Jenga & Intermediate Latin Students

When I started this blog, it never occurred to me that my students might find it and enjoy reading it. And yet, some of them do enjoy reading it, and so this post is (at their urging) about an activity those students and I created together in the Honors Latin 4 class–essentially, intermediate Latin where we transition from Wheelock’s Latin to unadapted prose excerpted and sampled with commentaries in Ecce Romani III.

Within our sequence, this is the first class that is not required for graduation, so the students enrolled in the class generally, actually want to be there. Our school also uses the Harkness method in English and History classes, and my students have also been in the same, small Latin classes together for the last several years. Needless to say, they are often vociferous and rather comfortable with each other (and, now, with me, since I teach Latin 2). As a result, if we were to describe the classroom using language from Dungeons and Dragons, it’s basically a room full of Lawful-Good and Chaotic-Good people. Students willing to volunteer to translate can easily rise to the occasion, and the more reticent students can easily hide–and so the puzzle of how to teach to the entire class arises.

And then, by chance, one day, I had left my closet door open, and a student saw a game which had been left by my predecessor. “Can we play Jenga?” I knew teachers found creative ways to use the game, but I was put on the spot here. A few days earlier, another student had asked if we could make sure to review lots of grammar for questions on the tests. Somehow, I connected the two requests and ClassDojo and came up with these rules for our new daily routine:

  • We would continue to review the day’s reading with the passage projected on the whiteboard.
  • ClassDojo would randomly select a person to play Jenga.
  • If the student successfully removed the Jenga piece and placed it on top of the tower, they answered a grammar question about the text, and their answers were marked on the whiteboard to guide translating later.
  • If the tower fell while the students were playing, they would translate the sentence we were on.
  • Repeat steps 2-4 until the bell rang.

We have all latched onto this. The randomizer should get all students involved. Students say that they pay attention more than when we didn’t play Jenga, and they usually are more engaged with class. Usually, it makes me ask more and better questions about the passage to make them more deeply understand the sentences. When students have a question, I gauge its difficulty. If they could answer it, the next student answers it. If they would struggle to answer it, I do. Similarly, when the need and opportunity arises, I am able to target certain questions to certain students.

Sometimes, based purely on the passage, I need to have students translate smaller chunks just for placing a block on the tower–they have accepted this fact, especially as they get better at Jenga. Sometimes I exploit the rules: playing when I want a turn with a tricky tower or smashing the tower myself just to translate a trickier sentence or quickly right before the bell rings. Though now, I realize that, in order to be more fair and closer to Parker Palmers’s ideal type for learning and education, I could add myself to the ClassDojo randomizer and the students get to ask me questions.

Aside from the academic benefits, it also has helped with social and emotional learning. We’re all involved. We can support each other with advice about which piece to choose–or not choose. We get mental breaks during the class, and someone (or usually a team of two or three) always quietly volunteer to serve the class community and rebuild the tower.

I’m glad I followed this learner-derived idea. Chaotic-good for the win!

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