Report from the Field – John Piazza

This is from John Piazza, one of the Latin Kings:

Not sure if you saw my recent post on the Latin facebook group, but you have a lot to do with this. Thanks again.

I just want to share some data, in order to encourage those of you out there who are teetering on the edge. Perhaps you have gone CI to some degree or other, and you have had a crisis of confidence. Perhaps you are getting pushback from those in your school community who want Latin to be a certain way–the way it’s always been. Perhaps you are thinking that you have made a big mistake, or are uncertain whether you will have a Latin program, or even a job next year. Perhaps you are internally conflicted, and are frightened that CI, TPRS, Krashen, etc, is really all just a fad, and that kids really aren’t learning anything after all.

I want to let you know that I have been there too, and I still feel all that doubt on some days. But I feel it far less often. Two years ago, I was the new Latin teacher, doing something new, and a lot of people were “concerned.” That was the hardest year of my teaching career, and I had 10 years under my belt before that. Students dropped, parents complained, my confidence was undermined daily, by others and by my own self-doubt.

For those of you who are where I was, I want you to know that you are making radical and positive changes, even when you feel like you are not. If you are prioritizing communication with your students, and working to support all your students’ success, you are making a huge difference.

Next year will by my 4th year at my new job. Of the 63 students I began with, 42 have signed up for Latin 4. That’s almost a 70% retention rate over 4 years. Unheard of in almost any modern language. For 2 years, my enrollment in Latin 1 hovered around 40-50, not big enough to justify 2 sections of Latin 1. For 2 years, as traditional Latin students and their families opted out, I had to turn away 10-15 students every year, and faced a shrinking program.

Next year, however, I will have 2 sections, as 55 students signed up. This is thanks to word of mouth, students and parents spreading the word that all kinds of kids can do well and enjoy Latin. I have also got to know admins and counselors, who now know that Latin is a class they can recommend. Now I see growth in my program’s future.

One last piece of data: Today my principal shared with me an anonymous message meant for the Friday positive shout outs. It did not make the announcements, by my principal wanted me to see the message. Here it is:

“Mr. Piazza is not only passionate about teaching Latin, he is also one of the most caring individuals I have ever met. He makes every single one of his students feel welcome and appreciated. And his classroom is always a safe-haven admidst all the chaos of high school. When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I might say a writer or engineer but what I’m actually thinking in my head is “I want to be the type of person that inspires others, the type of person Mr.Piazza has been to me.”

I could not have written a fake student message more to the point than this. I was speechless. Not only am I full of joy at having had this effect, but it is powerful to realize that a student can articulate so clearly something that I never have put into words for them, but has been my intention every day.

This data, the numbers and the message, and countless other effects that I observe in my daily routine–all this shows me that I am making a difference.

Know that you are having a positive influence on kids’ lives. This work is transformative, for us as well as for students. Don’t give up. There will be a dip in the numbers, you will feel like maybe you made a mistake. People will question you. But if you step back and think about it, you will also realize that there is no going back.

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

  1. Blown away. This is my 2nd year. I had 1 student drop and an another dropping. I have two french 2 classses with 18 students each… too small for a California school but my principal scheduled me in again for two sections and approved to pay for the upcoming Cascadia Conference! I cant wait to break bread.

  2. I remember at NTPRS in Las Vegas I was doing a demo of a One Word Image and a kind of rude guy interrupted me and asked what I was doing at a certain point. It seemed like he wanted to be confused. There are people like that at conferences. I said that I was trying to get the group to “share the same mind”, and I used the term “mind meld”. The guy looked at me with open skepticism, like I had used forbidden Zen term from planet Zenon. But John, sitting next to the guy, just smiled, sent me the message that he got my weirdness, and helped me absorb the mild hostility from that guy. We absorbed the negativity together, like we have to do with some students, luckily with the angels standing by in case they are needed. I’ll never forget how John saved me in that moment just by sitting there. John is a mensch, a real standard bearer for this work, who has been met with as much pushback as anyone I know, and has emerged a leader. He walks the walk.

  3. An interesting detail is that John made an amazing change about four years ago when he left a middle school job right near Grace Cathedral in downtown San Francisco to go across the bridge to Berkeley High School. Now that place may as well be in the middle of the most snobby of East Coast traditional high schools, with a traditional Latin program – we all know those teachers – dating probably back to the 19th. century. John walks in and with his CI Latin approach immediately draws fire and has taken repeated incoming firepower for much of these last four years. But now his freshman are seniors and the grammar-entitled students ahead of them have all graduated. So for him to write the above has a pleasing amount of vindication. He took the hits, held his position, and eventually has now taken out the enemy. How? With mild, calm, good will, great teaching, no attacks on anyone, and eventually everyone had to agree. He knew what he was doing!

  4. I remember very well the struggle you went through, John. The pressure was surely high there at Berkeley HS, with all those big wigs. Impressive. You are a standard bearer indeed!

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