Just Wondering, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! And warmest Christmas wishes, for those lectōrēs fidēlissimī who celebrate the holiday. I left you yesterday with this question:

Say that you were a young doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, electrician, auto mechanic … you name it. At some point early in your training, you confront the critical issue of Where The Money Comes From. But young teachers usually don’t. Why? And how would the world be different if they did?

As I mentioned, I’ve been wondering about that for a few days … and I’m also wondering why I never wondered about it before! Perhaps things are different for my colleagues in private schools. After all, even if you don’t formally discuss the issue, it’s pretty clear Where The Money Comes From there: it comes from some combination of tuition revenues and endowment income, if the school is fortunate enough to have an endowment. When I was a young teacher, I certainly understood, in general, Where The Money Comes From to run American public schools: there’s a mixture of federal, state, and local tax dollars, a mixture that varies widely depending on where the school is located, among other factors. But no one ever sat down with me and explained the different “pots” of money and how they’re used – and how, by law, money normally can’t be moved from one “pot” to another. (I remember, years ago, when I was chair of the Foreign Language Department at a previous school, a colleague wanted to purchase a file cabinet with a special grant for “classroom supplies” – but he couldn’t, because file cabinets are “equipment,” not “supplies.” That was a difficult explanation! In the end, we did find some money for a file cabinet for him … but not in the “supplies” budget, of course.)

Those budgetary restrictions aren’t unique to public education, of course – if you’ve ever had anything to do with the operations of a nonprofit or a religious institution, you’ve probably run into similar, possibly even more baffling restrictions. But the staff and board members of nonprofits, churches, and other religious organizations get some training or explanation about the restrictions … or, if they don’t, the results are unfortunate. Why is it, then, that the details of schools’ operating budgets, the sources of the funds, and the restrictions on expenditures are so often kept secret? I can certainly understand that the details of some expenditures might be kept private … but schools are public institutions! And in most places in the United States, citizens have a right to inspect public records … so it’s not as though the budgetary details could really be kept secret forever. And most school administrators I know really don’t have any personal interest in keeping secrets, either. When the budgetary realities are understood, their teachers tend to make fewer unreasonable requests … and there are always plenty of unreasonable requests (and a few reasonable ones) coming across their desks in any case.

Why is it, then, that schools don’t routinely inform and train their teachers about Where The Money Comes From? I’m really not sure. I suppose, though, that it might be a vestige of the factory-model system; after all, in a twentieth-century manufacturing firm, why would you bother telling the assembly-line workers about the details of your firm’s annual budget and revenue forecast? That’s very far removed from their daily task of making widgets, and they probably neither know or care about such things anyway. That wasn’t a bad way to run a company in 1950 or even 1970, but in today’s turbulent economy, those production-line workers are very concerned about the company’s long-term prospects … and they often have very good ideas for cost savings when their managers ask them.

I have a feeling that the same would be true of schools, factory-model and otherwise: the people closest to the front lines know where certain money is well-spent and other funds are wasted.

For example, many teachers complain about the costs – both in money and in time – of adopting, ordering, inventorying, distributing, collecting, and accounting for textbooks, especially when the information in them is often outdated even before they’re printed … and especially when today’s learners find it difficult to relate to static words on a printed page. And I think of a former principal of mine, now long retired, who was convinced that all of his teachers needed two boxes of large paper clips and two boxes of small ones per year, no more and no less. One of my colleagues, a P.E. teacher, asked him point-blank what the P.E. department could possibly do with so many paper clips … and I think he finally realized that some teachers might need less than two boxes of each type of clip per year. That was well over a decade ago, when the factory model was much stronger than it is today … and when budgets in my face-to-face school district were much stronger than they are now.

One odd benefit of the Great Recession for learners and teachers, I think, has been the realization that Business As Usual is simply impossible. When everything is open for reconsideration, new ideas naturally emerge, and I hope that the Tres Columnae Project will help a lot of schools and teachers in this time of financial struggle. Not only can the Tres Columnae materials help teachers work “smarter, not harder,” as the old saying goes, but they can significantly reduce costs for textbooks, copy paper, photocopies, and the kinds of “supplementary materials” that teachers often buy to help a particular student. Unlike a hard-copy textbook, the Tres Columnae pages never wear out … and no one will vandalize them or tear them out of the (non-existent) book. No need to make copies, legal or otherwise; no need to spend hours grading and returning paper worksheets, only to watch students leave them on the floor under their desks. No way for organizationally-challenged students to lose things, either, since all their results are safely and securely stored online!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What benefits can you see from giving teachers (and parents and students and other community members) more detailed information about Where The Money Comes From to operate their schools?
  • What disadvantages or concerns can you think of?
  • What do you think of the potential cost savings from something like the Tres Columnae Project?
  • What other benefits – or disadvantages – can you see?

Once again, I wish all lectōrēs fidēlissimī who celebrate the holiday a very Merry Christmas, and I thank you again for continuing to read … and for coming back even on those dreary November and December days when sickness and too-busy-ness kept me from posting regularly. grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus!

Published in: on December 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Returning to Life Again

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Once again, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write to you this way. In fact, I see that this is my first post for the month of December! As many of you know, December is a very difficult month in factory-model schools. Even if courses aren’t ending (or about to end in January, in our case), there’s still pressure to “get to the right place” before the Winter Break. And of course there are lots of interruptions to the routine – special holiday programs, field trips, and the like. They’re good for students, who need and deserve the opportunity to do a few “non-academic” things from time to time, but they’re hard on teachers, who have to plan around them. It’s also hard to readjust to the routine on a day when something “special” or “exciting” has happened.

In my face-to-face teaching world, where the semester ends (and new classes begin) in mid-January, December is also the time when I pledge to my students that “everything new” will have been “covered” or “introduced” before they leave for their Winter Break. This leads to a rapid pace during the earlier months of the school year – a pace that my students sometimes complain about at the time. By December, though, when they see that “everything new” really has been “covered” or “introduced” in their Latin classes, they tend to feel a lot more positive about the pace – especially when they compare the relative calm of our classes with the frantic forced march they experience in others. Yes, they’ll see a few new vocabulary words in January, and they’ll read a few new stories – but they won’t have to deal with any brand-new grammatical concepts, and they will have had plenty of time for the “older stuff” to sink in over their two-week vacation.

When I compare typical final-exam results on this schedule to those from the brief period when we did try to end the semester before the holidays, I’m amazed at how much better my students do when they take exams after a break. Of course, there’s a good bit of recent brain research about the importance of “rehearsal” for long-term memeory, and about the connection between “rehearsal” and adequate sleep. Check out this link from the California Department of Education for a good summary, and this fascinating one about the implications of the brain’s natural rhythms for when – and how often – you should review things you really want to transfer to long-term memory. How well are we doing with the kind of regularly spaced, intentional rehearsal described in that second link? And are we teachers showing our students why and how to do it?

I don’t think we are – and I think that’s a big cause of the exhaustion that teachers and students experience at this time of year. Even though I’ve been fascinated by The Brain for years – and even though I regularly teach my colleagues about “connections between Differentiated Instruction and the Brain” in that online staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district – I had never seen the recommendation to rehearse the day’s learning an hour or less before you go to bed, which features prominently in the California Department of Education link I mentioned in the paragraph above. I suppose we all have experienced the “mysterious” solutions that come to us, either in dreams or when we wake up, if we’ve been thinking about a problem right before we go to bed at night. But I’d never made the connection with learning – or with brain function! It’s amazing what adequate rest can do!

And yet, for so many students and teachers in factory-model schools, adequate rest during the regular school term is a distant hope at best. Students rush from class to class; they rush to each lunch; they rush to after-school events or jobs; they rush home for a rushed dinner; and they rush to complete homework assignments that their teachers rushed to prepare and will rush to discuss or grade the following day. Is it any wonder that so many students and teachers are exhausted so much of the time? Or that the levels of mastery and retention are less than we’d wish? I’m reminded of a sign that used to hang in the office of the wise, crusty old mechanic who maintained our family cars when I was a child. It said something to the effect of, “We can do things three ways: good, fast, and cheap. You can choose any two.” Sadly, I think too many schools choose fast and cheap, then wonder why the results aren’t as good as they could be.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you find that you (and your students, if you’re a teacher) are exhausted at this time of year?
  • What do you think of the brain-research findings we looked at in this post – especially the ones about regular rehearsal and about the rehearsal – sleep connection?
  • What are the implications for the ways that you teach and learn?
  • And what are the implications for the Tres Columnae Project?

Tune in next time, when we’ll take a closer look at these questions and raise a few others. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm  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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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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Testing, Testing, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today’s post, as you’ve probably guessed, is about testing in several senses of the word. Monday marks the end of our first reporting period in my face-to-face teaching world, so it’s an appropriate time to pause and give students (and teachers) an opportunity to see how well they’ve done with the important Knowledge, Skills, and Understandings presented in each class during those first 4 ½ weeks of school. For many of my colleagues, this means they “have to give a test” – or in some cases, several tests.

For some reason, we teachers often have love-hate relationships with tests … even with the tests we ourselves write and administer to our students. I think of a former colleague I’ll call Mrs. Y … as in, “Y R U doing this?” I once had a conversation with her at the photocopier that went something like this:

Mrs. Y:  I’m so disgusted and angry. [sadly, Mrs. Y often opened conversations like that.  She was clearly a happy, positive person who loved her life, wasn’t she? :-)]

Me:  What’s wrong? [sadly, I had not yet learned to avoid negative people who wanted to vent.  I also had not yet learned that some people genuinely want to be unhappy, and sometimes you should just get out of their way and let them.]

Mrs. Y:  Well, I have to give them a test today, and they’re all going to fail.

Me:   You know they’re all going to fail?

Mrs. Y:  Yes.

Me: So, why are you giving the test today?

Of course, I’ve also been like Mrs. Y a few times … that is, I’ve certainly given the occasional test for which I thought some of my students weren’t quite ready. Perhaps I just wanted a quiet, peaceful day, or I wanted to “send a message” to my students that they needed to do their work. But I think Mrs. Y genuinely felt that she “had to” give that test that day, even though she already knew (and admitted) that none of her students were prepared to do well on the test. I hope I haven’t ever done that!

Back before the advent of state-created tests for “core” high-school subjects, another former colleague, long retired, used to give three tests in a row on the last three days of school. First she gave a “nine-weeks test,” which included all the new concepts from the fourth grading period. The next day, without going over the answers or doing any additional work with her students, she gave a “semester exam,” which included all the concepts from the second half of the course. And then, of course, she gave a cumulative “final exam,” which included everything. When I asked her about the logic for this process, she claimed that her students “needed” the three tests in a row “to help them review what they learned.” Of course, they never saw their scores on the previous tests before they took the new ones, so I’m not sure how much help the tests actually provided; they did have the advantage of keeping her students quiet and busy at a time when they might otherwise have been a bit boisterous. Perhaps that was the real point of the three tests in a row?

Ironically, some recent research summarized in this New York Times article partly supported my former colleague’s commitment to testing in this way. It seems that practice tests actually do increase retention, at least of knowledge-level information, and it turns out that practice opportunities involving multiple skills and concepts work even better than those that focus only on a single skill or procedure. I think I owe Mrs. X an apology for some of the uncharitable thoughts that crossed my mind two decades ago!

On the other hand, does a test always have to be a test? In other words, what is the proper place of large, written, individually-administered assessments in a given teaching-and-learning environment? I doubt that there’s a single right answer to that question – so much depends on the needs and preferences of the school, the teacher, the students, and their families, not to mention the structure of the class itself and of the academic discipline involved.

When I was a young teacher, I was a firm believer in “tests at the end of every chapter.” In the course of a reporting period like the one we just finished, when my Latin I students usually work with 4-6 chapters of their “Big Three” reading-method Latin textbook, I would have given three or four “big” tests, lots of smaller quizzes, and a “huge” end-of-reporting-period cumulative test. We also would have done a complicated test-correction procedures for each “big” test, and we’d start the new reporting period by repeating that procedure for the “huge” cumulative exam. That process worked well for my students for a long time – they especially liked the fact that the test wasn’t the end of the learning, and that they could actually learn from their mistakes and shortcomings through the correction process.

These days, I still give a couple of “big” tests each reporting period, and we still follow the correction process, which I can describe in more detail next week if you lectōrēs fidēlissimī are interested. I also give a midterm and a final examination, which are required by the school and the district. At the end of a reporting period like this one, though, I find it a lot more helpful to use an interactive and dynamic summative task rather than a static and written one for several reasons:

First, my students don’t do their best work when they’re overwhelmed and exhausted … and many of them are overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of the first reporting period. Their other teachers tend to “pile on” projects, tests, and other large tasks at the end of the reporting period, and many of them also have jobs, significant family responsibilities, and other non-school commitments that take a significant amount of time and energy. Why give a test for test’s sake that doesn’t accurately measure what they know and can do?

Second, at this early point in the course I’m as interested in the process my students use as I am in the final product. When they’re constructing Latin sentences, I want to know what they’re thinking about – are they choosing words randomly? Do they understand the connection between a given noun or verb form and its function? And when they’re reading for comprehension, I want to know how comfortable they are with the vocabulary of a passage, with the structure of a sentence, and with the relationship, say, between a question I’ve asked and the text where the answer can be found. A typical test will show me the product of students’ thoughts, but it won’t show me the process. I’d really like to be able to look into their heads as they’re producing the product …and I’ve finally found a way to do something like that. To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll tell you all about it on Monday!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think about testing and learning?
  • How did you respond to that article I mentioned earlier?
  • What’s the proper role of testing in your face-to-face teaching-and-learning world?

Tune in next time, when we’ll explore my alternative process and product in more detail. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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When the Whole World Changed

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today’s post isn’t really part of our continuing series about Change, even though it does address Change to a degree. As you long-time lectōrēs fidēlissimī may know, I live and work in a military community – one that, on this day nine years ago as I write, had one of the largest open U.S. military installations anywhere. Years ago, when we lived to the north and I taught at a school on the south side of town, my quickest and simplest drive to work involved a trip through the post, on streets that are now closed off and guarded. Even as late as ten years ago, the Officers’ Wives’ Club sponsored a Quiz Bowl tournament that my students loved to participate in … and I can remember driving around the post, hopelessly lost, early one Saturday morning, looking for the new venue, with no attention at all from the MP’s even though my car had no security sticker. The world was at peace, at least as far as my neighbors and I were concerned, and we couldn’t imagine that anything could ever change that. Do you remember the “summer of shark attacks” in 2001?

September 11, 2001, was a Wednesday, and it was the day of the scheduled meeting for Quiz Bowl coaches in the area. We had a church function planned that evening, and an old friend from California was planning to fly in for a visit that weekend.

Then, nine years ago today, everything changed in an instant. I had taught a perfectly ordinary Latin I class when my senior homeroom students came in, many of them from a Current Events class that we no longer offer. They begged me to turn on the TV news in the classroom because there had been an accident (as we all thought) in New York and a plane had hit a building. So we watched the first collision … and then my Latin IV class, almost all seniors, saw the second collision live. The rest of the day was a blur of TV news, frantic announcements, and desperate prayers for family and friends in New York and Washington. Obviously there wasn’t much of a Quiz Bowl Coaches’ meeting that afternoon; the scheduled function at church changed its character; and our friend from California had to wait a few weeks to come and visit us. A nation at peace became a nation at war, and over time, sadly, a nation that had received the sympathy of the world came to be seen in a different, less flattering light.

And now, nine years later, everything has changed … and yet some things have barely changed at all. Even in this military community, there are perfectly ordinary events scheduled today: a city-wide celebration with food and games, bunches of sporting events, set-up for a special church program, laundry, and maybe taking a car in for service, just to name a few possibilities in my own life. Is it that we’ve forgotten, that we’ve moved on, or that it’s just not possible to maintain days of remembrance forever? I wonder how my grandparents (who I realize with a shock were younger than I am, as I write this, when their lives changed forever on a December morning in 1941) felt when Pearl Harbor Day became “just another day” rather than a sacred day of solemn, annual remembrance.

If you subscribe to the Latinteach listserv, you may have seen a post that mentioned two essays by Classicists that were written in the aftermath of that day. Here’s one by Dr. Rick LaFleur and here’s one by his colleague, Dr. Nancy Felson (you’ll have to scroll down to p. 6 of an old-format PDF file, but the scrolling is worthwhile). In both cases, I think, they display the kind of “long” historical view – and the kind of long-term hope – that an education steeped in the Classics can provide. I’d love to know what you think, lectōrēs fidēlissimī!

The Tres Columnae Project is designed for my students, who’ve grown up in a world at war and can’t imagine the innocence and naivete of their counterparts ten years ago. It’s dedicated to Steven, my student who lost his life in Iraq, and to scores of other “Latin Family” members and their parents who’ve served and sacrificed there and in Afghanistan. In a world that sometimes seems dark and hopeless, and that often evokes prejudice and fear, I hope our little Joyful Learning Community can provide a measure of hope and comfort. And as we follow our young characters’ journey into adulthood – and see how Roman Imperial expansion played out in Germania and Judea, among other places, in the stories of Cursus Secundus – I hope we’ll be able to learn both from the successes and from the failures of the Romans. I think we all long for a world that’s really at lasting peace – not the seeming peace that was shattered in an instant nine years ago today, but genuine harmony among people and nations.

Tune in on Monday for that story in which a Tres Columnae Project character must confront vast Change, even upheavals, in his (or her) life. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Res Novae, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! This will be the third in our series of posts about Change as a theme in my face-to-face teaching world, in the preparation of the Tres Columnae Project, and in the Tres Columnae stories themselves. On Wednesday and Thursday, we looked mostly at Change in my face-to-face teaching world, a theme which continues to surprise and delight your formerly-inflexible auctor here. Not only have I become ever more willing to change and adapt long-settled lesson plans and sequences of instructional activities, but I also seem to be increasingly willing to change and adapt lessons themselves when it’s clear my students need something different from what I’d planned. If you looked at my carefully polished, beautifully honed plans for this week :-), you’d see that my Latin III class was scheduled to take their first “real test over new material” today … but I realized they weren’t quite ready for that, so we postponed the test until Friday. For the past several years, I’ve “always” had a small-group review activity at the beginning of a class on test days, then finished the class period with the test itself. But I realized that my III’s needed to end the day today with that small-group review and start the day tomorrow with their test … and I was not only willing, but actually eager to adapt my plans to their needs. I don’t think I was ever as inflexible and unchanging as some stereotypic teachers – the ones who say “But the test is scheduled for today, and you should be ready, so you’ll take it today, ready or not!” But still, it used to be a lot harder for me to let go and give Ownership of the process to my students … and that’s been getting easier and easier for me the more I work on Tres Columnae materials.

Another big Change in my face-to-face teaching world has been a return to lessons that focus in detail on vocabulary work. Now, to be fair, I have always stressed the importance of vocabulary work, and I’ve always included specific work on vocabulary in the early lessons of my Latin I classes. But for several years, I had moved away from vocabulary work in the latter parts of Latin I and in my upper-level classes, moved by the belief (true enough, but incomplete) that vocabulary is best learned in context rather than in isolation. That’s true enough for certain types of learners, and it’s probably even more true for adult, self-motivated learners … but I work with high-school students, and many of my students are part-to-whole learners who really need to focus on specific words at some point. As I was designing the vocabulary exercises you’ve seen in the Instructure Demo Course, I realized that my face-to-face students needed similar types of reinforcement … so I’ve returned to a favorite old vocabulary-flashcard game and a choral-response formative assessment. My Latin III’s were delighted – especially those who had Latin I in middle school and had never experienced the glory (such as it is) of “Chartula! Chartula!” If you’re interested, here are the utterly simple rules:

  1. Everyone makes flashcards or a word list for an established list of words. (If you have a textbook, these would obviously be the words at the end of the chapter by default, but you could certainly add or subtract as needed. My Latin IV students, who don’t have a textbook with word lists, choose their own lists of “problem” words, so everyone’s cards or lists are slightly different – even more fun, since you might be asking your partner about words that you know fairly well.)
  2. At the start of the game, you exchange your cards or list with a partner.
  3. During the game, you try to win the words back, one at a time. (At the beginning, we use English equivalents on one side of the card, and the Latin words on the other. Later on, you can move to pictures, symbols, or Latin definitions if you prefer.)
  4. In Round I of a beginning game, your partner shows (or says) a Latin word and you give its meaning. If you’re right, you get the card back – or your partner checks the word off on your list. If you’re not right, you don’t get the card or the check. Now you select one of your partner’s words and give it to him/her Latīnē. Continue to alternate until you’ve won all of your words back, thus finishing Round I.
  5. For Round II, you exchange cards or lists again. This time, your partner shows (or says) the L1 word and you provide the Latin to win it back.
  6. Round III is like Round I, but faster.
  7. Round IV is like Round II, but faster.

I adapted the game from a wonderful strategy by Spencer Kagan and his associates called “The Flashcard Game.” It’s obviously not a high-level activity, since it’s clearly focused on Knowledge rather than Skill or Understanding. But Knowledge is important, too! And “Chartula! Chartula!” works very well if your goal is automaticity or over-mastery … not always an appropriate goal, but often helpful for “basic” vocabulary. My III’s have added a wonderful variation in which they come up with their own creative, original mnemonic devices for problem words and share the best of these with each other at the end of the game – in short, they’ve added an element of Skill and Understanding to a Knowledge-level task. Best of all, they did it all by themselves … and I was proud indeed!

As I work on the Tres Columnae materials in preparation for the launch of Version Beta, I find that I’m ever more willing to be flexible in the types of exercises and quizzes we include there, too. I also find that I’m really going to need the help of you lectōrēs fidēlissimī in designing and creating such exercises. Exercises and quizzes have always been one of the options for Submissions, and I really want to encourage you – and your students, too – to think hard about the types of exercises and other practice activities you’d like to see as part of the Tres Columnae Project. If you want something, please design it … and if you design it, please submit it! Do you think we should have a lower editing fee for exercise-type Submissions, which would presumably require less editing on our part? Or should every Submission be a Submission, priced the same?

quid mihi suādētis? et quid respondētis?

On Monday, we’ll finally see that long-promised new story about a favorite Tres Columnae character who has to confront significant Changes in his – or her – life. (There will be a post on Saturday, but it’s primarily in honor of that day and the Changes it brought to our nation and our world.)  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 10, 2010 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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Res Novae, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, our current series will focus on various kinds of Change, both in my face-to-face teaching world and in the stories of the Tres Columnae Project. We’ll get to the Tres Columnae Project stories about Change on Friday or Saturday, but today I want to focus on Change in my face-to-face teaching world.

The biggest Change there, of course, is that the design of the Tres Columnae Project has led me to rethink (and sometimes adapt or even abandon) strategies I’d used for years with my classes. In particular, I’ve become increasingly aware of how much students need to see connections between the activities we do in class and the learning goals of the lesson. I’ve always been a planner, a goal-oriented person, and a designer of activities that meet the goals I set for myself and my students, but I realized this summer that I haven’t always made the connections between the goals and the activities clear enough for my students. Just a few words can make a big difference: “Remember, the purpose of this activity is …” or “So we need to focus on ….”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, revisiting those learning goals – and flat-out asking students if they feel we’ve met them – has been amazingly helpful for me as well as for my students. Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks – perhaps even a dog as old and set in his ways as our friends Trux, Ferox, and Medusa in the Tres Columnae stories! (I’m not sure, though, whether it would ever be possible to persuade Rīdiculus mūs that he lives in cavō, nōn cēnāculō!)

Another exciting change has come in the response of my Latin III students to the “Big Three” reading-method textbook that’s still our primary learning resource. This is the textbook that they all (or almost all) loved as Latin I and II students … and they still like it, but they’ve begun to make comments to me about some of its shortcomings, and the comments sound oddly like my own feelings about the book. Of course, they all did experience at least the early Lectiōnēs of the Tres Columnae Project as part of their optional-but-encouraged summer review – but it’s amazing to hear some of the things they’ve said this week. Yesterday, for example, we officially learned about the supine, and today we did a brief review of deponent verbs. I had briefly mentioned (and a number of them remembered) that we introduce the supine much earlier in the Tres Columnae sequence, mainly because it’s so useful as a way to express purpose without “complicated” constructions like subjunctive clauses or gerundive phrases.

That class happens to be with me for an hour before lunch, break for lunch, and return for another half hour. As we were leaving for lunch, one of my extremely bright students mentioned that she really thought it would make more sense to learn the supine much earlier, and that Latin I would have been a good time to do it. I just smiled … and was glad to see that my students are approaching their learning materials in a more critical, thoughtful way. That’s a big, but very positive Change for them.

We didn’t directly address the introduction of deponent verbs in class today, but you long-time lectōrēs fidēlissimī probably recall my opinions from previous posts: in essence, I think we confuse students needlessly by introducing deponents after rather than before passives. In fact, the more I think about “hard” grammatical concepts, the more I question whether they’re actually “hard” at all. Sometimes the difficulty comes from our “traditional” approach to introducing the concept; sometimes the difficulty arises from our grammar-translation insistence on relating everything to “our” native language; and sometimes the difficulty stems from introducing the concept too soon … or too late, or in an order that’s “logical” (because it goes “down the chart” in a formal grammar book) but not natural or sensible (given the order in which linguistic features seem to have developed, or the order they’re best acquired by a language learner).

Of course, any alteration in the “traditional” or “expected” order is a Change, too, and Change, as we’ve noticed, can be scary.  It’s even scary for the agents who make change happen!  I’m not sure what’s most frightening, though: the Change itself, or the fear that no one else will Change with you.

That may be why I’ve been reading a lot about Change and Leadership in the last few months.  If you’re interested in some excellent current research about Change, I’d highly recommend a book by Chip and Dan Heath called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I’ve also mentioned the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die on several occasions. Both books are amazingly helpful – and well-written, and memorable too. But don’t take my word for it, and don’t depend on my poor summary; buy them! And read them! And see what you think!

I’m especially curious to know what you think of the Heaths’ metaphors of the Elephant and the Rider in Switch. It changed my views (or helped to solidify my new views) about a whole lot of things, including classroom management and student motivation. Another huge influence, of course, has been Ross Greene’s remarkable book Lost at School – I’d love to know what you think of his idea that chronic behavior problems, like chronic academic problems, are usually caused by skill deficits rather than “attitude problems” or “not knowing better.” (In terms that we often use to describe the Tres Columnae Project, Dr. Greene’s point is that it’s not a knowledge problem or an understanding problem when students repeatedly misbehave in a particular setting; it’s a skill problem. Skills can be taught, of course, but they’re not taught very well by punishments or negative reinforcements … and yet those are the very techniques that teachers and schools often resort to when faced with chronic misbehavior.)

Dr. Greene and the Heaths have led me to some significant Changes in the ways I approach “problem” behaviors with my students this year, and I’ve already started to see amazingly positive results. More on those, too, as our series about Change continues.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time, when we’ll look at some more Changes … probably including a Tres Columnae Project story in which at least one character must deal with a significant Change in his or her life. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Best-Laid Plans, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Life seems to have intervened yet again! I do apologize for the lengthy delay since our last post on September 2. It was a busy and hot week, as I mentioned in that post, and Friday was, if possible, even busier. I had hopes for a post on Saturday morning, but then life intervened yet again … this time in the form of a series of cluster headaches. I usually have one or two of those a year, but apparently the combination of extreme heat, opening-of-school stress, and then the sudden arrival of cooler, drier air in my face-to-face world led to 5 or 6 of them over about a 36-hour period. The whole family was sick with something-or-other on Sunday, and only on Monday evening, as our holiday weekend drew close to its end, did we all start to feel better. As I wrote the draft of this post early Monday evening, the headaches were mostly gone, but my energy level was quite low. If all goes well, though, we’ll be on a more normal posting schedule in the days and weeks to come.

As I left school on Friday, I was very pleased with the progress my Latin I and III students have made in their first few days of school. As I mentioned before, the Latin I classes are “large for us” (31 each, which I realize is a tiny number to some of you lectōrēs fidēlissimī and an impossibly large one to others), and there are 19 Latin III students. The I’s haven’t had much opportunity to use Tres Columnae materials yet, but we’ll be doing more with Lectiōnēs I and II, in particular, this week. The III’s, by contrast, did a lot of reading of “TC” stories over the summer and are eager to learn more about their new favorite characters … particularly Rīdiculus mūs and his familia, of course!

Meanwhile, I had a very positive report from one of our lectōrēs fidēlissimī who’s just finished using Lectiō I as a supplemental text with some of her middle-school students. Not only did they enjoy the text, but they had some great suggestions for improvement – including a “real” introduction to each of the three familiae. I’ve suggested that they might want to construct those “real” introductions for themselves; we’ll see how they (and their teacher) feel about that.

Behind the scenes, we’ve also made some significant progress on Version Beta of the site, which will use different “back-end” software and have a much-improved look and feel. If all goes well, we’ll be able to make an official announcement about that before too much longer. I truly appreciate your patience with the delays in Version Beta; it’s been a long road, and the hot weather here – especially when combined with my headache ordeal this weekend – hasn’t exactly helped.

I realize that the Tuesday after Labor Day is the First Day of School for many, many teachers and students – of course, in my face-to-face teaching world, we’ve been back for a week and a half, and many others have finished a month or more of school already. But for those who are beginning another year today, I wish you optimam fortūnam … and I hope you and your students will find time to explore and enjoy the Tres Columnae Project materials. I also hope you’ll be able to build a Joyful Learning Community together … and I truly hope that everyone will have a significant feeling of Ownership in their teaching and learning this year.

Tune in next time, when we’ll finally get to that long-promised new story about transitions and trying new things – a prospect that, I suppose, was even more scary to the Romans than it is to us. After all, when rēs novae means a violent political upheaval, and when you assume that the world started off Golden and ended up far less than Golden, it’s hard to see change as a positive thing, isn’t it? 🙂 intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Best-Laid Plans, I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s the last day of August … one day before we had hoped to have Version Beta of the Tres Columnae Project ready for public consumption.  I’m afraid we were a bit ambitious with that date!  We’ve made great progress with Beta, and it should be ready quite soon … but not tomorrow!  For that, you may feel free to blame

  • me, for my over-ambitious scheduling plans;
  • my favorite computer, for its unplanned trip to the nearest Apple Service Center;
  • the weather in my face-to-face teaching world, for being so hot and miserable for the past several weeks; or
  • any combination of the above.

I’m happy to take full blame, or credit as the case may be.  On the other hand, with the Version Alpha Wiki site, you do already have a good sense of the Tres Columnae stories for the first twenty or so Lectiōnēs, and with the Instructure Demo Site, you have a good idea of what the exercises and quizzes will look like.  While the look and feel of Version Beta will be significantly improved, the content won’t change very much … except that there will be a much easier pathway from one story or activity to the next.

It’s almost inevitable that plans change, but the process of planning is incredibly useful.  I thought about that again today in my face-to-face teaching world.  We had a class assembly that took all tenth-graders out of my morning Latin I class for about a third of the period, while the afternoon class was undisturbed.  I knew about the assembly and had planned for it, but the timing was slightly different from what I’d hoped … and so I had to change a number of specific things about the plan.  And yet, if I hadn’t gone through the process of planning (including planning how to deal with the different available amounts of time in the two classes), what would have happened?  Fear and panic, perhaps?  Anger?  Despair?  I hope not :-), but I don’t really want to find out.  After almost two decades as a teacher, I’ve found that (at least for me) planning avoids many crises and emergencies, even if the plans themselves have to be adjusted to meet the real needs and circumstances of the actual rather than ideal students in my classes.

One goal for the Tres Columnae Project, of course, is to make that planning easier for new teachers.  I think of a young colleague who emailed me today and talked with me over the weekend: she’s struggling, as I think all teachers do, with that move from teaching about Latin or teaching pieces of Latin to letting her students use the language.  It’s so hard to make that move … rewarding, of course, and vital, meā quidem sententiā, but still hard!  It’s my hope that Tres Columnae can make that process easier for all teachers, but especially for new, overwhelmed ones.  I’ll never forget that awful first-year-teacher feeling, and I’d love to make it so that no one ever has to feel that way, ever again!

In this week’s posts, if all goes well, we’ll be focusing on plans and planning as they relate to the Tres Columnae Project and to teaching Latin more generally.  At least, that’s my plan!  But that plan may be disrupted by several factors:

  • I have an appointment this afternoon that may prevent me from writing a post for Wednesday … but it may not.
  • As I write, Hurricane Earl may or may not interfere with my face-to-face world.
  • Of course, my favorite computer is still being repaired … and who knows exactly when it will return?
  • Wednesday and Thursday afternoons include meetings (of unpredictable length) about a student and about the school-wide seminar program I coordinate.
  • Who knows what special plans my favorite children have developed for the Labor Day holiday weekend?

And so, just as my plans for my classes may not “survive contact with the students” as someone wise once said, my plans for this week’s posts may not survive contact with the realities of the week.  But by planning, we should be able to minimize the disruptions.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Tune in next time (and I sincerely plan for that to be tomorrow!) when we’ll consider plans and planning in more depth.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.