Report from the Field – John Piazza

John Piazza (CA) and John Bracey (MA) not only share the same first name. They also are at the forefront of change in the Latin world in the U.S. We all know Bracey’s riveting story of being an oak in a storm in his building (understatement) over recent years, but Piazza’s is pretty much the same. Piazza  sent me this yesterday and if I weren’t so old I would have done a cartwheel:
Hi Ben – exciting news. Just had my follow-up meeting from my first observation with my new administration. I am on cloud nine. She is a long time ESL teacher, and she knows the politics of my school, and she is committed to equity. In short, she gets it, and today’s meeting confirmed this. My evaluation basically said that I was not doing enough work in the target language, at higher levels on Blooms taxonomy. I said I was more than happy to oblige, but what about the traditional expectations as well as the AP exam and my traditional college who teaches it? She told me that those are no longer our priorities, because they are not best practices in language teaching, and they exclude most students. As for the privileged parents and my colleague, she told me not to worry about them. In other words I’ve been given marching orders, and I have been given protection, without qualification. There will certainly be bumps on this road, especially while I am graduating out the legacy students. But this is very exciting, and represents the next step forward for me. The chaos and strife that have occurred on my campus, have also resulted in a renewed commitment by the administration to equitable practices in all classes at all levels. No school administrator anywhere in this country can any longer afford to ignore the direct connection between exclusive pedagogy and the perpetuation of racist institutional practices. I would recommend that any CI teacher who is facing resistance call out their school’s commitment to equity.
Sorry if this email has turned into a rant, but it’s a joyful rant. I have just been launched into a holiday week with a massive tailwind. So I’m shifting into a 53×12 of gratitude and getting as much out of this as I can. I know you’ll understand.
With love,



21 thoughts on “Report from the Field – John Piazza”

  1. This is great news, John. It represents a huge shift for administrators – and I hope this is not just one administrator’s opinion.
    There is so much inequity that we don’t see, so we need to combat inequity that we do see and have some voice. On the news today there was an item about where the “good schools” are located. Across the country, and particularly in California and New York, the majority of “good schools” are in zip codes that are unaffordable for middle-income families. As a result, inequality in education is systemic. I’m not certain how the researchers defined “good schools”, so that is why I put the term in quotes. I will let people draw their own conclusions.

  2. I spoke with Bracey today, and I think his situation is improving as well, now that his admin is on the way out. This goes to show how crucial a supportive admin is for doing this kind of work. Without that backing, we might as well look for employment elsewhere. Bob Patrick has worked hard the past decade to help his admins to support him, including giving them talking points for when they are confronted by parents, teachers, or admins from other districts. Admins hate to be taken by surprise, and need our support so that they can support us–and we are the experts. I am lucky that mine has decades of real language work under her belt, but this is the exception.

  3. John,
    Would you remind me of what college you teach at, and would you mind reminding us of the chaos and strife that is occurring on your campus?

  4. Berkeley High School. If you google it, you will find reports of student protests and walkouts similar to what is happening on some college campuses.

    1. Hi John,
      What you’re in the middle of as a Latin teacher at Berkeley High School may very well lead to a greater awareness of the SLA work done by people such as Bonnie Norton, Carolyn McKinney, Patricia Duff, Steven Talmy, people who would look at the details of pedagogical classroom techniques as unseparated from socialization and social identity.
      What is happening in your school very much looks like what has happened recently at Mizzou, Yale, and Claremont McKenna College (and probably other colleges I am not aware of), and I am not-so-secretly hoping that our college campuses can begin to talk about the learning atmosphere of our language classrooms as a part of this larger debate.
      I am so sorry that I was confused about who you are and where you teach! I most certainly remember meeting in Denver at the iFLT and how impressed I was with the work you do at your school.

  5. That is great news! So happy to hear it!
    Portland Public Schools, my district, also has a very important, front-and-center racial equity initiative and I just know that one day the worlds of CI and equity will collide. (Especially if I keep bringing it up…ha ha!)
    Teaching grammar-based lessons, units, years…it is inequitable and it will go by the wayside. It’s not just inequitable racially, but that is a big part of it. I also teach Spanish at night school and the night school students are predominately kids of color. Many of my Spanish students (of all backgrounds) have told me that they failed Spanish the first time around because they just could not motivate themselves enough to give a patootie about some grammar worksheets and word find activities, and memorizing dialogues. Making the kids the focus of class is not a cure-all, because these kids have been damaged in their self-esteem as language learners, or acquirers. But it does help them to see an entry point to Spanish. I just wish that all their teaching could have been higher-quality and maybe they would not need to recover these credits.
    This is fantastic news and I am so pleased to hear it! What a great outcome and I am so glad you have this administrator on your side.

  6. I work in a “rich white district” but equity issues have impacted us as well. Kids with IEPs, behavior issues, speech/language or social worker needs – almost all find themselves happy and successful in our classes in ways they never did in the past.

  7. …making the kids the focus of class is not a cure-all, because these kids have been damaged in their self-esteem as language learners, or acquirers. But it does help them to see an entry point to Spanish….
    …many of my Spanish students (of all backgrounds) have told me that they failed Spanish the first time around….
    Thank you for these sentences, Tina. They are good and true things that rarely if ever get addressed in the mix of it all. We really work for kids in this group. Fred Rogers said this:
    …when I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me….

  8. I was so glad to hear this news from John. This admin truly gets the greater purpose of what John is doing. Latin in particular has a long and sinister history of being only for society’s upper crust. This attitude gets perpetuated in today’s traditional Latin classrooms. Impossibly complex grammar assessments serve as virtual “poll tests” to ensure that Latin classes remain exclusive. Of course these are also features of traditional modern language classes.
    Here are some of the arguments that resisters will use to argue on behalf of having inequitable classroom:
    1) You shouldn’t have to lower the standards and expectations of your classes to reach more types of learners. You should be able to help all kinds of learners achieve the same rigorous expectations.
    2) Making your classes easier just perpetuates the belief that poor and minority students are less capable than their affluent white counterparts.
    3) You are setting up these same students for failure down the road. You are building false confidence in your students that will soon be dashed when they get a more rigorous Latin teacher.

    1. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I can’t resist responding.
      All three of the arguments from the “resisters” are based on a false assumption. That false assumption is that what you are doing is less rigors, that you have lowered your standards and expectations.
      A response to those arguments must begin at the presuppositional level, i.e. with the false assumption, not with manifestations of “rigor”. Ask these resisters to define rigor. My guess is that they will not have a cogent or coherent definition and any definition they com up with will sound a lot like “onerous” rather than “rigorous”. I keep going back to the Department of State’s definition:
      1. Sustained focus
      2. Depth and integrity of inquiry
      3. Constant testing of hypotheses
      4. Suspension of premature conclusions
      I can show (and have shown) that TPRS/TCI is far more rigorous than a grammar syllabus.
      Furthermore, you have not lowered the standards, you simply teach to different standards. Different is not necessarily either inferior or superior; it is primarily different. Standards are good or bad as they relate to the goal. If the goal is to use the language, then standards that deal with conjugations and declensions are inferior; if the goal is linguistic knowledge, they are still inferior because they do not adequately address what linguistics are about.
      If by “more rigorous Latin teacher” they mean someone who teaches like them, this is a rhetorical tautology and therefor an invalid argument. That’s one reason why the definition of rigor must be established and maintained, not allowing the word “rigor” to be ambiguous or susceptible to multiple definitions. In the long run, if a student progresses to the point of being able to read Latin (or any other language) with at least some degree of facility, then the nature of further study should be left up to the student. If I want to spend my evening reading Wheelock or the Germania, the choice is mine. (There are times when I would choose Wheelock and times when I would choose Vergil.) Gesenius (Hebrew Grammar) or “B’Reshith”? My choice. Nahmad (Arabic Grammar) or Kalila wa Dimna? My choice. The “more rigorous Latin teacher” might actually represent a roadblock on the path to dealing effectively with the authentic texts.
      All of this is without getting into any discussion of the 13-15 years of advantage enjoyed by the “affluent (white) counterparts”.
      Okay, rant over.

      1. When I read John’s comment, I thought, “Robert Harrell has the best response to this,” and then look – there Robert wrote it out.
        The complaints are indeed presupposing a lot about what rigor is and what standards are valid for language classes.

      2. And the choir says, “Amen.”
        Thanks for the good news John P.
        John B., How would they figure that speaking Latin to their students is less rigorous than speaking English to them? If speaking Latin in a comprehensible way is so easy, why doesn’t every Latin teacher start that way?

  9. Congrats John on the great news! I always want to see an admin defend his or her mandates to faculty, as in “I want you to do this because X and Y and if you don’t plan to do so then I expect you to be ready to defend that position extremely well” and not back down after a couple challenges. I hope that your admin will keep at it! We know you will.

  10. Thanks everybody for the support and encouragement. Also, this post has turned into a very productive discussion around how to respond to the critics with their tired old arguments. Ultimately, CI will win out because it is a best practice, and because it is equitable teaching. Public school is not UBER, it is the bus. We don’t leave anyone behind. And if privileged parents want to pay for “rigor”, they can go and do that with a private institution, and/or hire a tutor. Traditional programs require the stragglers to hire tutors. How about the 1%ers hire a grammar tutor? Their parents can more likely afford it, and it is cheaper than the almost 30+k/year tuition of some fancy high schools where I live.

  11. …traditional programs require the stragglers to hire tutors. How about the 1%ers hire a grammar tutor?….
    This is one of the strongest new ideas I’ve ever heard in education.

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