The Day the Music Died

With the early (and overwhelming) success of Operation LAPIS, I'll willingly admit to not putting a lot of energy or effort into improving my Latin II curriculum knowing that this will be the very last year that it looks the way that it does.  Over the spring and next summer, we'll be hard at work developing the second half of LAPIS.  I figured, "Hey, I can get by on doing what I've always done for one more year.  I mean, what's one more year of the old tried and true method, right?"

A lot more challenging, it turns out, than I had originally thought.

On Thursday of this week, I was working with one of my Latin II groups on some English to Latin composition sentences: building command of the vocabulary and grammatical concepts (in this case, the relative pronoun.)  As we were working through the sentences I glanced over at one of my students with whom I have very good report.  She had this brutally honest look on her face that just screamed, "I'd rather jump off a bridge than continue doing this."  So I stopped almost mid-thought and said, "Hey {name}, what's going on? Talk to me."

*sigh* "Latin kills me inside."

If this were a cartoon show, you would have heard the canned effect of screeching brakes.  Suddenly the relative pronoun seemed not in any way important and instead we had a little state of the union talk.  The can of worms was already open, there was no taking it back, and so after some gentle prodding of the student (and other students in the class) we finally started to have an earnest discussion.  This particular student went on to clarify what she meant:

"Mr. Bal, I'm sorry but there's just nothing appealing about this at all.  It's not you, you're one of the best teachers that I've ever had, it's... just... I don't know, it's hard and it's hard to do well because there's so much pressure to do well... not just in here, but all classes.  It's just not enjoyable."

OK, now we're getting at the heart of the matter.  Because of this student's willingness to step forward and share what she really feels (and, undoubtedly, countless others) we were able to have a genuine conversation about homework, grades, quizzes, tests and learning in general.  These students, as they talked with each other and with me, started to realize that the grades that they receive have very little to do with their learning or growth as students.  They realized that it's because of the sheer volume of compulsory homework that they don't enjoy acquiring new knowledge and new skills.  The realized that because of the necessity of cramming for that quiz, or that test, they are sacrificing the long term for short term (and meaningless) gains.

We also spent some time about the nature of independent "learning" at home (via traditional assignments) and the nature of collaborative work while together as a group in the classroom.  They, unanimously, explained that they get almost nothing out of the assignments that they do at home (in any class) and instead find that they get a more meaningful experience from collaborative work while in the class.  They also made the clear distinction between true collaborative work and forced group "busy work", which they see right through when teachers assign it.

We had a pretty candid and highly meta conversation about learning for a room full of mostly sophomores.  It wasn't a visceral "I hate homework, it sucks" but rather a real discussion about why they do what they do in school and at home... and why that might not be the best way to go about things.  So where do we go from here? What can we possibly do to turn this around after ten years of these kids being groomed for "the test."  How can we turn things around and, with 7/8ths of the school year still to come, convince these students that learning can be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience; not for a grade, a meaningless letter on a sheet of paper, but rather for the sake of learning itself. 

Well, we're going to start by tossing the traditional grading system out the window.  Their "homework" over the weekend is to set three goals for themselves for over the next few weeks that will be tangible and attainable, but meaningful and challenging.  We're still going to move through the material that we need to move through in their second year of Latin, but we're going to approach it from a different angle.  Rather than live or die by the grade, each student is going to be responsible for his or her own personal growth.  We'll still take quizzes and tests, we'll still work on assignments in class, but that's not going to be the driving force behind acquiring the skills.  Instead the students are going to keep organized records that demonstrate their learning, that demonstrate their growth, and demonstrate if they are attaining the goals that they are setting for themselves.  When it comes time for me to do my mandatory reporting of a letter grade, each student is going to have a one on one conversation with me to talk about where they've improved, what skills they've acquired, and the growth that they've made.  They will decide, with me guiding, what their grade actually should be based on the best analysis of learning; their own evaluations of themselves.

I'm not sure what is going to happen with this group but it was clear that the current course of action wasn't going to be sustainable for the year.  Coupled with my own rethinking of what Latin instruction is going to look like because of my work on LAPIS, hearing the words "Latin kills me inside" couldn't have come at a better time.

We're sailing into uncharted waters here.  It's exciting and it's invigorating to see a group of students start to question their learning and want to do something about it.  "That's the way it is because that's the way it always has been" died on Thursday, Oct 14th, 2010.... and for a lot of people with that world-view, that's analogous to the day the music died.

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