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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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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Quality and Quantity, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  As I looked back over yesterday’s post, I realized I left out one very important distinction in my definitions of qualitative and quantitative approaches to teaching and learning.  Both can certainly use numbers, but a quantitative approach is all about manipulating those numbers – producing an average, for example – while a qualitative approach is more concerned with what the numbers represent.

Of course, as a teacher in an American public school, I find that I use elements of both approaches.  One important part of my job is to report an “overall grade” – a single number that somehow represents my students’ overall performance with five distinct curricular strands, work habits, “percentage of correct responses” (to quote part of a policy about grades that I read somewhere), and whatever other factors I, as the teacher, find important enough to include.  If you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus, you know that I’m a bit skeptical of that single number, and you’ve probably read some of my prior posts about ways that I try to give Ownership of that number to my students.  I’m actually much more interested in the kinds of numbers that a qualitative approach can give:

  • My face-to-face Latin I students took a test yesterday, and many of them were struggling with singular and plural verb forms.  I’m curious to compare each student’s number of correct responses from that test with the number of correct responses on a quiz we took today … after we had some extra practice with the difficult verb forms.
  • At the start of each grading period, I try to give a diagnostic reading assessment.  There’s not a “grade” per se, but I want to know how many details my students can find in a Latin passage in a fairly short amount of time.  Then, as we continue to work on reading speed and fluency, I’m curious to see if that number increases over time.
  • My Latin I students also did a rather complicated, collaborative vocabulary review activity today.  I’ll be curious to see if they can match more verbs with their meanings when we do a similar activity next week.

I realize that all of these examples are focusing not on individual numbers, nor even on calculations involving those numbers, but on trends in those numbers over time.  Is that the biggest difference between a qualitative and a quantitative approach?  I’m not sure … I’ll have to ponder that myself!

One of the great benefits of an online learning environment like the Tres Columnae Project is that it can very easily automate the record-keeping needed for both qualitative and quantitative approaches.  As soon as a student completes an activity, his or her work can be scored immediately, and the system can capture all kinds of numeric data:

  • how long the student took to answer each question;
  • which questions were answered correctly;
  • what specific Knowledge, Skills, or Understandings were tested by each question;
  • how the student has progressed – or failed to progress – in Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding over time.

As I reflect on the kinds of data that teachers often receive about students – things like their “overall score” or “proficiency level” on a standardized test – it seems to me that more specific information is much more helpful.  Little Johnny or Suzie scored a “Level II” on the 8th grade Language Arts Exam … but what were the areas of strength and weakness?  And what progress has Johnny or Suzie made, or failed to make, in particular Language Arts skills over the past few years?  Score reports are often silent in these areas, but I think we need to break the silence if we really want to help Johnny or Suzie progress as a learner.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think of the redefinition of qualitative and quantitative approaches in this post?
  • What types of information do you want to collect about your students?
  • What are some ways that we can take raw, unprocessed data and transform it into helpful information?
  • And how can we use such information – whether we get it from the Tres Columnae Project or from another source – to help our students grow in specific areas?

If all goes well, we’ll address these questions in our next post … and I sincerely hope that next post will happen tomorrow.  Unfortunately, this is the beginning of that crazy period I mentioned in yesterday’s post, so it may be Friday or even Saturday … and I apologize in advance.  If it does take a few days, I hope you lectōrēs fidēlissimī will continue the conversation, either by email or by comments here.

intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 6, 2010 at 10:16 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, 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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Testing, Testing, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we’ll start to wrap up our series of posts about testing and assessment with a brief description of some alternative assessment strategies I’ve been using with my face-to-face students this year. Several of these are “old favorites” that I’ve used for years – and a few are really old favorites that I used years ago but had stopped using for various reasons. Collectively, their purpose is to build the Joy, the Community, and the sense of Ownership in my classes while also giving me (and my students) a good sense of how they’re doing with the Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings we’ve been working on together.

The longer I work with students, the more convinced I am that the primary customer of assessment results ought to be the students themselves. After all, it’s their learning at stake, not mine; their high-school transcripts, not mine; their future plans, not mine. Doesn’t it make sense that they, not I should be most interested in the results of any assessments I use with them? After all, if I’ve done my job at all, I probably have a pretty good sense of how my students will perform on a given measure even before I give that measure to them – but depending on their maturity level and how well they’ve developed their ability to self-assess, they probably don’t know … or at least they probably don’t know as well as I do.

And yet I know so many teachers who want to keep students’ overall grades – and even their individual test scores – secret from the students who have, presumably, done the work that earned those grades. What’s up with that? Those same colleagues, when they go to the doctor for a medical test, would be outraged if the doctor refused to tell them the results – after all, they’d say, it’s my body and my health! So tell me the results! And they’d be quite right … but yet they wouldn’t see any contradiction in returning to school the next day and not answering a student’s question about how he/she was doing in their class!

Unlike those inconsistent colleagues of mine, I’m firmly convinced that my students need to know how they’re doing – and they really need to have Ownership of how they’re doing as well as of what they’ve been learning. So I’ve gradually been redesigning my system of assessments – and the ways I give feedback on assessments – to put the focus more squarely on students’ Ownership of the results. Here are a few of the critical elements of the new system … and if you’re a long-time lēctor fidēlissimus (or fidēlissima), I’m sure you’ll see obvious connections with the assessments we’ve developed for the Tres Columnae Project.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made is the incorporation of a lot more self-assessment by students. Sometimes this is very informal (on a scale from 1-5, where 5 is “quite well,” hold up the number of fingers that represents how well you understand the new concept), and sometimes it’s more formal. The more I use self-assessment, the better my students tend to do … so I’ve become a big believer in it. If you’ve looked at the assessment components of the Tres Columnae Project, and especially at the items on display in the Instructure Demo Course for Lectiō Prīma, you’ve probably seen how much self-assessment we ask our participants to do. In a perfect world, I think I’d ask for a self-assessment after each explanation and each practice exercise, and we’ve come pretty close to that … but not so close that self-assessment becomes a tedious chore!

In addition to the informal self-assessments, I also ask my face-to-face students to do a more formal, journal-type self-assessment after they take each “formal” test but before they see their scores. Part of this “Self-Assessment of Preparation” is a chart where my students rate their comfort level with each new (or familiar) concept or skill, using a similar scale to the five-finger one I described above, but part is a series of open-ended prompts:

  • My greatest strength as a Latin student is ….
  • My area of greatest concern is ….
  • My area of greatest improvement over the past few weeks has been ….
  • I need to ….
  • My group needs to ….
  • I would like Mr. S. to ….

That last question has been extraordinarily helpful, and extraordinarily humbling, for me as a teacher. Sometimes I get really good, specific suggestions (“practice vocabulary with us,” for example, or “re-explain how verbs work,” which I’ll be doing as you read this post today); sometimes I get silly suggestions; and sometimes I’m asked to “continue what he is doing” or “change nothing.” Either way, I find that my students do take increasing amounts of Ownership of the whole learning process when they have these chances not only to assess their own performance, but to give feedback to me and (anonymously) to their classmates.

In the interest of time, I think I’ll save the other items on my list of assessments for tomorrow’s post.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What forms of assessment work well in your face-to-face teaching and learning situation?
  • Are there forms that used to work well but have stopped being effective?
  • Have you been experimenting with anything new and different?
  • What role for technology in the assessment process do you see?
  • Are there any technological pitfalls you’d like to avoid?
  • And what forms of assessment would you like to see – or not see – in Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project and beyond?

Tune in next time, when we’ll look at some other assessments on my list and finish wrapping up this series of posts about Testing. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 8:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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Testing, Testing, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I hope I didn’t test your patience too much by stopping Saturday’s post where I did … right before describing an alternative to a traditional test that allows me (and my students, too) to observe students’ thought processes as well as the product of their thinking. In prior posts, I’ve described a strategy I call the Relaxed Rotating Review, in which my face-to-face students rotate, as groups of four or five, through a series of different stations in preparation for a “traditional” pen-and-paper test. They have one last opportunity to ask me questions about concepts that are difficult, and they also have one additional opportunity to watch their friends and classmates interact with the concepts. In a well-structured group, one where everyone has taken Ownership of his/her learning, the Rotating Review can be amazingly helpful. On lots of occasions, I’ve seen students suddenly grasp an idea, a strategy, or even a vocabulary item that had eluded them for days or weeks.

Of course, for students who haven’t yet taken Ownership of their learning – and for those who are convinced that they can’t succeed academically – the Rotating Review can be pretty frustrating. But it does give me – and their classmates who have taken Ownership of their own learning – another chance to show them that success is possible and that the risk of Ownership is worth the rewards. (When I stop and think about it, I find it amazing that our factory-model schools have managed to remove any idea of Ownership of learning in only nine or ten short years. I look at the four-year-olds through fourth-graders in the children’s Sunday School classes I work with each week, and I find that they all still have both Joy and Ownership in the learning we do together. I wonder how many of them will lose the Joy and the Ownership by the time they’re my “regular” students’ age … and what I, or anyone else, can do to prevent such a loss.)

Anyway, given the benefits of the Rotating Review for my students, I’ve experimented with small-group collaborative work on summative tasks, and the current experiment seems to have worked quite well. I told my students on Wednesday that, depending on how things went for the rest of the week, we could select among three different summative tasks on Friday (for the Latin I students) and Monday (for the Latin III’s):

  1. A “traditional,” individual cumulative examination;
  2. A paired activity in which they worked together to answer questions from a prior version of a cumulative exam; or
  3. A paired or small-group task in which they created and analyzed an original Latin story.

I was actually hoping that most groups would choose the third option, but they overwhelmingly voted for Option 2 – it had been a long, tiring week for them, and they all said they didn’t want to think as hard as they’d have to for the third option. So Option 2 it was.

At the beginning of class on Friday, my Latin I students received a self-assessment rubric for the task, which focused their attention on three critical factors:

  • Their level of engagement in each section of the task;
  • Their level of collaboration with their partner; and
  • Their own sense of the accuracy of their responses.

As they worked through the old exam, which has five distinct sections, I asked them to pause at the end of each section and use the rubric to assess their own performance and that of their partner. I also reminded them that I, too, would be using the rubric to assess everyone’s performance, and that I’d be looking at the accuracy of the completed product (the questions from the old exam) as well.

The morning Latin I class did a fantastic job – they were all engaged in the process, did an excellent job with the product, and were thoughtful and accurate in their self-assessment … except for the one group that forgot to turn in their product! Fortunately for them, the reporting period doesn’t end until today, so by the time you read this, they will have found and turned in their product. The afternoon class, which has struggled a bit, got off to a slower start with the task, but they also did well overall. I was especially pleased with the level of meaningful self-assessment they displayed – a bit less pleased with their reading comprehension, but then it was Friday afternoon at the end of a long, exhausting week for them.

Over the weekend I had a wonderful email exchange with a colleague about tests and games. Her opinion is that games (well-designed ones) are “fun tests” – that is, they’re intrinsically engaging and motivating, but they also require you, the learner, to apply the Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings you’ve developed. I don’t think my little task was exactly a “fun test” as she’d define it, but it was a lot more fun both to take and to grade than a traditional test would have been. It also gave me a great opportunity to observe where my students were still struggling and where they were feeling comfortable – information that will be very helpful as we start the new grading period this week. I’m looking forward to a similarly enlightening experience with my Latin III class as they do theirs on Monday. I also look forward to the amazingly creative tasks that Tres Columnae Project subscribers and their teachers will develop in the next few years!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How do you feel about testing and assessment in your face-to-face teaching and learning situation?
  • How do you feel about observing process as well as product?
  • What alternative ways to observe process and product have you found?
  • And what about the idea of “games as fun tests?”

Tune in next time, when we’ll explore some other types of assessments I’ve been experimenting with in my face-to-face classes and see how they might be adapted to the Tres Columnae Project. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 27, 2010 at 8:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Continuity and Change, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! This is a fairly short post after another long day in my face-to-face teaching world. It wasn’t a terribly unusual day – just long, with a number of interruptions and last-minute crises that kept me at school longer than I’d hoped. I also had an unplanned trip to the local office-supply store this evening for recordable DVD’s, a supply item I thought I had on hand. On the upside, it was a beautiful evening without much traffic, and the drive was a nice way to unwind and reflect after a long, tiring day.

As I drove and reflected Tuesday evening, I realized that our themes of Continuity and Change are always intertwined in my life as a teacher … and in the rest of my life, too. Lots of things stay constant from week to week, month to month, year to year, and even decade to decade – indeed, sometimes old, half-forgotten things return to use.

For example, I’ve found that my current Latin I students love a choral-response vocabulary check activity that I haven’t used in five or ten years – mainly because those previous groups of students hated and resisted it so much. They also love writing answers on the board (it probably helps that it’s a SmartBoard), just as their counterparts 15 years ago loved writing answers on the chalkboard … but none of my classes have shown any interest in that for a decade or more. At the same time, we continue to use some strategies that every class has enjoyed: collaborative acting and illustration presentations based on stories we’ve read, for example, and a game called “Race for the Answer” where small groups compete to find the most details in a story and/or to read the story more quickly than their counterparts.

At the same time, though, Change itself is a constant. I find that my current students like and respond to a slightly more teacher-centered class than their counterparts did five years ago; they’re not as comfortable with a quick transition to small-group work, and they like more whole-group modeling than their counterparts for the past several years. At the same time, they seem to have established much better, more effective group dynamics than their counterparts who wanted more small-group activities – what’s up with that, I wonder? Perhaps it’s just that I’m more able (or more willing) to see what they actually need and to provide it for them; I think I was more rigid about plans and timing for the past few years than I’ve been this fall, and my greater flexibility has probably helped with the dynamics and the classroom environment. Of course my work with the Tres Columnae Project has helped a lot with flexibility in my face-to-face teaching, too – it’s hard to be rigidly committed to the “one right way” in one teaching environment when one is forcefully advocating for flexibility and responsiveness in another!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Have you noticed anything unusual (or old-but-new, for that matter) in your face-to-face classes this school year?
  • Do you find that you’re more flexible than usual – or less flexible, or about the same?
  • What are some of the factors that might be contributing to any changes you’ve noticed?

Tune in next time, when we’ll continue to explore these themes of Continuity and Change … and before too long (but probably early next week) we’ll finally see that other new Tres Columnae Project story about these themes. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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Longa et Brevia, Gravia et Levia, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  Yet another L-O-N-G day yesterday, with a correspondingly short post today.  The high point of the day for me was an almost-accidental conversation with a school administrator – we were looking for a video link we plan to use for a school-wide presentation next week, then started talking about some of the issues it raised.  You’ve probably seen one of the many versions of “Did You Know?” by Karl Fisch … but if you haven’t, and if you’re interested in the “digital native” generations and the issues that face them, it’s well worth the few minutes it will take to watch the video.  Anyway, in our conversation, the overarching theme was the importance of building Relationships and Community – among and between teachers, students, and parents.  We just kept coming back to that … and I realized once again how fortunate I am to work with folks who “get” the importance of Joyful Learning Communities.  Without their influence and support, the Tres Columnae Project might not exist at all.

Of course, for many Latin teachers, community may seem like a distant goal.  Yes, there are many virtual communities in which we participate, and yes, we tend to build strong communities among our students and alumni.  But professional communities that “get” our particular needs and concerns aren’t very common … especially for the many, many Latin teachers who are “the one” in their school and, all too often, in their school district.  For you lectōrēs fidēlissimī in that category, I hope that the community that grows around the Tres Columnae Project will ease the sense of isolation that’s all too easy to feel when you are, in fact, “the one.”

Of course, the way that American schools are designed, most teachers feel isolated a lot of the time anyway: yes, we’re surrounded by students, but we spend much of our day as “the one” adult or “the one” authority figure, with few opportunities to interact with colleagues, see new approaches, or learn from each other.  That’s been changing in recent years, as schools and districts become more aware of the importance of interaction and collaboration among teachers, but there’s still a long way to go.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you find that your face-to-face teaching situation is a Joyful Learning Community or a place of isolation … or is it a mix of the two?
  • What are some specific things you can do to improve that situation … if you need to improve it?
  • Are there other things the Tres Columnae Project might provide to help Latin teachers in general – and new teachers in particular – and to overcome some of the barriers and the isolation that we sometimes experience?

Tune in next time, when we’ll shift our focus a bit.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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