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.

 

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

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! This is the second in a series of posts about “ways to encourage more qualitative learning in a quantitative online environment,” as I said at the end of yesterday’s post. Of course, we should probably pause and define both qualitative and quantitative before we go any farther! As I wrote the first draft of this post yesterday evening, I’d just come from a weekly book group where we were discussing, among other things, the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation. It occurred to several of the long-time members of the group that in several books they’d read together, the words had clearly been defined very differently: what one author might call forgiveness, another might call reconciliation, and vice versa. Of course, I’m not sure we’ll ever agree completely on a definition for any word, but I do think it’s important to clarify just a bit before we go on.

By qualitative, I mean a more globally focused sense of the overall quality of one’s learning – a qualitative focus is certainly not exactly hostile to numbers, but it’s not bound by numbers or obsessed with them either.

By contrast, when I say quantitative, I imply a focus, if not a preoccupation, with types of learning that can easily be measured or expressed with numbers: scores on a quiz, for example, or percentage of work completed – things like that.

I don’t mean to imply that qualitative measures are better than quantitative ones, or vice versa; I just want to point out that they’re very different things. It’s certainly been the case over the past few decades that American education, in particular, has focused hard on quantitative measures of learning and teaching – test scores, of course, but also all the other statistics that educators love to collect. In so doing, I’m afraid we’ve discounted the things that are harder to count. And so, with the Tres Columnae Project and with the work I do with my face-to-face students, I want to restore a bit of balance. In fact, I even want to use some well-chosen numbers in a qualitative way. For example, with the self-assessments I mentioned in several posts last week, our learners are rating their perceived performance and comfort level on a numeric scale from 1-5 … but the point is not to “average some grades” or to determine a mean, median, mode, or any other statistic about the numbers themselves. Rather, the numbers are a tool that the learners (and their teacher) can use to observe their performance … especially their performance over time.

It may even be appropriate to produce charts, graphs, and statistics about the changes in those numbers over time … but the numbers, charts, and statistics are a tool for learning, not an end in themselves. Too often, when the focus is excessively quantitative, we educators forget that the numbers are a tool and start elevating them into a goal. When we do that, the results are too often disastrous – not just for the learning that we’re supposed to be measuring, but also for the accuracy and validity of the numbers themselves.

We’ve all read sad stories of students, teachers, and school leaders who respond to number pressure in wrong or unethical ways. When students cheat, they’re usually motivated by a couple of factors: a desire to do well (which is commendable) and an inability (real or perceived) to do well “the right way” (which is not commendable). How do we teachers respond in such cases? Too often, I’m afraid, we’re angry at what we perceive as an offense against ourselves, or against the purity of our academic discipline or something. We see the fault, but we fail to acknowledge the underlying desire to do well … and we don’t help our learners channel that desire into a more positive direction. You may have seen this recent discussion on a textbook-specific listserv about a “sample test” that the publisher had made available on its website. No one came right out and said it, but it was evident that a lot of the ire stemmed from a fear that “students might find it and cheat.”

As a young teacher, I’m afraid I took pleasure in “catching cheaters” – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I sometimes forgot, though, that the purpose of catching them isn’t to punish them so much as it is to correct the problem and keep it from happening again! But then, we educators often seem to have trouble remembering that. We love to catch and punish, but then we’re surprised when our students repeat the problem behaviors – and we’re quick to blame them, or their parents, or society, or television, or computers, or video games, or whatever. Unfortunately, we’re slow to examine what part, if any, we and our methods of catching and punishing might have contributed to the problem! We’re also quite slow to consider such factors as

  • whether the measures we’re using (the tests, quizzes, and such) actually measure what we’ve taught;
  • whether we’ve adequately prepared our students for the measures;
  • whether our students actually know and believe that they can be successful on the measures; and
  • whether we’ve established an environment where “the numbers” are seen as a helpful tool for learners, not just a punishment (or a sorting method) imposed by teachers.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think of my qualitative vs. quantitative distinction?
  • What, to you, is the purpose of assessment? Is it a tool for learners or a sorting method for teachers? Or is it a combination of these?
  • What would you say is the proper response when students take improper shortcuts?
  • What do you think about my idea that catching and punishing are sometimes contributing factors in students’ occasional dishonesty?
  • And how can the Tres Columnae Project. a self-paced online learning environment, avoid or minimize the possibility of widespread cheating?

Tune in next time, when we’ll explore these ideas more fully and look at some specific examples. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on October 5, 2010 at 10:20 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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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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Res Novae, IV

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today’s post continues our series from last week about Change on many different levels. If you’ve been a lēctor fidēlissimus for a while, you know that Change is a recurrent theme in these posts and in the Tres Columnae Project stories themselves. From time to time, we focus on

  • Changes in the small world of my face-to-face school and classroom;
  • Changes in the larger world of American education, and of teaching and learning in the 21st century more generally;
  • Changes that have taken place, over time, in the ways that Latin (and other subjects) are taught and learned; and, of course,
  • Changes in society, culture, and language over the past few millennia.

One of the great benefits of learning and teaching an ancient language and culture, meā quidem sententiā, is that it compels you to take a longer view. Especially in this time of rapid, systemic Change, it’s easy to get caught up in the Changes (and confusions and concerns) of the moment … and that sometimes makes us believe that current problems or concerns are universal and timeless even when they really aren’t. The perspective of a few centuries or millennia can be very helpful as a counterweight to this common tendency!

I’ve been reading an interesting new book called Waiting for “Superman”: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools. It’s intended as a companion to the documentary film of the same name, which I haven’t seen yet (it’s supposed to open nationwide on September 24, though it’s apparently been shown – and won awards – at several film festivals already). I really hope it makes its way to my face-to-face world quite soon, or else I suppose I’ll have to find the DVD when that becomes available. If you’re not familiar with the film, it sets out to give both a big-picture look at the state of America’s schools and a small-picture, very human perspective through a focus on five families who are trying to get their children enrolled in charter schools or other alternatives to the unsatisfactory schools in their neighborhoods. I obviously can’t review a film I haven’t seen, but I’m really looking forward to this! I have seen the trailer, and it moved me deeply.

Anyway, having read about a third of the book, I came across a wonderful anecdote from a school leader who describes how she turned around a failing school by, among other things, inviting the students and families to suggest improvements that needed to be made. In our terms, she built a Learning Community (and it sounds like it was a pretty Joyful one, too) by offering Ownership to her students and families … and they responded with pleasure and with significantly increased academic achievement. And this was the kind of chronically unsuccessful neighborhood school, in a high-poverty urban school district, that many “enlightened” reformers would write off as “unfixable.” A leader who saw the school as “unfixable” would never have bothered to consult the community or to invite them to take Ownership … and, of course, the school most likely would have remained stuck in low performance and low expectations.

I realized as I was writing that “fixable” and “unfixable” are usually more in the eye of the beholder than they are inherent in an institution or situation. I’m reminded of a house I went to look at a few weeks ago … the one I menioned briefly as “Number 3” in this post last month. When it was previously listed for sale, the description began with the phrase, “Glorious ole lady needs rescue” … but, in fact, “glorious ole lady” needed to be completely gutted and rebuilt from the inside out. For my purposes, “glorious ole lady” was unfixable; that is, even at a bargain-basement price, I’m not willing to devote the time, money, and energy that would be needed for this “rescue.” But this recent New York Times article describes an equally troubled house that was “fixable” – and, in fact, was “rescued” and restored to beauty – by a buyer who did have the time, energy, and resources to devote to the job. Even in the world of physical objects, “fixable” and “unfixable” are mostly a matter of perspective.

There’s a wonderful quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” Personally, I usually choose to think I can do the thing … or at least possibly can improve a chronically negative situation … and more often than not, I’ve been able to make at least some impact. And, of course, on those occasions when I think I can’t make any meaningful changes, I don’t have the energy or motivation to put forth the effort that would help changes happen. Whether it was crotchety old Mr. Ford or the prolific Anonymous who first uttered this sentiment, it’s helped me greatly as I try to navigate a world of rapid Change … and as I try to decide for myself whether a given Change is worth my attention and energy or not.

And speaking of Change, I had promised you a Tres Columnae Project story about a character who faces overwhelming Change today … so here we go! As you may recall, the characters we come to know and love in the stories of Cursus Prīmus are all living (though they don’t know it) under the shadow of the impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which will destroy-and-preserve Herculaneum along with Pompeii, Stabiae, and Oplontis in late August of 79 CE. I have deliberately avoided sharing most of the eruption stories – in fact, most of them don’t even appear on the Version Alpha Wiki site yet – but we did learn the fate of Flavius Caeso and his (current) mustēla in this post from last March. As we continue to think about Change, though, I’ll share a few selections from that part of Cursus Prīmus, including this bit about the fate of Valerius and Caelia:

hodiē māne Valerius et Caelia ante hōram prīmam surrēxērunt et anxiī inter sē in hortō domūs colloquēbantur. “mī marīte,” inquit Caelia, “quid facere vīs? utrum nōs decet in urbe manēre an Neāpolim iter facere Valeriam nostram vīsitātum?”

Valerius, “Caelia mea,” respondit, “deōs et māiōrēs hoc diū precibus vōtīsque rogō, nūllum tamen responsum datur. incertus igitur sum. quid mihi suādēs, uxor mea?”

Caelia diū tacēbat. montem Vesuvium intentē spectābat, sonitūsque audiēbat, tremōrēsque sentiēbat. tandem, “rem tōtam intellegere haud possum, mī marīte,” respondit. “quid tamen nōbīs accidet, sī Neāpolim iter faciēmus?”

“sine dubiō Valeria et marītus nōs laetissimī accipient,” respondit Valerius. “paucōs diēs cum illīs mōrātī, domum tūtī regredī poterimus, sī nihil malī accidet.”

“et quid nōbīs accidet,” inquit uxor, “sī hīc manēbimus?”

“nihil malī, sī tremōrēs nihil significant. sī autem tremōrēs pestem perniciemque significant …” Valerius tacēbat, quod vox dēficiēbat.

tandem Caelia “mī marīte,” respondit, “nōnne prūdentissimus es?”

et Valerius, “prūdentissimus? prūdēns certē! mihi placet cum tōtā familiā Neāpolim iter facere.”

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time for more about Change … and sometime this week, we might just learn the fate of the family of Rīdiculus mūs. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 10:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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