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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Floors and Ceilings, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! If you’re not a subscriber to the Latinteach listserv, you may not know about the passionate and highly encouraging discussion over there about the idea of “Latin as foreign language” vs. “Latin as philology” or, as one of my colleagues and friends said, Latin as “deliberate reading.” I really don’t see a conflict between the two! After all, how can you possibly do deliberate, careful reading of a text if you don’t have a good command of the language in which it’s written? To take an extreme example, I don’t think I could say anything intelligent about a Russian text, even though I “know the alphabet” (or did twenty years ago) and could probably manage to look up several of the words in a dictionary if I had enough time. But I obviously don’t have any sense of the connotations of those words – why the author chose one word rather than a synonym, or what suggestions a particular phrase would raise in the mind of a native speaker. I could, of course, read a translation of the work if one happened to be available, and then I could probably say something sensible about the plot and characterization – but I certainly wouldn’t be doing philology, in any meaningful sense of the term, with the actual Russian text. Too often, I’m afraid, Latinists of the past century-and-a-half have tried to short-circuit their way to “deliberate reading” without actually developing proficiency at reading itself!

I’ve been re-reading a remarkable book by Dr. John Townsend called Leadership Beyond Reason, which is about integrating the emotional and intuitive sides of ourselves along with the logical and rational sides in our dealings with others – and especially with those, like our students, for whom we function as leaders. Dr. Townsend reminds his readers of a really important point: Happiness, he says, is a wonderful by-product of the things we do in life, but if we set up happiness as a goal or outcome for ourselves, we’re likely to be miserable! Stop and let that sink in for a moment.

In a comment I made yesterday at Fireside Learning, I mentioned this idea and related it to the ongoing discussion over there about creativity and academic standards. I wonder if knowledge and skill, which we so often set up as goals for instruction, should really be seen as by-products of a quest for understanding? After all, if my goal (the ceiling, in our continuing metaphor) as a teacher is to impart a list of knowledge and skills, I may well fall short and some of my students probably will. But if our goal or ceiling is to develop understandings that are based on a given set of knowledge and skills, those become the floor on which we build the understandings rather than the ceiling toward which we reach in vain. We may well still have some construction to do to make sure that everybody’s floor is stable and level, but the work will be much more satisfying – and a lot more of our learners will probably end up mastering that set of knowledge and skills!

So how does this floor-vs-ceiling paradigm work in an actual class? And how does it work with materials like the Tres Columnae Project stories, exercises, quizzes, and virtual seminars? It’s not so much the activities themselves that change as the attitude and sense of purpose. (Michael Gerber, the famous writer about entrepreneurship and small business, makes an oddly similar point in his description of “the business plan that always works” in one of his books. The document, he says, looks similar to any other business plan, but the process used is utterly different.)

First let’s consider a quick physical-class illustration – one that many teachers are already facing, or soon will, as the school year begins with their Latin II students. Most likely, the teacher feels a need – or the students have made it quite clear that they need – to review the noun cases, verb tenses, and other grammatical concepts learned in Latin I. But what are some possible purposes or goals for this activity?

  1. You might want your students to be able to identify ancillam as an accusative singular first-declension noun and quaeram as a first-person-singular future indicative active verb. That’s a recognition or knowledge-level goal.
  2. You might want your students to be able to make the forms of ancilla or quaerere – to decline and conjugate. Those are application or skill-level goals, but on a fairly low level.
  3. You might want your students to be able to use the forms to understand a passage that they’re reading – perhaps you want them to translate the passage once they understand it, or to answer questions about it, or to illustrate it, or to do something else with it. These goals involve some skill (application and analysis) and some understanding (evaluation and synthesis or creation).
  4. You might want students to emerge with a deeper, more coherent sense of how Latin morphology conveys meaning – definitely an understanding-level goal.

Of course, you probably want your students to be able to do all of these things! But which goal is most likely to help them get there? The way I’ve ordered the list, each new goal encompasses the essential learnings of those before it. If I aim for #4 (and I have to confess I don’t always do this, but I should!), my students will probably be pretty good at #1, #2, and #3 by the end of the process even if they don’t entirely master #4. (And how exactly would I measure #4 anyway?) But if I just aim for #1 or #2, my students probably won’t all get there – and even if they do, will their efforts necessarily bring them any closer to #3 or #4?

If my goal really is #4, I suppose it could be measured in several ways:

  • Students might participate in a Socratic Seminar on the topic of Endings and Meanings.
  • They might write about their understanding of Latin cases or tenses and how that understanding has deepened.
  • They might create an original product (an illustration or model, for example) that shows the relationships between different cases or tenses. I once had a Latin III student who built such a model because she felt confused about Latin verb tenses and moods and wanted to be able to see and feel the relationships. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for her), I let her keep it! 🙂

So, if that Understanding is the ultimate goal, we obviously need to make sure that students have the knowledge of noun and verb formation and the skills of identifying and analyzing inflected forms – not to mention the skills of using inflections to comprehend a connected passage. There will obviously be assessments along the way that measure the knowledge and skills – and those assessments may, in the end, weigh more heavily in the students’ grade than the culminating assessment does. But by seeing students knowledge and skills as sign-posts rather than the ultimate goal – as floor (or maybe walls or support beams) rather than ceiling – I’ve changed the focus of the class completely. If I’ve done my job well, students can clearly see how this knowledge, this skill, this exercise or other activity is connected to the bigger goal – and they can also chart their progress toward attaining that goal. Motivation and focus increase, and complaints about “why are we doing this?” tend to decrease.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Is this an excessively rosy picture? Or have you found that students do, in fact, get caught up in bigger goals and find their achievement increasing?
  • Can you see how differentiated activities are not only necessary, but much easier to plan with a big-picture goal in mind?
  • And can you see how materials like the Tres Columnae Project can make it easier to support students in their quest for big-picture goals?

Tune in next time, when we’ll look at some specific examples of Tres Columnae Project materials that support big-picture goals. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on August 10, 2010 at 11:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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