Synopses in English and Latin

Synopses in English and Latin

This past school year was pretty busy and I took the beginning of the summer to focus on something other than school for a change. However, with the summer coming to a close, it’s time to get back into the swing of things so I thought I’d return to blogging for a change.

Today, I want to write about one of the things that I learned how to do more effectively as I transitioned from teaching college students to teaching middle and high school students: synopses. When I learned Latin, we did not do many synopses, in high school or college or graduate school. So, when I got to Jacksonville and talked with my fellow Latin teacher, she convinced me they were beneficial. They help students understand the differences among the various tenses, voices, and moods. They are also a rather efficient and effective way to assess knowledge of these various items.

Given that my Latin 2 students could end up having to put upwards of 40 forms on an exam, I initially decided to only test students on the Latin forms. When we practiced in class, students would start in their notebooks and then write several forms on the board. Students choose the verb we conjugated and a die chooses the person and number we’d use. The class as a whole is responsible for completing the whole synopsis on the board, and it gets everyone moving. It also tells me where people are more or less confident, even though sometimes it (frustratingly) leaves one or two particularly conscientious students completing the entire synopsis. When there are mistakes, I ask students to identify and fix any mistakes on the board. We would sometimes review translations of various forms aloud. Students were initially overwhelmed by this but some saw the value of it as a review technique. I have since attempted to work it in earlier so that it seems normal and less terrifying.

This past school year, I became frustrated with students inability to distinguish perfect, imperfect, and pluperfect tenses in their translations, so I decided to adjust my habits with synopses. Again, following the advice of my colleague, I required students to translate their Latin forms into English. I also sometimes gave students a synopsis pop quiz, which they knew was coming but not when it was coming. It yielded the change I sought: students more frequently accurately translated their tenses.

This new form of assessment continued with periodic practice of synopses on the whiteboard, but once I tried something new and I thought it went pretty well. Inspired by an Education Week blog post about formative assessments, I asked students to complete a synopsis in their notes. Then, instead of students putting answers on the board, I projected a blank synopsis sheet. I had completed their synopsis earlier, I had cut out each Latin form and translation, and then the class told me where in the synopsis each answer belonged. I found students a bit more engaged with this activity, partly because it did not require them to produce as much and partly because it did not have the social danger of criticizing their classmates. Even though this requires a little more advance preparation, I certainly intend to do this activity more often this year, especially when students first learn about synopses.


Side Note: Students are often unaware that most textbooks have synopses in the back, or the students find them confusing. We use Wheelock’s Latin and I personally find their synopses to be ugly and poor visually designed. Some of my students have very much appreciated it when I gave them a photocopy of the synopses out of the back of Ecce Romani III or Learn to Read Latin. It’s amazing how much some good visual design can help. I’m even considering asking my 8th grade students to create a visually appealing synopsis when they do a synopsis for the first or third this year.

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