last test. The article, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, is the first-person account of a professional paper-writer; he (or possibly she – it’s hard to tell from the pseudonym) makes a good living producing custom-written papers for undergraduate and graduate students in a whole range of academic subject areas. You really need to read this – and the comments are as telling as the article itself. The factory model reaches its logical conclusion! The test item is one I’ve used for several years; it’s part of a section where students choose the right meaning for an English word derived from Latin and identifying the Latin root word, and it comes after students have had a great deal of practice with this particular skill. The word was ubiquitous – certainly a word which college-bound high-school students, especially the juniors and seniors who are a significant plurality in both of my Latin I classes this semester, should know. They were generally able to link it to its root word (both ubi and ubique happened to appear in the reading passage where they were to find the root), but as a group, they failed dismally to choose an appropriate meaning. No doubt, at some point, ubiquitous had appeared on a “vocabulary list” in an English class they’d taken, and no doubt they had dutifully “copied the word and the definition” and taken a “vocabulary test” on which the word was featured. But there was no retention at all! (Ironically, they had retained the Latin word ubi quite well after experiencing it several times in context, using it repeatedly, and then using some formal study techniques.) If you subscribe to the Latin-BestPractices listserv, you probably saw this post, which refers to Stephen Krashen’s research about vocabulary acquisition; if so, you’re probably not surprised either by the fact that my students hadn’t retained ubiquitous but had retained ubi, given their very different experiences with “learning” (or, in the first case, “memorizing”) the two words.

If you’re feeling a bit hopeless, please don’t despair! After all, my students recovered from their ubiquitous problem and had a wonderful day of test corrections today. They also showed me – and themsleves – that they really have retained quite a lot of Latin vocabulary, and gotten quite good at reading and understanding the language. And if you’d really like a treat, check out this amazing video from the Tres Columnae Project’s pilot school in England. Notice the Joy, the Learning, the Community, and the Ownership! I highly doubt that the students will ever forget the words they used in their skit … or the skit itself, for that matter!

And then, when you have a chance, please check out the very preliminary Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project. No need to subscribe or create an account yet; you can see all the stories and other content for free at the moment. We’ve been working hard to move things over from the Version Alpha Wiki, which of course is still available (and isn’t going away!), and we’d love to know what you think. We’ve also been working hard to add some more sample exercises, quizzes, and other good things to Version Beta. Of course we’d love to have your help; please let me know, with a comment here or a private message, if you’d be interested in helping with the transition or in developing some additional exercises. The more you contribute, the better the project will be … and the less the subscription costs will be for you and your students if you choose one of our paid subscription models down the road. If all goes well, Version Beta will have its official launch in early 2011, and we’ll always continue to add new features as the community works together to envision, create, and implement them.

Tune in next time for your comments, our responses, and more of a preview of Version Beta and beyond. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 11:03 am  Leave a Comment  
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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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Returning to Life?

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  Sorry about the long, long silence here!  The difficult time period I described in our last post was, in fact, even more difficult than I’d expected … and then, on the Saturday after that terribly busy week, I came down with a nasty virus.  It kept me away from my face-to-face teaching world for the first part of last week – I honestly can’t remember the last time I was away from school for more than a day at a time!  And then, of course, there was all the catching up at school … and the recovery from the lingering effects of the virus.  As I write these words, I’m almost, but not quite, back to my typical energetic self.

One bit of good news: even as my attention was focused on breathing and (eventually) attempting to eat, other members of the ad hoc Tres Columnae team have been hard at work on Version Beta of the Project.  We should have an official announcement about our progress very soon!

If you don’t regularly read the Latin-BestPractices listserv, you may not have seen this short post … and even if you saw it, you may not have clicked through to the video.  It’s about 11 minutes long, but you really, really need to see it.

What I found sad was that as of today, there had only been one response to the BestPractices thread, and it was all about what a teacher could do in an isolated classroom.  Is it that the systemic issues seem too big to address, or is it just that, as teachers, we typically don’t think it’s our place to address such issues?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll return to what I promised to do “next time” before life intervened.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 20, 2010 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Quality and Quantity, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! In today’s post we’ll develop some preliminary answers to an important question I asked on Friday. After describing some of the ways in which I’ve moved away from numeric grades to constructive feedback on certain assignments, I asked:

How do you suppose these qualitative measures could be adapted to the quantitative, number- and data-driven format of an online environment?

In other words, even though computers are so good at numbers, how might we get away from a number focus for assessments in the Tres Columnae Project?

If you’ve looked at the sample assignments in the Instructure Demo Course for Lectiō Prīma, you’ve probably noticed that they’re all set up as “practice quizzes” rather than “graded quizzes.” There are a couple of good reasons for that:

First, if we set them up as “graded quizzes” in the Instructure system, only enrolled students would be able to see them … which certainly makes sense when you stop and think about it. But the whole purpose of the demo course is to demonstrate some of the assessments that our subscribers will be able to use (and create for each other) when Version Beta is available. Since we wanted everyone to be able to see them, the only viable solution was to create “practice quiz” versions.

Once I had made the “practice quizzes,” though, I realized that I liked the idea of a low-stress, low-stakes assessment, especially for newer or more difficult material. You may have seen this New York Times article, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous posts, or you may have even read the underlying study about the positive effects of practice quizzes and practice tests on learning and retention. I’ve noticed with my face-to-face Latin students that they really benefit from low-stress, low-stakes assessments … even if those assessments are just a reconfigured version of an ungraded practice activity I might have used in the past.

Somehow the idea that someone will be looking at the assignments – or, in the case of an online exercise, that you’ll get some form of instantaneous feedback from the assignment itself – helps you, as a learner, focus on what you’re doing. In my own life, I find that I do a better job of lesson planning when I know that someone besides me will actually look at the plans … and I’m certainly more consistent at writing for you lectōrēs fidēlissimī than I’ve ever been when I maintained a private, “just for me” journal. Apparently the idea of an audience is a big help … and of course we’re probably all aware of the research about the positive effects on student writing when there’s an authentic audience, not just an “audience of one” armed with a red pen! 🙂

As you know, one of the driving forces behind the Tres Columnae Project is the idea of providing a “real” audience for our learners’ Latin writings, illustrations, audio clips, video clips, and other creative efforts. I just heard from the teacher at one of our piloting schools; her students are very excited at the idea of creating additional characters (more animals, for example, and grandparents for familia Valeria), and I’m eager to see what they develop. They’ve truly taken Ownership of the stories and characters, just as I hoped they would! She also mentions that they love to take and retake the practice quizzes until they have perfect scores … then proudly share their perfect scores with her. I wonder if they’d be equally engaged if they had to take “real” quizzes and have a “permanently” recorded score?

So one way to make a quantitative, computer-based learning system more qualitative is to de-emphasize the importance and permanence of the numbers, and another is to to emphasize the virtual community over the individual numbers. But what else can we do to encourage our learners, especially the ones who may struggle with reading, or with grammatical concepts, or (as one of my favorite former students used to say) “with everything – but I love Latin anyway?”

quid respondētis, amīcī?

This is a difficult and extremely full week in my face-to-face world … a lengthy faculty meeting tonight followed by an evening function; a possible rushed trip out of town Tuesday afternoon for dealer service on one of the family cars; my daughter’s track meet Wednesday; Parent-Teacher Conferences at school on Thursday; and the wedding of dear friends Friday evening. And of course I’m also busy with “normal” face-to-face teaching responsibilities, as well as with the beginning of that online professional-development class I teach. I hope to maintain a somewhat normal schedule of posts, but I hope you’ll forgive me if they’re a bit short … or a bit infrequent, for that matter! Next time, if all goes well, we’ll continue to look at ways to encourage more qualitative learning in a quantitative online environment. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 10:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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Testing, Testing, V

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I promised in yesterday’s post, we’ll wrap up that list of assignments and assessments I’ve been using in my face-to-face classes this year, and we’ll also take a look at ways that such assignments might be adapted to an online environment like the Tres Columnae Project.

As I write the first draft of this post on Thursday evening, I’ve just sent a welcome message to the participants in the fall session of that online professional-development course about Differentiated Instruction that I teach for my face-to-face school district. Even though it can be time-consuming, I really enjoy working with the participants in the course. Over a six-week period, we typically move from a group of strangers (many of whom are “just fulfilling a requirement”) to something very much like the Joyful Learning Community that the Tres Columnae Project hopes to build. I’ve never known exactly how that happens, but I think it’s because we form a metaphorical circle around a truly interesting, engaging Subject (to borrow a term from the work of Parker S. Palmer that will be familiar to truly long-time lectōrēs fidēlissimī). As teachers and learners ourselves, we all want our students to be successful, and the course is all about what successful learning looks like and how to make it happen in a face-to-face classroom.

Perhaps that’s another reason why I enjoy teaching the course so much: it gives me an opportunity to learn from the participants in the course, just as I get to learn every day from my face-to-face students. As teachers, we sometimes forget how much we learn – and how much we need to learn – from our students. Obviously we have to learn something about them as learners so that we know best how to reach them, and sometimes we learn about connections between their lives and the subjects we teach. Sometimes we even get great strategies or lesson ideas from our students – if they trust us, they’ll suggest that we try something that worked well in Mrs. X’s or Mr. Y’s class. Just the other day, one of my Latin I students asked if there was a song we could use to help her remember “how verbs work.” I can’t think of an existing song, but developing one is going to be an option for her class as they review verbs over the next few days.

Allowing and encouraging students to develop their own assignments and assessments is a “growth area” for me at the moment. I’ve always been committed to the idea in theory, and as you know, I’ve sought student input and suggestions for a long time. But only this year have I really started letting go of my Ownership of my Latin I classes in particular. For the past few years, I had been striving to develop the “perfect” set of Latin learning materials – and then the idea for the Tres Columnae Project came to me. As I’ve worked on it, and as I’ve seen the implications for my face-to-face teaching, I’ve realized that “perfect” learning materials are an elusive goal. Every class is different, every student is different, every day is different, so the “perfect” materials, even if they could be developed, would immediately be imperfect for the next group that worked with them.

Instead of striving for timeless, unchanging perfection, I’ve been learning to seek a good balance or fit between students and materials, and I’ve re-learned and re-learned the importance of learners’ Ownership of the process as well as the outcomes. Hence the song idea for my Latin I classes … and hence a very directed, closed-ended review of subjunctive verbs for my Latin III’s on Thursday. We’d done more open-ended work, but they were struggling with too much freedom and too many choices, and they were delighted by a more structured, less open-ended task today. My Latin I students are actually more comfortable with open-ended tasks than the III’s at the moment, but even they needed and wanted a more structured, closed-ended task today. And all the groups have been asking for specific work with vocabulary during class, a request which surprised and confused me at first! For the last several years, most of my classes had not needed or wanted to do vocabulary work in class; they liked studying by themselves. But for whatever reason, the current groups love to practice and check vocabulary in class … and the more work we do with it, the better their reading-comprehension skills. That has often not been true in the past, which is another reason I’d been avoiding vocabulary work in class for a while. It was very frustrating to see and hear students who could perfectly define a word in isolation, but would look at me in utter confusion when that same word appeared in the context of a reading or listening passage!

Aside from student-driven work in general, and vocabulary practice in particular, the other area where I’ve been challenging myself this year has to do with formative and informal assessments. I have used these for a long time, but for most of that time I moved too quickly to “put a number” and check for accuracy … which is sad and ironic, I suppose, given my publicly-stated disapproval of teachers who “check homework for accuracy.” But there I was, checking classwork for accuracy before my students were ready! 😦 I’ve started listening to them, paying closer attention to informal self-assessments that I described earlier this week, and giving feedback without numeric grades more often, especially when we’re in the early stages of working with a new concept.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think of my list of assignments and/or assessments?
  • What do you think about formative and informal types of assessment?
  • And how do you suppose these qualitative measures could be adapted to the quantitative, number- and data-driven format of an online environment?

Tune in next time for some preliminary ideas … and for any responses you’re willing to share. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Testing, Testing, IV

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we’ll continue to wrap up our series of posts about testing and assessment with the remaining items on that list I referred to in Tuesday’s post – a list that began with various types of self-assessment, both formal and informal, that help my students build a sense of Ownership of their learning.  I had written a draft of this post on Tuesday evening, but then life intervened in the form of a nasty cold and the bad weather that’s been affecting much of the eastern United States for the past few days.  I’m still battling the cold, but it’s not any worse than it was.  As for the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole, they led to a two-hour weather delay for most school districts in this part of the world, but it’s still too dark as I write this post to see what else they’ve done.  When my favorite-and-only dog and I went out to get the newspaper just now, there were a lot of big puddles in yards, but no sign of street flooding in our neighborhood.

Before we go on to the rest of that list I started Tuesday, I should probably say that some of the assessments I’ll describe here – and some of their electronic equivalents in the Tres Columnae Project – may blur the line between assessments and assignments that some teachers rigidly maintain. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that distinction myself, but some teachers (and some experts in the field of assessment) would argue that an assignment or activity allows learners to practice a new skill, while an assessment (whether formal or informal, formative or summative) allows them to demonstrate what they’ve learned. It seems to me that any learning activity will necessarily involve both things: some additional practice of the “new skill” or “new knowledge” or “new understanding” as well as an opportunity for the learners and their teachers to see how well the learners have mastered that “new thing.”

If you’re among the long-time lectōrēs fidēlissimī of this blog, you know that I’m very skeptical of neat distinctions and simple dichotomies. I have a tendency to look for a creative synthesis, a “Third Alternative” in Stephen Covey’s memorable term. That’s certainly involved in my reluctance to draw simple distinctions between assignments and assessments. But after nearly two decades leading a face-to-face Latin classroom, I’ve found that the neat assignment-assessment distinction often breaks down in the real interactions among me, my students, learning materials, and the learning goals we set.

Anyway, here are some more of the assessments (or assignments, or hybrid assignment-assessments) that have been working well in my face-to-face classroom this year:

We’ve been doing a lot of random practice of grammatical forms using multi-colored dice and a key that translates the roll of the dice into a form to be generated. For example, my Latin I students have “officially” learned about eight Latin verb forms so far:

first, second, and third-person singular present tense verbs;

third-person plural present tense verbs;

third-person singular and plural imperfect tense verbs; and

third-person plural perfect tense verbs.

As you know, the order of presentation in the Tres Columnae Project is somewhat different, but we’ve held ourselves responsible only for the forms introduced in our “official” textbook. Of these eight, the third-person singular present and perfect forms are used as the dictionary entry for the moment – of course, we’ve also seen the “real” dictionary entry for a Latin verb, and we’ve learned how the two listings correlate, but we’re not yet “officially” responsible for standard dictionary listings. Anyway, that leaves six other verb forms that my students can generate, so it’s simple to use a single die to determine which form they’ll make: 1 = first-person singular present tense, 2 = second-person singular present tense, etc.

As my students work in pairs or small groups to make verbs this way, I have a wonderful opportunity to observe both their thought processes and the actual products, the conjugated verbs … and they have a much more engaging, meaningful way to work with verb endings than a “traditional” conjugation drill. I’m reminded of the excellent point my colleague made in an email this weekend – the one I mentioned the other day about games as “fun tests.” My students don’t really feel like they’re being tested, since the activity is game-like and engaging, but they produced a large number of well-made verb forms in a short time today – and they actually begged for more time with the activity, too!

Another game-like assignment-and-assessment that’s been very successful this year involves small groups or pairs working together to find as many details as possible in a reading selection. One could obviously use Tres Columnae Project stories for this, and we’ll be doing that later in the week, but one can also use textbook stories, fables, or other types of texts … and one can ask questions about the passage in English, Latin, or some combination. For my Latin I’s, the game is simple: they read one or two stories, I keep track of the total number of details they find, and three sets of winners receive a small prize – the first group to finish, the group with the most right answers, and the group with the greatest improvement over the last time we played. My Latin III students have a more complicated, longer-term game with an actual (paper) game board; they’ve been playing on and off for about three weeks, but no one has yet advanced all the way up the six-page CVRSVS HONORVM to become consul and ultimately Emperor. That will probably happen tomorrow, as one group is quite close to completion.

In any case, with all the different classes, I’m able to watch my students’ reading strategies, see how much vocabulary assistance they need, and steer them to closer examination of the passages they’re reading – all without that sense of drudgery and dread with which so many students greet the idea of reading in any language. I’ve used versions of the game for years, but I think the secret to its success this year is that I’ve found the right balance (or at least the right balance for my current groups of students) between the intrinsic rewards of the task itself and the extrinsic rewards of winning the game. Until you find that balance, it’s easy for learning games to falter – they can easily lose emphasis on the learning, of course, but they can also easily deteriorate from a game into a boring activity that students dread.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think of the blending of assignments and assessments I’ve described?
  • How do you think it would work in your face-to-face teaching and learning environment?
  • What about the use of learning games as assignment and assessment?
  • Do you see any pitfalls I haven’t mentioned?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to focus on that list of assessments and assignments that have been working well in my face-to-face classroom this year … and we’ll also consider how they might be adapted for an asynchronous online environment like the Tres Columnae Project. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 9:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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