Report from the Field – John Bracey

Here’s a report from one of the Latin Kings, John Bracey:

Hi Ben,

I wanted to shoot you and the PLC a quick report on how my first year of teaching 7th and 8th grade Latin with CI has been going. Overall it has been incredible.

My 7th graders have never had word of Latin before coming to me and already they are able to fluently read and comprehend stories at a level that I never thought possible. I have been teaching them using pretty traditional TPRS using Matava and Tripp stories thus far. We started the year off with lots of TPR and CWB before moving on to stories. We have played the word chunk game and a variety of reading activities as well. I cannot believe how much and how well they are learning Latin!

The external response has been enormously positive from parents. The head of our PTO is a mother of one of my kids. She dragged me over to our Assistant Superintendent at an event to tell her how much her son loved Latin and how much he was learning. She said that he annoys the whole family by speaking Latin at the dinner table, while her daughter, who has taken traditional Spanish for the past 8 years, still can’t say a word. This is one of many tremendously positive bits of feedback that I have received from parents.

I have been trying to ease my 8th graders into CI by using very short story based on mythology. This unfortunately annihilated the momentum created by our beginning of the year TPR and CWB. The stories are too short and the structures are weird. The kids were starting to get really bored, despite a variety of activities, and my goodwill was starting to fade. I decided to take a risk this week and do a super-mini story with them. I explained the rules of the story creating game, gave them jobs, and then dove into asking a super simple story with them. I was expecting to spend the whole time managing behavior, but instead the kids enthusiastically jumped on board! We ended up making a two location story with the kids begging to add a third the next class. They have responded really well to MT’s also, as I mention in a different post. The feedback from my 8th grade parents has also been hugely positive.

Biggest victory of the year happened last week. My department head observed my largest 8th grade class during a PQA warm-up activity. He was all smiles during his visit and gave me an “exemplary” rating on the visit. I certainly was not expecting that one.

My challenges so far have been with prewritten stories. Once the kids understand the story, I have had a tough time keeping the momentum going with follow-up activities. All my attempts to mix-up the rereading of pre-written stories have fallen pretty flat.

I also have ZERO idea of how to create a quality CI “test”. I give loads of quick quizzes, but I have no base conception of what a “test” would look like.

I have also drawn the intense ire of my fellow Latin teachers at the high school. Bob Patrick and John Piazza have gone far out of their way to offer advice about how to deal with this situation. My Latin colleagues are getting more and more anxious about my departure from the textbook. They admit very openly that they teach straight out of the textbook. They blame me for sending them kids who can’t decline a mixed declension noun + adjective pair with a 3rd declension i-stem, or complete a verb synopsis. We have an in-house curriculum day coming up in a few weeks. They have already invited a Latin department head from a local private school to come to that day and teach us how to have a “rigorous” 7-12 Latin program that prepares kids well for the AP exam. I suspect this to be an ambush of sorts.

Even though I consciously know that I am trying to use best practices with my kids, I still feel tremendous personal pressure to somehow prepare them for Latin II. I am going to try to cram in some meaningless conjugating and declining at the end of the year to cover my butt. I know that 90% of my students will not understand this stuff or remember how to do it next year. I used to spend ALL of 8th grade trying to teach them this stuff and I never saw the percentage increase. What they really want me to do is fail more kids so that only 4%ers show up to their classes in the high school. But I digress…

Having the tasted the sweet successes and noble failures of teaching with CI, I have no idea how I could possibly go back to the old way of doing things. I would much rather fail at TCI than “succeed” at “teaching” grammar charts.

Thanks!!!

John Bracey

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50 thoughts on “Report from the Field – John Bracey”

  1. John this is such a great report.

    Could you expand on what a pre-written story is?

    Also could you share with us how much of the time you use You Tube Clips?

    Yeah I tossed the concept of a CI “test” a long time ago. I think it is just something we can’t do. Who wants to? If we gave a big test every few weeks we waste hours and hours of input minutes that we don’t have enough of in the first place. If we want maximum gains, we can’t give big tests. And another thing on big tests is that they usually involve some kind of memorization and that involves rigid thinking which is not what we do.

    1. I think what he means when he says pre-written story is when we backward design. For example, we take a reading from our reading textbook or adapted story. We try to pick out structures to teach to read the story. It’s the backward design idea for me. It feels so awkward to me to do this. I know people do it successfully, it just feels stiff and awkward to me. Maybe I stink at it. I feel like I can fly so much higher when I can pick some structures and ask a story, do a movie talk, look and discuss etc. The kids also respond better because it is so highly personalized. It is much harder to personalize, for me at least, a reading.

      Now we are getting to a point that I’d like to discuss and that I would like some help on. I’ll post it later after my son goes to sleep.

      1. Who does that (backward plan from a reading in a book) successfully, Jeff? I think that the reason it didn’t work for John Bracey is that pre-written stories, if I have the definition correct, are extremely hard to breathe life into because they describe past and therefore frozen events that can’t be personalized.

        1. If I remember correctly, Jason Fritze did a session in Breckenridge on backwards planning from a book i.e.Isabelle or Brandon Brown. We were to pick out the high frequency structures, front load them, and then read the chapter. Maybe this is what “pre-written” stories means?

          1. I also remember Susie Gross suggesting we read “pre-written” texts “lickety split”.
            She thought a text should be enjoyed as such, not overanalyzed for the sake of getting extra-reps.

          2. One of the wisest things that a Common Core trainer said in a presentation was, “Not every text is worth a close reading. Many of them are just for fun.”

          3. I absolutely love this, Catharina. You’ve helped to remind me that all reps are not created equal. When the input ceases to be compelling it becomes like feeding the kids moldy bread or expired pills. Yeah they’re eating food and taking vitamins, but they’re getting barely any nutrition and they hate you for making them eat it. Thanks!

    2. Hi everyone. By “pre-written” stories I mean the stories found in the various Latin textbooks and on teacher websites, pretty much as Jeff described Some of the stories are actually really compelling, especially the ones based on myths. In my district, even the popular kids walk around with copies of Percy Jackson books and adore mythology. Even with that advantage, I still experience the same awkwardness that Jeff described. After we’ve chorally translated the story, all follow-up activities and discussions feel excruciatingly forced. My 8th graders seem like they REALLY hate it.

      Catharina, I’ll see if I can find of Jason Fritze’s stuff on how to do this sort of thing well. Thanks for the tip!

      1. Hey, John! It was awesome to meet you in Maine. You’re a cool cat.
        Would some good reading activities help?
        – Betsy Paskvan’s back-to-the-screen retell is an awesome one. You can adapt it – put 2 kids at the front of the room with their back to the projected story, you read and they act it out.
        – You can also take any reading (if short enough, like Step 3 readings) and use the text as a basis for storyasking a new story – parallel story.

        1. This back-to-the-screen-retell sounds like something I should try. I’ve been thinking about how I can can get some variation going in my Reading Option A sequence. This will be a good addition. Thanks, Eric.

        2. Hey, Eric! It was great meeting you too at the Maine conference. You’re a total rockstar in real life. I’m excited for our paths to cross again.

          I am totally going to try out these new reading activities. I’m in love with the back-to-the screen-retell, like Sean is. I love the simple and effective activities that don’t require a huge amount of materials and steps. It also helps to infuse some much needed energy into the more reading focused classes. This will also help reduce the frustration that kids start to fell on days where they feel like they “don’t do anything”.

          I also really love the idea of asking a parallel story as opposed to just writing one. The personalization piece is soooooooo critical. Random impersonal circling ad nauseam is probably the least effective pseudo-CI strategy I have used thus far hahaha.

          Thanks for the tips, brother!

        3. Lately I’ve been trying to find different ways to include a little more voluntary individual output. I think it helps some kids feel more engaged, and they can start easing into speaking. Those who aren’t ready, don’t have to.
          I like the back-to-the-screen retell idea. As you say, it can be adapted however we want for comprehension or a bit of output.

          Has anyone tried a “lickety-split” reading of a short text just for fun and then have the kids volunteer to ask each other some simple questions about it? I haven’t yet. I just thought of it. I just teach level 1 French, but it’s thinly (very thinly) spread over three years of middle school. I think kids want to be speaking. French pronunciation is a challenge for them.
          Maybe because I am new at this and have never experienced the progression into the kinds of conversation in classes that come at higher levels, I wonder about it.

          Oh, and I think the Maine conference was filled with rock stars! All of you! I look forward to next year.

          1. Ruth in talking about possible student retells (the back-to-the-screen retell idea in MT) said what I think is about the best description ever of how we should treat speech output:

            …I’ve been trying to find different ways to include a little more voluntary individual output. I think it helps some kids feel more engaged, and they can start easing into speaking. Those who aren’t ready, don’t have to….

            I don’t know if Eric mentioned it already, but a group retell would be good. (If a kid is speaking and can’t find the word, the group provides it.)

          2. I have done the “back to the screen” retells as described and also as “group work”. You can have kids in pairs or group of 3 and have them read it to each other. This only works if you have enough kids who WANT to read aloud. I never make them do it. But usually there are kids who really want to try. Since everyone is doing it at once nobody is on the spot. You can have them switch readers after a certain time or break it up by sentences or paragraphs, etc. I’ve done this with middle school and high school kids–just did it with my adults last week. It’s pretty fun for everyone.

          3. Yeah, I think groups, pairs, or the whole group would be a good way to start with retells. Thanks, Ben and jen!

    3. “Also could you share with us how much of the time you use You Tube Clips?”

      I have only done two MT’s this year with my 8th graders. Both went really well.

    4. I am with Ben. Test as little as possible and let the method work. I would only test as much as you need to to keep the heat off. I have used Ben’s concept of doing a longer story that I write out in advance for the final. It contains stories written with between 20-30 focus words that we have worked on that semester. I usually write out the words and then something from pop culture or story will come to me to use most of them. If a word doesn’t work in the story I would leave it out. I have done finals involving M0by Dick, Mario Brothers, Scooby Doo, and Miley Cyrus. We tell the story (this one is not asked, although I ask them questions). I write all the words on the board again alphabetically and refer to them while telling the story. They then get a list of the words in target language again (I give it to them in advance, but I give them a copy to look at) and the text of the story. I bold the focus words whenever they show up. It is usually about 2 pages. They read for 5 to ten minutes and then they get a sheet front and back with 25 questions. For newer students it is more yes or no, for older it is more open-ended. They are to answer complete sentences if possible (so I can see what mistakes they are making), but I only score on whether the answer is correct, not on the grammar.

  2. John, tests for me are basically reading. “Read this and show me you understand by translating, answering questions, drawing pictures, etc.” In this way our tests are basically just disguised input.

    1. I second this. This year, I’ve not given any tests. Just quizzes, JGR, and various free writes/dictados/essential sentences/illustrations/etc. But I have to give a final. What I’m probably going to do is some sort of summative text. What structures have they really acquired over the semester? I plan on adapting an existing Blaine Ray LICT or Anne Matava script to fit the structures they have picked up.

      1. I’m also a big fan of giving them a list of questions about the reading and having them ANSWER IN ENGLISH while writing a down a QUOTE in L2 from the passage to justify each answer. This makes them re-read very carefully. Just more input, really.

        1. I’ll be stealing this immediately. My exam will probably look like: listen and match pictures, read & answer questions in English w/quotes, then a short writing assignment about the novel we read this quarter.

        2. James, having students include a quote in the L2 from the story after answering a comprehension question about is brilliant. Now I just have to write a “reading test” like that, which I’ve never done. I should though, for the sake of variation in my reading assessments. I think my kids need more variation to keep them a bit more lively.

        3. I love this quote idea. I just did a quiz where I asked the questions (not yes/no) aloud and they could write their answers in English or French.
          We had just read and discussed the story, and I had asked all the same questions to the group at the end of the discussion. Then we had the quiz. Adding the quote is a super idea!

          As an aside, the story was one that we had created about one of the students based on the questionnaire – I call it Vedette du jour (Star of the Day) and everyone will have a turn and have a printed story about them. So far it is working really well, better than it did last year. They sit in my comfy wheely chair up front. One included show and tell of a sketch book on the second day, and even though she had to speak in English, it was a really nice time, and then we went back to French. Maybe we’ll include show and tell each time.

      2. The only semester/final exam I have given since learning about teaching this way has been a story with the quiz weighing more than usual and with a translation of some text we have recently read as well. I wish I could have the time back from all the years I wrote and graded exams in my pre-TPRS days. Nobody cared.

        1. Yes. We must not let our precious family time get eaten up by creating meaningless assessments. (At least, I must not.) I’m tired of that crap. Thankfully, it seems I’m in a school (a new school this year) that won’t pester me to make such assessments.

          Thanks for those very wise words, Ben!

          1. I like to make my “exams” fun. I also think of them as simply more ways to give input. I basically have done what you all describe…reading comprehension, essential sentences, etc. I sometimes use random readings from the internet like plot summaries of current movies…stuff that they have not ever seen before. In some instances I can use it in its original form and in other instances I rewrite it to be sure I’m using structures they have acquired. I tell them after the test “I found this article online.” So they are aware that I pulled the material from a website intended for native speakers. This is cool because it builds their confidence.

            One fun thing I have done is to make one section called “mentiras” (lies). It is a list of x statements about people in the class gleaned from whatever we’ve discussed. Each statement contains a lie and the kids just circle the part that is not true and supply the info that makes it true. You write one statement (more if you want) about each student.

            For example:
            “Skip is a huge fan of the Denver Broncos.”

            The kids would circle Denver Broncos and replace with New England Patriots.

            It’s a fun part of a “test” to make up because you get to sit there and think of all the fun and interesting facts about your kids and all the in-class “inside jokes” and stuff…and put them on a test! The kids have fun taking that because they are in the test and they love to recall funny and personal details about real people they know.

            Another adaptation is to do the above as a “fictado” …so it is a giant dictation of these sentences, where they write what they heard and then supply the correct info OR just listen to the sentence (without writing it) and supply the correct info about the person.

          2. “fictado”… awesome

            I’m finding it valuable to give variations on our core strategies, especially going into winter. Here we have a great variation of a dictation. Thanks jen!

    2. That sounds like a great idea James. I love the idea of “tests” being nothing more than thinly veiled input. I’m going to steal your format and take it for a spin.

      I also love how little time this will take to complete and to grade. I agree with Ben’s statement as well that long “tests” take precious time away from CI.

  3. And John thank you for the positive report on the super mini stories. That is important to me because I am adding a significant chapter to the Stepping Stones book about it and need reports of how they work. If you remember, Leah and James started pushing a thread on super mini stories a few months ago and lots of people commented on what a strong tool it is. If anyone has any more opinions on how and when the super mini stories worked for them this year I would like to hear those reports. Thanks in advance.

    1. No problem, Ben. I find that my kids don’t seem to mind at all if I we create a one location mini story together, and then read a three location story with the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs penned by me. I’m looking forward to future posts about mini stories.

  4. Thank you John for the report. I never tire of reading about success. It’s heartwarming to hear about students enjoying class, and teachers getting recognition. Speaking Latin at dinner! How great!

  5. CONGRAT!

    So your Colleaguez wanna rumble? There’s only one way to respond to a threat: by meeting it head-on. These traditionalists are bringing a rusty and dull old grammarian knife to a language-acquisition gunfight so I’d ask two questions:

    a) What is real language use? Is it the ability to manipulate grammar, or is it the ability to speak and write fluently, and to read and listen to (vocabulary we recognise) in the language? If it’s the former, then by all means ditch TPRS and hit the grammar books. If it’s the latter, this brings up question b:

    b) What can the traditionalist kids and the TPRS kids actually *do* with Latin? I would bring some writing/speech samples. Or, better, propose giving a standardised assessment– reading and writing– to both kids– those trad-taught and those getting c.i. See who does better. I can pretty much guarantee that– esp if you do this at the end of the year– your TPRS kids will BLOW AWAY the grammar kids. Actually, I’ll go further: your TPRS kids, in terms of writing output, will do better than your grammarians’ second-year kids.

    As I write this, my current Spanish beginners are 8 weeks into Spanish 1. My weakest kids can write 300-word stories in 30 min with no books to look at. My strong ones can write 500. ALL of my kids can write 60-120 words describing either a picture or themselves, in fairly fluent Spanish. (and I am not very good at tprs– I have colleagues who are WAY better).

    C.I. rocks. Have faith.

      1. Thats messed. Even the grammarians I know say “they need rules in order to learn to speak and write.” I think he should say “if the goal is first comprehension and then fluency, let’s put our kids head-to-head.” How can they argue with TPRS results, parental love, and admins who like it?

      2. Yeah, I wonder if it’s best, John, to try to do your CI swag under the radar as much as possible, or at least under the radar of the high school teachers since it seems you can fly your freak flag (to use Ben’s old term) in your own school. Change will come, but it will take time, right?

        Nonetheless, it really takes a warrior to learn to teach CI well and have to defend to all parties — admin, dept chairs, parents, and kids — at the same time. I’ve often told myself going into work in the mornings, “Just keep taking one step at a time going forward. One step at a time and I’ll get through this.”

    1. Thanks for the support, Chris! Likewise, thanks for the words of caution, James!

      John Piazza brought up a great point about the grammar manipulation focus of traditional Latin teachers. Most of them cite the AP exam as the justification for their focus on morphology. The AP Latin exam itself does NOT include verb synopses, declining noun and adjective pairs, or the production of Latin at all. NO Latin output or grammar manipulation is on the exam. It is an awful exam in its own right, but it doesn’t emphasize the practices of the traditional teachers. Reading comprehension is the overwhelming focus of that test.

      I’m thinking of using a gentle form of that argument with my colleagues. We’ll see how it goes…

      1. The problem, John, is that in order to get through the reading list, students must translate old-fashioned style by using their grammar decoder rings. That’s the only way to navigate a reading list that is comprised of such esoteric stuff. Traditional Latin teachers love hiding behind the ostensibly “reading comprehension”-ness of the IB and AP exams. But they leave out the part about how it’s impossible for 3rd and 4th year students really to read Caesar and Virgil and Catullus.

  6. I am sorry to hear that. The last thing teachers need right now is a loss of incentive to do this job. I know many teachers whose emotions are as tight as a string right now and who don’t need a reduction in income added to the list of crappy things happening in the profession.

  7. John, first of all congratulations on inspiring and teaching your students. I really like the story about the kid annoying the family by speaking Latin at the dinner table. (One of the “homework assignments” I give my students is to go home and inflict German on their families – many of them do.)

    Here are a couple of ideas that may help as you prepare for the expected ambush.

    If you think that your colleagues are perhaps a bit shaky on English grammar, you might try giving them a “modest grammar quiz”. Unfortunately, these are all probably so entrenched in grammar and grammar terminology that they will have no trouble with it – but have a look anyway.
    http://www.benslavic.com/blog/robert-on-assessing-discrete-grammar-items/

    Counter their college professor with the US Department of State. (I hope they will acknowledge in advance that the DoS represents the opinions of more than one expert The Department of State overseas American schools abroad and sets down criteria for them. On the State Department’s website, they discuss academic rigor and relevance, and even quote Alfie Kohn to warn that too much of what is called “rigorous” is simply onerous. According to the Department of State, the four elements of Rigor are
    1. Sustained Focus
    2. Depth and Integrity of Inquiry
    3. Suspension of premature conclusions
    4. Constant testing of hypotheses

    How, then, is a TCI/TPRS class rigorous?
    1. Students are required to sustain focus during class discussion and story creation, usually without the aid of distractors like worksheets, pens, pencils, etc. (Observe your professional meeting and note how often your colleagues are off task in the meeting; they can’t sustain focus either.)
    2. Because the course is student centered, you stay on a topic/theme/subject for as long as students want to explore it rather than moving on to “cover” a certain amount of material.
    3. Students use deductive reasoning to come to conclusions about how the language works, but they are encouraged to listen to and read copious amounts of language before beginning to (consciously) draw conclusion. It is precisely here that the traditional Grammar-Translation course is NOT rigorous because students are given the conclusions (i.e. rules of grammar) at the outset and merely asked to reproduce specific instances of those rules, often mechanically.
    4. Students constantly test their hypotheses about how the language works by answer questions and creating their own sentences. The teacher’s response either confirms the hypothesis or provides more information about the language so that students can test their revised hypothesis. (In other words, when a student produces a grammatically wrong sentence with correct content, you repeat the sentence back with correct grammar so that the student is able to note the difference between the two. How’s that for an idealistic sounding scenario – but at the unconscious level it is actually happening if students are sustaining focus, investigating with integrity, and not drawing premature conclusions.)
    Here’s the Department of State webpage with the relevant information:
    http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/44875.htm

    The list of contributors to the document:
    http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/45729.htm – certainly more experience than one professor will bring

    As far as assessments are concerned, do not do as your big assessment something that you haven’t done before. Students need to spend time and effort on the task, not on figuring out the format. If you have had students find key sentences in a story and have had them draw pictures to illustrate understanding, you can do a final exam in which they choose a certain number of Essential Sentences from the story and copy them down (exactly as they appear in the story). Then they draw a picture that illustrates every facet of the sentence they have chosen to show that they understand it. This should be done with a story that the class has already worked through. I have done it with a chapter book reader and had it work well.

  8. This entire thread has SO much in it that is amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Dear John,

    CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It doesn’t surprise me that wonderful things are happening in your classroom…You are so passionate about your teaching and your students. It makes me so happy to read this.

    This thread points out what I love most about teaching with TPRS/CI . You know that you are doing it right when you are constantly EVOLVING !! It leads you to look at students, at instruction, at evaluation, at assessment, at communication, and even at INPUT in new, more enlightened ways. We constantly support each other and offer each other new insights and ideas, but the approach itself develops us!!!!! What else does that?!

    John, you have so many good ideas here in front of you…and gratefully, in front of us. Follow your instincts.

    As for your colleagues….keep on with the intent to be collegial. And continue to make your students your first priority. Change of any kind will cause resistance, at least initially, and you are a catalyst for change right now. Continue to highlight anything that your colleagues do that is positive for kids and for teaching. Honor their strengths. In doing so, you give them permission to accept yours rather than fight them. When we even hint that they might be doing something wrong, because they are not doing what we are doing, we have thrown down the gauntlet and opened the door for a fight. When we let them know that our job is grow proficiency and we are trying to do the best job possible while at the same time acknowledge that other teachers have chosen to excel at a different job (grammar and analysis), we AT LEAST allow for differences. If we do not allow for differences, we do not give them permission to accept our approach.

    It will take time. More than you would like. But we’re with you!!!!

    Hugs and love!
    Laurie

    1. Thanks so much, Laurie! I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with you both in Denver and more recently in Maine. You are one of the most emotional intelligent people I have ever met. You have the uncanny ability to helping people remember to connect their thoughts with their hearts.

      You are totally right that if I go looking to pick a fight, I will most certainly find one. You are also right that being intolerant, negative and confrontational will make a professional disagreement turn into a toxic feud. I do very much love my fellow Latin teachers. They are both wonderful people with whom I have always gotten along very well. I have to allow room for them to consider making some very subtle changes to their approach to teaching Latin. I must also make sure that I validate their feelings, concerns and points of view.

      Hugs and love right back at you!
      John

  9. It seems so odd that we have all these Latin teachers crashing the old system. The leadership among those Latin Kings is exceptional – that’s why. They walk the walk every day and how are people not going to notice? It’s an amazing thing.

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