Picture the scene: a high-school classroom, a rainy Friday afternoon in late April 2008. 25 or 30 students in that last-period Latin II class are attempting -- not very successfully -- to focus on an activity that they usually enjoy. After 15 years teaching in That Particular School District, I have a pretty good idea of how things “usually” work, and I’m trying -- not very successfully -- to ignore a sudden flash of intuition: what “usually” works is no longer working.
“You guys look so sad. What’s up?” I finally ask. And they tell me: “We just hate textbooks. We hate everything about them. The readings are contrived and stupid; the characters in them are flat and dead; the grammar explanations are dumb; the exercises are ridiculous; the things about culture are obviously too simple.” The floodgates opened, and as they listed their objections, I realized something important. They were saying what I had been realizing -- not just about That Particular Textbook (which, to be fair, is a “good textbook” as textbooks go), but about the relationship between pre-packaged learning and 21st-century learners.
“We hate textbooks, but we like this class,” they told me. “We really like it when we make up stories together -- when we make better characters and better stories and better situations. Couldn’t we just do that?”
Yes, we could do that. Yes, we should do that. And they had some very specific ideas about how we should do that -- ideas that are important when you’re dealing with a “not dead but immortal” language, ideas that have been influencing my work with engaging CI in Classical languages for a decade. “Great stories,” they said, though not in these exact words, “make you think about great questions. Stories and Questions are key.”
As we built great stories and great questions together, and as I learned more about Stories and Questions, I realized there’s a particular rhythm of questions that I follow, whether I’m building a story with language learners, designing a workshop or conference session, or talking with someone who might want to work with me. The questions are important, but so is the order, and this is the order that has worked best for me:
I think of the CI techniques that Justin Slocum Bailey listed last week as a beautiful toolbox filled with beautiful tools, and I’m reminded of a great quote from my friend (and fellow Latin teacher) Jason Talley, who once said
Tools are how we solve problems. What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?
On that April Friday in 2008, it turned out to be a “Who and Where” problem. My students and I had a shared Why (purpose) and What (desired results): they wanted to learn Latin, understand Roman culture, and be able to read and understand “real things that real Romans really wrote.” But the “Who” and “Where” of That Textbook’s authors were so different from ours that we couldn’t use That Textbook as an effective tool. We had to build characters and stories together instead -- characters and stories that ultimately grew into “this little thing” and took me on a journey I never would have imagined. But your students aren’t mine, and we may or may not share a Why or a What. “One size fits all” doesn’t work for clothes, and it works even less well for language acquisition.
If it seems like you’re “struggling with CI,” or if it seems like your students are “resisting” or “getting stuck,” try working through those questions in the order I listed them. Struggles, disconnections, and stuckness are usually symptoms -- symptoms of a disconnect between your How and at least one of those other questions. Find the disconnect, and a solution will probably be obvious. And if you can’t find a solution alone, don’t worry: there’s a whole Posse out here, ready and waiting to help.