How I transitioned to comprehension based teaching and discovered many ways to arrive.

2014 seems so long ago.  At this point 6 years ago I was in my 4th year of teaching.  We had one child at home.  It seems like a lifetime ago.  In my teaching life I felt like something was missing.  The numbers in the West Des Moines Latin program had grown by about %15 from my 1st year.  I enjoyed students and going to work.  But something was missing.  Each semester we came up to this point before final exam periods that seemed quite discouraging in many ways.  Many students knew the exact % they needed on the final exam and they made it clear they wouldn’t engage in the material any more than they perceived they must to earn the grade they would accept.  Those days of review before the final simply confirmed to me that a lot of students hadn’t mastered the grammar topics we covered throughout the semester long grammar syllabus.

Yes, some students figured out how to drill and kill each part of the exam with the study guides I prepared for them, but the majority of students approached the final review as an exercise in learning the cruelty or the mercy of the fates in respect to their grades.  It didn’t sit right with me but I didn’t know how to change the processes and pedagogy that was happening in my classroom.  I often hear colleagues lament at how students will not study for a final or how they are too lazy to earn whatever their goal grade is by doing well on the final, but that perspective never fit with me.  It was clear in my classroom that some students didn’t value the finals experience, many didn’t know how to study for a final and my tests seemed rooted in the ways I was tested in college and graduate school opposed to something designed for the students in front of me.

This pushed me to look for more.  One of the first resources I remember coming across was Keith Toda’s Todally Comprehensible Latin.  Keith writes in a way that invites someone who isn’t quite sure what to look for into the realm of how a teacher might shift from a grammar focused mindset to a comprehension based mindset in the classroom.  Don’t get me wrong.  I felt a lot of fear in those days.  Much of what felt comfortable to me in respect to presenting language, day to day routines and assessments simply didn’t seem to be working great for the students in my classroom.  As I found myself in this space I started to read Keith’s activities and try them in class.  What kept me going back to Todally Comprehensible Latin is that each activity I tried drew me into a presence in the classroom I hadn’t felt before.  I found myself listening to students more and adjusting to the students in my room.  I had to know if they comprehended the language in these activities for them to work.  When they clearly didn’t comprehend, I asked them questions; I changed things and tried new activities.  It was invigorating and I found my thoughts moving from wondering what I was missing in the classroom to wanting to know more.

I knew I wanted more so I continued to search for more resources.  Fairly early I found magisterp.  Magister P made it so clear to me that I was wasting a lot of time planning things that were not effective.  Magister P challenges the status quo in language teaching.  At the beginning, I wasn’t ready to be pushed by him, but sometime in 2015 I started to realize what I think is the most important thing that can be learned from Magister P.  I needed to stop doing things in the classroom that do not have research that demonstrates how the practices have positive effects on language acquisition.   The research is clear.  Teaching grammar explicitly doesn’t aide acquisition.  Input does.  Magister P simplifies those difficult ideas that get in our way to change.  How do we grade for comprehension?  What practices can we use to offer students more input?  Most importantly, how do we organize this new system in a way that we can manage our professional life with our personal lives?  If you have dabbled with restructuring your teaching around comprehension, I highly recommend that you search magisterp as there is much wisdom there.  If you are just starting, magisterp might intimidate you, but at least bookmark the site for later as it will help you solve so many issues that happen with a transition to comprehension in the language classroom.

Concurrently, I found the Latin Best Practices site.  Bob Patrick, John Piazza and David Maust offer a simple framework centered around input and the students who come into our classrooms.  As 2016 flew by, I became more convinced that the driving force in a classroom focused on comprehension should be the students who come to me.  Bob’s situation, specifically, seems amazing.  700+ students in Latin with multiple Latin teachers in a school that offers Latin as an elective world language choice.  Their ability to create content each year centered around the students in the room appealed to me.

But at that point, I felt overwhelmed.  My situation was and is different.  I’m the only Latin teacher of 5 different classes.  Although I was beginning to detest the progression of the Ecce Romani textbook, I wasn’t going to be able to rewrite multiple curriculum content each year.  But I was fortunate in 2016.  We had a curriculum director who not only bought into comprehensible input but was willing to support us in the transition to a comprehension based program.  I was able to create a curriculum during the summer with compensation for my time.  I started by writing simple stories while sketching out a variety of activities to use with each story.  In some ways, I used the topics of Ecce to begin, but I continually made sure to shelter the vocabulary of the stories and I sketched out a plan of activities focused on comprehension and novelty for students.  This isn’t quite the same as writing new curriculum content each summer, but this framework game me a base to work from.  As I have used it over 4 years I have found places to add routines like calendar talk, discipulus illustris and student centered activities that create input.

One of those routines is self directed reading.  I use the term self directed reading for my program because it is not exactly FVR or free voluntary reading, although it shares many principles.  In free voluntary reading, students choose reading and have no accountability measures to demonstrate they understand what they read.  My program has a few elements of accountability, therefore I use the term self directed readingJohn Piazza’s site was critical for me to start this program.  His links to readers and online Latin reading were vital for me to begin a reading program before I had access to novellas.  There is much more on the site as well, especially practical resources for how to plan and design lessons and long range ideas based on comprehension.  As I continued to implement self directed reading, I stumbled across Mike Peto’s site.  His thoughts on FVR are invaluable.

As I continue to look for more resources, ideas and ways to structure activities around input I find myself going to 6 more sites quite often.  Comprehensible Classics offers insight into what day to day planning looks like in a comprehensible input classroom, specific to Latin.  See someone else’s planning and reflection.  Stepping into CI offers numerous resources from listening materials to unit plans to Latin text.  There is an affordable subscription cost which I think is worth it for the listening materials alone.  Here you see a team of teachers planning and you can use their plans easily for your next unit.  Martina Bex at Comprehensible Classroom has a ton of activities to mine.  I still frequently visit if I am looking to do something different.  Most can easily be applied to Latin even though they are designed for Spanish.  Spanish Mama also offers quite a few easily adaptable activities.  When classroom management issues arise for me, I find myself at Bryce Hedstrom’s site.  Documents, links and thought processes behind things like a think sheet for minor behaviors have helped me adjust when what I’m doing in the classroom isn’t working with the students in front of me.  Indwelling Language offers much.  What I value most are Justin’s no/low prep ideas to keep input flowing in a languaeg classroom.  But there is much, much more to explore!

And there are more resources!  It can be overwhelming, but as I started with 1 or 2 sites, I simply added a resource that I regularly visit as I desired to learn more.  There are so many places to find fantastic ideas.  Don’t be overwhelmed that you will have to recreate everything if you decide to change to a comprehension based classroom.  All of the folks above and more have already recreated things for you.

So if you are in the place I was 6 years ago what should you do?  1st, remind yourself that you are the person your students need each time you are with them.  You have so much to offer them.  Say that to yourself as it is true.  2nd, don’t go looking for the correct way to implement this change.  A change from a grammar based syllabus to a comprehension based syllabus only has a few basic principles at it’s core.

  • Learners acquire language by processing messages that they can understand in the language.
  • Learners process information when language is understandable.
  • Learners process information when they are interested.
  • Understandable and interesting can be a moving target.
  • Flexibility to the learners in the room is key.

Don’t change everything that you do right now.  Try some things that you are already doing and change the focus from the form of the language to the meaning and message of the language.  For example, instead of teaching students how the genitive case demonstrates possession in Latin, create a Latin story or a Latin conversation centered around the items that students in your classroom have.  Not only can you create numerous messages about who has what items, you can also use habere as a way to reinforce the idea of possession.

Instead of translating every word of a story in the textbook, find a theme present in the story that uses vocabulary you want students to interact with.  Type a copy of the story with a prompt about the theme.  Have students create black out poetry and lead a discussion or type the poems for students to read to reinforce the ideas with the vocabulary found in the story.

Give students a Latin word list to sort into similar groups as a word sort activity instead of a vocabulary list with just Latin and English definitions.  Introduce vocabulary as you always have but add gestures to words or phrases for you or students to perform.  Write a few sentences with those vocabulary words and have students act them out with the co created gestures to reinforce the message of the words.

There isn’t one way to move to a comprehension based program.  You also will not give up on grammar.  In my experience, I have acquired much more Latin grammar since I made the change to focus on comprehension.  Look at your plans for tomorrow.  Where can you focus on the message?  As you try something, how can you use a successful activity with a slight adjustment to make it seem new for the next day for students to interact with a message in the language?  This mentality one day and activity at a time will change your classroom.  And when you are not sure, use the resources above.  Ask the social media groups.  Ask the students in front of you.  They are the best resource for you to use to discover what is understandable and compelling to them.


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