Saturday, May 28, 2016

No excuses.

This might sound crazy: something my assistant superintendent said inspired me this year. No, really. It's not something very deep or new, but it really hit me and it's informed my teaching and self-reflection a lot this year. What he said was this:

No excuses.

He might have said something like "I'm not interested in excuses." Either way, when I first heard it I thought "Yeah! No excuses! Kids need to come to school ready to work hard!"

That wasn't what he meant. He was, after all, talking to the district's teachers. He elaborated. I'm definitely not quoting here because this was months ago now, but basically he reminded us of our context. It's like this- we're in a tough district, with a lot of kids with a lot of problems at home. It's easy to blame them, or blame their parents or lack thereof, or blame the lack of funding, or our old facilities or lack of materials. It's easy to blame teachers they've had before us, or their lack of personal responsibility, or their phones, or society at large for telling every kid they deserve a trophy, or society at large for telling every poor kid they don't deserve a damn thing so don't bother trying. These things all contribute to making our jobs harder. We definitely face challenges and there's a lot of things that make problems for us.

That said, no excuses.

We're here to do our job, which is to teach these kids. However the kids come to us, it's our job to do the best we can to teach them. That doesn't mean "the best we can to teach them given that their parents aren't supportive, and they're addicted to their phones, and our district doesn't have enough staff, etc. etc." It means "the best we can." Full stop. No excuses.

There are a million, million reasons why my classes don't go smoothly that have absolutely nothing to do with me. But you know what? I can't really do anything about those million, million reasons. What I can do is take responsibility for my own teaching.

Self-flagellation comes naturally to me. I'm a life-long anxiety & depression headcase. I've done a lot of work training myself not to constantly bash myself mentally. This isn't about bashing myself. This is about taking responsibility for my actions: honoring the good and acknowledging the bad.

I have failed in a lot of ways this year, as I've posted about before. I've also been successful in a lot of ways. I'm not going to give my students credit for my successes because I worked hard to make them happen. But neither should I blame my students for my failures because I made those happen too.

What does this look like practically? Here's an example.
S: *has phone out, is openly texting during class discussion*
Me, 9/10 times this year: *ignores*

So when it's May, and little Sally has her phone out again, and I'm about to pop a vein in my forehead because I wish she'd just put the damn thing away and LISTEN for godssakes, I have to pause and think about it.

Who took the phone out? Sally.
Who showed Sally it's okay to have her phone out in class? I did. Every time another student had their phone out and I did nothing, I might as well have told Sally, "Take your phone out anytime. I don't mind. It's not disrespectful or distracting in any way for me. You just do you."

So. I can react to Sally's phone in one of two ways. I can be angry and I can blame her and society and kids these days. Or, I can take responsibility and try to fix the situation. Maybe I can't fix it long term today. But I can certainly ask her to put it away and remember to write her up (school policy) if she doesn't. And I can take responsibility and try to make sure it doesn't happen again by being firmer in the future and being more consistent and doing the hard thing and taking action 10/10 times I see a phone, even if I don't feel like it or I'm in the middle of a sentence.

So, no excuses. It sounds rough, but I actually find it quite freeing and positive. I can do something. There maybe are a million, million problems out there making my job harder and about which I can't do anything. But what I can do is take some personal responsibility for my classroom and my behavior, just as I'd like my students themselves to do.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

CI Methods: an obvious epiphany

Friends, I just figured out why "CI methods" isn't a thing. Yes, I know I've been looking into CI for over a year. Yes, I know you already understand why it's not a thing. Just in case you don't, though, I'm going to share my epiphany. Don't laugh.

CI Methods isn't a thing because CI isn't a methodology. It's material we use to reach a goal.

Think of it this way: there are a lot of kinds of chefs. Some chefs focus on Italian food. Some focus on dessert and we call them pastry chefs. Some focus on making weird foams that no one really wants to eat. All chefs, however, work with food.

CI is food. Without food, we are hungry. Without CI, we do not acquire language.

Maybe we should stop abbreviating it because acronyms feel specific and official and definable. Ditto capitalization. There's no such thing as Comprehensible Input. There's just input that's comprehensible, and input that isn't. As Latin teachers, we've traditionally been doing the latter. Oops. That's like a chef making supper out of clay and paint: it might look like something delicious and nutritious, but it's not.

This lowercase comprehensible input is not a method. It's stuff. Stuff we have to use to do our job as language teachers (or communication facilitators or whatever BVP is calling it this week).

It's the material. It's not the method. We don't talk about "food chefs." All (effective) chefs work with food. Maybe a pastry chef focuses on food that's in dessert form. Maybe an Italian chef focuses on food that tastes like food in Italy. But it's all food, and it all fills your belly. So you can't have a "CI teacher." You can have an effective language teacher- one who works with comprehensible input, or you can have a non-CI teacher who is perhaps still effective, but not at language acquisition. Maybe they're an effective teacher of grammar- that's like being a teacher of food science. Even if you know all the chemistry, though, you still can't make a souffle without some eggs. Lowercase comprehensible input is the eggs. And you don't call a chef who makes souffles an Egg Chef. You call him or her a chef.

I can't believe I just got this. This might be totally incomprehensible to someone who isn't me, but I felt like I needed to get it out. I hope this is helpful for someone else, or perhaps you'll get a laugh.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Failures 2015-16: Classroom culture & management

Hands down my biggest problem is classroom management, and inextricably tied to that, class culture. Roman culture in class is also a big failure of mine, but that's another post. From the random list I made on my "The highlight reel is a lie" post, here are the bullets I think I'll address this time:
  • Building positive class culture
  • Consistency, fairness, and firmness in classroom management
  • Building routines
I'm so, so bad at this, guys. If I want to board the excuses train I could tell you that our population isn't super academically motivated, and most of them haven't learned manners at home, and kids these days are just too into their phones blah blah blah

But those things are true for all of us at times. And this is a blooper reel, not a highlight reel, so here's how I've failed. (under the cut)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Failures 2015-16: Grading

Last time I posted about how we really need to share our failures. This post is a reflection on one massive way I've failed this year, what I've learned from it, and how I plan to not fail the same way next year. Based on last time's list, today's featured failures are:

  • Standards-based grading and consequently my whole grading system
  • Getting papers back to kids on time
  • Rigor (I'm okay with learning the material being easy, but I'm not okay with it being easy to pass when you don't do any work)

Okay, time for some self-recrimination!

Best Laid Plans

The plan looked like this. I was going to use rubrics and these rubrics would each be 25% of the grade and it was going to be ever so forward-thinking and objective and proficiency based.

What Happened

Overall, students hated it.

They really didn't like being penalized for classroom behavior in the "Communication" section. "Communication" wasn't actually objective at all since it was largely based on my recollections.
"Presentational" was really hard to figure out how to grade since all I had were Timed Writes & Free Writes, which the kids hated to do, and I'd made the rubric before actually seeing what they could do.
"Comprehension" was basically okay since it was based mostly on written "comprehension checks." I didn't even assess any culture, so that 25% was empty. I also hadn't realized yet that Output should really really really not be graded as hard as comprehension, so the 25% each categories was a terrible idea.

My gradebook now is a mess. My categories eventually just became Classwork and Understanding. The former is stuff we do in class that isn't meant to be major and is mostly a completion grade. The latter is comprehension checks. There used to be categories where Dictatios went and I tried doing DEA-style grades for Communication for a while, but it was bad. It was a mess. It's still a mess, honestly, and I don't feel like the grades really reflect student proficiency or effort. I have kids with B's who know almost nothing and do even less. That is a problem.

My students generally have no idea how any given assignment will affect their grade, and neither do I! Since I'm so bad at handing back papers on time, they're also usually entirely in the dark about their grades until progress reports time. Some surprises are good, like when you find a dollar in your pocket. Grade surprises can be good, but even then they shouldn't be happening.

In the future...

Oh boy. Man, I don't know. All I know is I need it to be much more flexible from the beginning, and I need to design things so that both the kids and I have constant, current access to their grades. I'm thinking it might be one big category of points rather than differently weighted categories for different types of work. One day in the future I may try SBG or PBG again, but I now know two things:

  1. It's really important to design your rubrics based on actual student work, not what you hope they can do.
  2. New grading schemes are bewildering and upsetting for all concerned. Do not implement them all at once. Bad idea!

As for the organization thing, I'm planning to try to go (mostly) paperless. I want to use Schoology or another Learning Management System to collect student work in one place where we can track their progress and communicate about grades on a regular basis. The plan is for them to always have access to the grading scheme, their own work, and my comments. If they come up to me and ask what their grade is, I want to be able to say, "Go check." If they ask what they can do to bring it up, I want to be able to say, "Go check." I don't mean I want to push them away; rather, I want them to have a means of taking ownership of their progress themselves. Once they've looked, we can talk about it. But I shouldn't be the one holding all the keys. And I definitely shouldn't have custody of papers.

Anyway, that's one big way I feel I've failed this year. How about you? What's your biggest grading mistake?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Highlight Reel is a Lie.

There's this idea I came across- can't find the link, unfortunately- that the selves we show online are a "highlight reel." The context I found was parenting. If you are on social media, you probably have connections who seem to always be posting something delightful they're doing with their kids or students or crafting time. Pinterest is basically built on this kind of posting. Depending on your mood, that might make you feel awesome and glad for them. But if you're human and having a rough day, you might also see it and think, "Why can I not be like this? How is X always doing all these things? I don't have the time to do that. I'm not good enough to do that. I could never do that."

Well, no, you couldn't be that good all the time. And you know what? Neither can they. Let's consider this totally randomly chosen thing I found searching Pinterest for classrooms. Here's a picture:

Behold. The mason jars labeled with their particular, unmixed contents. The different colored ribbons, beautifully tied. The perfect new pencils, all the same way up in the jar. The markers, not yet dried out, with their caps on properly. The crayons, whole and unbroken. The clean, pink, erasers which have never yet shed their skin in hard labor. It is a beautiful vision. I yearn for this.

It is also a lie.

You teach. You know this. Think about how this is going to go.

Those markers and pencils are never going to be the right way up again, and consequently, will not fit in the jars. Within a month or less, they will probably all have migrated elsewhere- in your classroom if you're lucky. The crayons and erasers will be traumatized and mixed up. There's a pretty solid chance one of these glass jars is going to end up breaking. Probably the crayons one because that will make the most mess.

This is beautiful and I want my life to be like this. But I am on my own a major force for entropy, and once kids are added into the mix, things are never going to be this neat and perfect again.

Teaching is like that too. Our best practices look amazing on paper and sometimes we even carry them out as planned. When that happens, we celebrate! We post on social media! We share on our blogs about this awesome activity we just happened to come up with on the fly, you know, no big deal just a genius!

What we don't do is share our failures. Or, if we do, they're few and far between. There are a lot of really good professional reasons NOT to share our failures. But there are also a lot of really good professional reasons TO share them, provided we do so in a reflective way.

Here's a great post from Rachel Ash about when she felt she was failing her kids. And here's another recent one from Keith about how to deal with the ugly feelings we have when we see those super teacher posts where everything seems to be going right all the time.

So, I'm going to try to share some failures. This is mostly for me, if I'm honest. I need to reflect on all the things that have gone wrong this year and figure out how to fix them for next year (I hope). I'll post more in depth about some of these things in the following few days, but here are some things I've failed at this year.
  • Standards-based grading and consequently my whole grading system
  • Student jobs
  • Getting papers back to kids on time
  • Teaching World History in an engaging manner
  • Using Timed Writes effectively
  • Building positive class culture
  • Planning ahead both long term & day-by-day (oh boy have I failed at this)
  • Including culture in my curriculum, particularly by using an RPG
  • Consistency, fairness, and firmness in classroom management
  • Building routines
  • Rigor (I'm okay with learning the material being easy, but I'm not okay with it being easy to pass when you don't do any work)
  • Using spoken Latin every single day for the majority of class time (Depending on the week it's sometimes almost none or 5-15 minutes a day)
I could go on, but you get the idea. I suppose I should post some successes, too, but let's leave this on a negative note just to make sure there's at least one post on the internet that is NOT a highlight reel. :)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spoken Latin in the classroom

The core tenet of CI is that kids need comprehensible input to acquire language-- a LOT of it. As Latin teachers we traditionally only provide input in written form, and it's rarely if ever actually comprehensible. So how can we deliver more input? By speaking Latin... a LOT. Terrifying! Right?

Well, yes. It's hard. But we've got to do it. I'm going to say right now that I'm really very weak. We've done classroom commands and stuff but I hardly ever use them. We do attendance in Latin now, but that's limited to "adestne Marcus?" "adsum." etc. When I'm doing a story or PQA, I speak Latin, but I pretty regularly break into English, and very few of the kids use Latin beyond sic, non, and adsum. One of my goals for next year* is to really push the spoken Latin and use it whenever possible.

Oh wait there's the rub. "Use it whenever possible." There are two huge constraints on this before we even worry about the kids' use of English. The first is the teacher's ability to speak, and the second is the kids' ability to understand.

As Latin teachers, we are usually pretty horrible at output. Most of us never even take prose comp courses, and forget about speaking practice. I posted previously about how to improve your spoken Latin (tl;dr: the answer is get more comprehensible input yourself!).

What about ensuring that the kids can understand you? You can read Cicero to them all day and they won't acquire a damn thing. You have to make sure that the input you provide is truly comprehensible. How do we do that? More under the cut.

Friday, May 6, 2016

"So, do you speak Latin?"

Recently I wrote a post for CANE's blog, CANENS, and I posted it to Latin Teacher Idea Exchange on Facebook. A fellow teacher replied,
When you have time, would you be willing to expand on your use of oral Latin? Like most Latin teachers, I was not taught to speak Latin so I am super hesitant to start. But I know I should get over myself for the sake of my students. How did you start?
So here I am. First, the title of this entry. sodales, you know that question and the embarrassment that attends it. "Well, no, but you see, I can read it. I mean like I've been reading it for a really long time. So I KNOW it, I just don't speak it. You see?" I cringe inside every time I have to answer that. Or I used to, anyway. No one's asked me in a while. But I hated that question because well, NO, I didn't speak Latin, even though I'd been studying it for half my life. Ouch.

But now I do speak Latin. Kind of. I can have conversations about random stuff especially if it's not technology-heavy subject matter. I'm still not fluent at ALL and there's a pretty heavy English influence on my word order. But I certainly speak it better than I do any other language besides English, my L1.

So, how did I start? Some tips to get over the hump.

1. Yes, you do know Latin. I have been studying Latin for 15ish years. I may not speak Latin, but I know it. You do too. It's there, even if it takes a while to come out.

2. Be patient with yourself. Go look at this entry and turn those tips on yourself. Guess what? You're going to get case endings and tenses wrong. All the time. ALL the time. It's not the end of the world. Do your best to get it right when you're teaching a new structure, but if it's just in passing or practice with other Latinists, give yourself a break. I've heard excellent Latinists who have been speaking for YEARS make case mistakes. It's what happens. How do you think Italian was invented?

3. Baby steps. You don't have to be able to give a lecture in Latin to start using it with your kids. On the contrary, you really shouldn't! You need to pick a way to say yes & no (I use sic and non.), a couple of adjectives, and you're done. Like this:
Board: -ne = ?, sic = yes, non = no, procerus = tall, brevis = short, est = is.
T: estne Shelby procera? :gesture with your hand way above Shelby's head: (Your speaking speed should be something around where the bad kind of tourist tries to speak English to non-English-speaking locals: EHSSSTTTT NAY SHELBY PROOOOO-CEHR-AHH?)
Ss: non.
T: bene! Shelby procera non est! estne Shelby brevis? :gesture below Shelby's height:
Ss: sic.
T: sic! Shelby brevis est! estne Shelby brevis an procera? :use each hand to gesture one or the other:
Ss: short?
T: bene! :big smiles: Shelby brevis est! Shelby procera non est! Shelby brevis est!
Repeat with other students. Pick some more adjectives or nouns. Consider throwing in some comparatives- estne Shelby procerIOR quam Julia? etc. Congrats, you're using oral Latin in the classroom. It gets more complex from there as you need it to. Check out this lesson plan by Keith Toda. You'd be doing the same as above, only add in some question words (again, provide them on the board). You can ask: estne elephantus laetus? estne elephantus tristis? vultne Earl elephantum? etc. Which brings us to 3.

4. The bar is not that high. In Keith's story, you are only dealing with three verbs (est, habet, vult) and two adjectives (laetus, tristis). It's not brain surgery. You can do this on Day 1 of Latin class even if you have never taken Latin and have only read this post & Keith's.


Your kids don't speak Latin either. They won't know you're keeping it simple. They need you to keep it simple, and go slow, and repeat yourself.

There is no one to feel embarrassed in front of or to feel inadequate compared to. Spend a couple minutes practicing Latin with your kids every day or so, point at your board a lot, and your speech will become smoother.

5. Take any opportunity to improve. The above stuff will get you over that embarrassment hump. Now let's talk about how to become a functional Latin speaker. A bullet list! In ascending order of effort required!
I hope that gives you some ideas on how to take the plunge. Next time, I'll talk more about how I use it in class on a daily(ish) basis.

edit 8/4/2016: Look under the tag "Spoken Latin" for more similar entries, especially this one with a much better list of resources & opportunities. You may also find this "Useful Phrases for Spoken Latin" document helpful for saying a lot of things Cicero never taught you how to say.