The First Month of Latin

John Piazza: Comprehensible Input-based strategies in the FL classroom

Q: what do the first weeks of a CI Latin classroom look like?

Once I have learned students’ names via some variation of the Name Game, I then do a combination of TPR for basic commands and classroom objects, and Latin Q and A based on student cards. Here is a basic description from Latin teacher David Maust:

“I had the kids make cards that had their names and a picture of something that described them (sport, instrument, hobby, etc.). This is Ben Slavic’s “circling with balls” activity. I would make up mini stories in Latin about each student in the class over those first two months (there were 43 people in the class so it took a while!) and would get a couple done each day, sometimes more, sometimes less. We also did some TPR during this time and learned lots of class commands. I also do a lot of PQA all the time, that is Personal Question and Answer, and this usually will develop into a story, but if it doesn’t it is still good CI.”

I would only add a few things to David’s helpful description. I give each student a full sheet of paper, which has an image of a “hello my name is” sticker in the middle. When I ask students to draw things they like or like doing, I always add the phrase “real or imagined.” This helps students who are not comfortable sharing things about themselves, either because they are shy, or because they have information about themsleves that is sad, tragic, or would make them feel ashamed in front of a group they do not know yet. Joey may not want to tell us that his parents got divorced. This is also why I avoid activities which focus on students’ houses, or their family tree. You never know what you might be forcing students to bring up. I am not saying don’t get to know about your students’ lives. Rather, through a more open-ended process such as this, which also allows for imaginary details, you can still build a strong community, one in which students get to create and share their own personal narrative which isn’t micromanaged by the teacher.

I like to use props for the Q and A part of class. I have a few mini sports balls that I got at Walgreen’s. In addition, I asked students to bring in small (and soft) toy versions of other sports balls and equipment. So when I’m going around the room talking about kids’ interests (especially sports), I can use the props as a reward for attention and appropriate responses.

One student even brought in a video game controller, and they all wanted a turn holding that. I also have a few stuffed animals that I will throw to students who volunteer an answer to a question. This is also how I get students to volunteer to translate a sentence or two from a reading later on in the semester.

Simple statements about what a student likes are inherently more interesting to students than any textbook. We can then easily convert these statements into compelling mini stories simply by asking “where” or “with/against whom?” Olivia plays violin is interesting, but “Olivia plays ‘Let It Go’ on the violin on Mars with a spotted dog singing” is what Krashen would call compelling. A few sentences about each student can quickly turn into a large TL document, which you could then use as the first reading assignment.

A note on vocabulary. A teacher will probably have three main sources for vocabulary.

1. classroom items and phrases, words that express student interests
2. textbook/chapter vocabulary
3. list of high-frequency words.

For me, words that appear on two or three of these sources take precedence. However, during the first few weeks, relevant words (category 1) are the priority, with frequency and textbook use being lower priorities, since students are most likely to get a good start in language by focusing on CONTENT that is interesting to them. This goes along with Krashen’s hypothesis that LANGUAGE ACQUISITION IS AN UNCONSCIOUS PROCESS, that is, students are only acquiring language when they forget that they are using a different language to communicate, but are FOCUSED ENTIRELY ON THE MESSAGE.

A common question is: “What if a student has an interest that I do not know how to describe in Latin, what should I do?”

Latin teachers can easily fall into the “quomodo dicitur?” trap. However, because we need to limit the number of new words students are exposed to in class, we can go easy on ourselves in this regard. I handle this in the following way:

  1. I collect student information pages every day. This allows me to look over them before the next class, learn student names, and connect names, faces and interests.
  2. Before each class, I decide which students and student interests I want to focus on. Then I can look up a few words before I am on the spot. My goal is to talk about 3-5 students per class.

First Vocabulary Handout

During the second week, I give students a handout containing the vocabulary that we have been using or will be using. This has a dual purpose of 1) helping students who want a list of words to review, and 2) showing students just how many words they have learned during the first fun days of Latin class. I tell them that it is assumed that they know these words, and they could appear on an assessment. I would like to add these to a Quizlet set, and I may do so, or ask a student to do this for me.

Q: How much time should I spend talking about student interests?

If you are anxious to move on to the curriculum and/or textbook, just remember that what you are doing now (provided that students are engaged) is more interesting to students, promotes classroom culture, gives them a larger variety of vocabulary, and is promoting acquisition more effectively than being “in the book.” So don’t feel rushed. Some teachers spend 5-6 weeks doing this. But most probably don’t spend the entire period doing this. I will divide my class time between student interests, TPR classroom objects and commands, short simple readings, student written surveys about what they want to learn this year, maybe a derivative activity, class check-in, etc. I will only spend the entire class on student interests, if the energy in the room supports it. But if you or students run out of steam, and moving to another student isn’t helping, then you should probably change gears, and have another activity ready.

Converting student interests into a class story.

Here are a few steps to convert your class discussion into the first reading.

  1. Designate a scribe. This could be a different student each class, or one student for a few days. This student will be keeping track of who you have talked about, and what they do/like. This can be done in either language, since it is really about the kids. If you give your scribe a choice, they can decide based on their comfort level with the language.
  2. Type up the discussion (or have a student do this with their phone, a tablet, or your classroom computer–wireless keyboards are nice, then you can project the screen large and students can see their information become writing) Make some edits and make sure to limit new words. Once the reading gets to a decent size (maybe a double spaced page), hand it out and/or make it available online for review. Remind students that they are responsible for understanding the reading.
  3. Give frequent and easy quizzes based on student information, as well as on the meaning of words. This could be t/f, short answer, etc. Make it easy to grade, or haave student self or peer grade at the end. By quizzing students on the content (not just the meaning of words), you are holding students accountable for paying attention to the details of their classmates’ lives and interests. You are showing them that knowing about the people in the room is an academic priority, not just the language.