Friday, May 31, 2013

Latin III Exam Experiment

In my Latin III course, where we abandon the traditional textbooks in favor of a reading approach to cover advanced grammar, I ask students to keep an "Running Latin Commentary" (RLC) for all the work that we do together. This RLC is used to record notes on grammar, vocab., style, etc., as we move through our various texts. The "close reading" skills take a while to build, and it's proven challenging to organize too, leaving the paper RLCs not as useful as I think they should be.

With that, I decided to have students keep their RLC notes in a blog, rather than on paper. I'll admit that it took a huge leap of faith to ask 9th graders to keep a blog for the entire year, without having any idea of what to expect. But as I now reflect back on our year, the blog RLC was a huge success, and I'm both very pleased and quite amazed at the quality of work that they've done with their blogs. I sincerely hope that they continue using them, as they move through the cursus honorum of Latin courses.

Over the course of the year, I commented on their posts to help them look at the details that I wanted them to see. But I also gave them total creative control to add any other interesting ideas that occurred to them through their reading. I also encouraged them to read and comment each other's blogs to share ideas. On certain occasions, I gave them other prompts for posts, e.g. reading the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite for comparison with Venus in Cupid and Psyche and in the Aeneid, or comparing the heroic qualities of Aeneas to Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. In other words, the kinds of questions that Classicists like to ask.

As we approached today's final exam, we devoted the last few weeks of the year to reading Cicero's Pro Archia without fussing with grammatical detail to the same degree that we did at the beginning of the year; we just read for fun. In doing so, I saw more examples of deeper understanding of both the Latin language and literature that I'd hitherto seen, and I was very impressed at their ability to understand how prose and poetry differ. One of the biggest and most surprising outcomes of the blog experiment was an overall "looser" approach toward reading Latin.

Next year, I want to encourage more reading and commenting from the outset, and I also want to give more "freeblogging" opportunities to allow them to start making connections sooner and work through ideas that we could follow over the course of the year. And now that we'll have internet connectivity in all our classrooms, I'll even allow them to use their own RLCs on sight quizzes.

In the past, I used to give my Latin III students a final exam with a variety of parts: verb synopsis, vocab., seen reading, some sight reading, and some composition. Frankly, it was a bit of a bear and ultimately, I fear, not the best thing we could have done to cap our year of hard work. I believe that final exams should only help students not hurt them. This year, therefore, given our greater emphasis on sight-reading, I opted for solely sight passages on the final exam: one prose and one poetry passage, for which students could use a dictionary. When wi-fi access will be available everywhere in the school next year, I'll let them use their RLCs too.

It's typically the case that 9th graders take final exams, only to leave and never see them again. Given the new approach to the course we took this year, I thought that the best way to give us closure and a sense of accomplishment would be to grade the exams together. So, right after the exam, I collected those who were available, and I let students grade their own work, while we discussed the passages in detail. I'll catch up on Monday with the others who couldn't stay.

A few weeks earlier, I gave them a sight quiz that they found more difficult that I expected. Rather than grade and return it, I graded a photocopy (without telling them!) and in class handed back the original, which we graded together in the same grading style I use (assigning 1 point per word, with half for meaning and half for function). Once finished, we compared their own evaluation to mine. To our collective surprise, they all graded more harshly that I do, and I think they learned more from attentively looking at their own work than by reading my comments, especially on something they found difficult.

We took a similar approach toward grading their final exams, and in short, they were all quite happy with the outcome. Because there was no set corpus or any other set "study guide" or vocabulary to learn for the exam,, they just read Latin for the sake of Latin, and they even found both the review and the exam to be fun! In the end, they worked hard this year, and I hope that they'll leave campus this afternoon not only knowing their grade, but, much more importantly, knowing what they've accomplished.

I'm very pleased with these experiments, and I'm eager to continue to develop them next year. It'd be fantastic if we could find other Latin III classes interested in similar blog projects so we could share our work. Any interest?