Something from Nothing – VIDEO breakdown (Express Fluency reflection 4)

This is the fourth in a series of reflections and elaborations on Express Fluency 2017. If you haven’t yet, check out installment 1, on the skills of slowness and silence, installment 2, on making lemonade, i.e., capitalizing on would-be problems in class, and installment 3, on brain UNbreaks.

I hesitated to share the video below. It’s as unflashy as a video of me teaching can be, thanks to the fact that I came into Brattleboro really sick, lost my voice on day 1, and was too shaky-legged to use my movement as a teaching tool to the extent that I like to. In fact, after the class shown, I collapsed for a nap on the cold floor of this very classroom.

I agreed that Elissa should publish this video anyway, both because it’s important to see laid back teaching and because the video illustrates one of my favorite things: something from nothing, that is, an extended target language interaction that develops out of nowhere and provides students with varied, but focused, input and interactions.

a still from the video by Elissa McLean

Setting the scene

Just as we were settling in after the last break of the second morning of beginning Latin, Elissa entered with an iPhone in hand and a gleam in her eye that said, “Whatever you do next will live forever on YouTube.”

Well, I had no idea what I would do next. So I did what I usually do in such times: start asking questions and see what happens.

The previous day, I had designated one side of the class Romans and the other half Carthaginians, informing students that, historically, these two groups were sworn enemies. (I had learned from Jason Fritze about splitting classes into two culturally relevant groups for the purpose of mixing up TPR and directing questions at one group or the other.)


Something from nothing

Right before Elissa hit record, I had instructed the Romans to stand and greet the Carthaginians. One student had the presence of mind to sassily refuse, on account of the ancient feud. This got well-deserved laughs and set the tone for moving beyond mere TPR. Next, I instructed the Carthaginians to stand and greet the Romans. At the very beginning of the video, you see them stand, but refuse to greet–except for one person who makes a hint of a wave. (Do you see it?) This flinch gave me the material for the rest of the class.

In the video, I reveal that I saw one of the Carthaginians willing to greet the Romans. Students want to know who, and one suggests that there may be a Roman sympathizer among the Carthaginians. The Q & A in the video is to determine who this infiltrator is.


Info to know while you watch

  • None of this was planned in advance. Any given comment inspired the next.
  • Throughout the interaction, I frequently recycle language and knowledge from day 1 and earlier in day 2, and rely on rapport built during those first few hours.
  • The class consists of some community members and some teachers of languages other than Latin. For most, this was their second Latin class; for some, it was their first, and a few had walked in for the first time two minutes earlier just to check it out.
  • Some students simply answer my questions; others volunteer comments. Both ways of interacting are wonderful, especially for students in their second ever Latin class.


Some techniques featured

  • writing new words on the board
  • establishing meaning of new words
  • pointing at words on the board or wall and pausing
  • toggling between interacting with an individual student and interacting with the entire class
  • lots of repetition with slight variations
  • comprehension checks with quick translations or gestures
  • student jobs (one was to scream if I started to write on whiteboard with permanent marker)
  • students’ using posted rejoinders
  • using gestures and body movement for humor and to build in processing time
  • limiting vocabulary (including delaying until a subsequent class more idiomatic ways of saying some of the same things in Latin)
  • variety of pacing, including slowness and silence
  • backtracking a bit to get a very young student caught up who had some trouble following because she hadn’t caught who the Romans and Carthaginians were
  • responding to a P.A. announcement that interrupted our class

[Edit after Martin’s important comment below: A big part of my point in sharing this video is to communicate that it is the combination of (a) these specific techniques that I’ve practiced (and continue to practice–when I watch this video I see lots of places where I wish I had applied these techniques differently or better!) and (b) responsiveness to the interests and contributions of students that made this interaction work out pretty well. Read how Tim was able to put this into practice right away, serving his students and impressing his admin!]


The video


Note 1: I noticed during class that a few students looked a bit less tuned in than the rest. This was understandable right before lunch, but I was still concerned. One of these students turned out to be tracking quite well, contributing a creative comment near the end of the clip that implied comprehension of the overall interaction–a good reminder that attentiveness looks different in different students. The other students I spoke with after this class to get a feel for their comprehension and comfort during the filmed interaction. If these had been my own long-term students, I would have a made a plan, both with these students and for myself, about how to monitor and ensure their progress and comfort.

Note 2: You can tell that some phrases get a lot of repetition and variation. If students had had different shared knowledge of the language or each other, or if I had needed or wanted, different language would have featured.


I hope you find something useful here! Please feel free to follow up with questions. Happy going with the flow!
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  1. Excellent work, Justin (Iuste)! I wonder if this is the kind of thing you might do even with a class of people with no previous exposure to Latin. I understand some fit that description, but I also recognized some Latin teacher friends in the audience. Do you think they influenced how much you were able to do? What sort of follow up activity(ies) might you do after one such as this? Finally, what do you do about targeting vocabulary? We have a specific set of vocab on our county’s curriculum, and I wonder about how much of that, icing vocab, might one reasonably expect to replace with vocab from the predetermined set, or if that icing vocab is not enough to really disturb the progress towards the curriculum’s set. I keep hearing the mantra “shelter vocab, not grammar”. Vale! Jessie (Iulus)

    • Thanks, Jessie! I only know of one Latin teacher in the group in the video (although there may have been more exploratores!), who had not been part of day 1 but wanted to see what we were up to. This teacher knew that the class was for outright beginners, and I did the stuff in the video with those beginners in mind. Either way, I hope that viewers get not just the very specific idea of a transition from TPR or greetings to a spy hunt, which I myself had never thought of before, but also the general idea of going with the flow and relying on our core techniques.

      There wouldn’t have to be an explicit follow-up activity, although I could see myself churning out a reading (using raw text from a student–I usually have a scribe so that there’s a full record of everything said in a class) and doing various reading tasks the next day. Other than that, follow-up would consist of continuing to use the language that came up during this interaction, probably maintaining a running joke about exploratores, and so on.

      As for targeting vocabulary, it’s usually not that hard to work in even unrelated vocabulary by offering it as “wrong” answer choices in questions (what Terry Waltz calls shadows) or as quirky new lines of questioning. So, if I’m supposed to target words for “lawyer” and “do the laundry,” I could have the same basic interaction as in the video, but ask, “are you a good Roman or a good lawyer? (or both? or neither?)” “Which do you want to do more, cook all the Carthaginians or do the laundry? Do you want to cook the laundry? Has anybody here accidentally cooked their laundry? Has anybody here eaten a Carthaginian? Has anybody here accidentally cooked a lawyer? Has anybody here cooked a lawyer on purpose?” If I had to target clothing items, maybe it would turn out that not the students, but their clothes were spies: “Is Angie the spy? No, Angie isn’t the spy–her left sock is the spy! Do you think her left shoe is in on it?” I’m just making this stuff up by stream of consciousness to show how I would work in the targets while still going with the flow of the activity.

      The icing words in the video are probably “explorator” and “devorare,” which I wouldn’t expect to add much to the cognitive load. Most of what the students are hearing is high frequency function words, forms of “volo”+complementary infinitive, and other handy stuff. That’s another thing I liked about this interaction–it was pretty much all high frequency stuff.

      Hope this helps! Thanks again for watching and commenting!

  2. Wow. How discouraging to learn that this is you being “unflashy”, sick, and with shaky legs, improvising on the spot. Even with planning I would not be able to reach this level of engagement.

    • Dear Martin, thank you for reading and for pointing out your discouragement–the last thing I would want a viewer to feel. Allow me to encourage you with the fact that the students in this video had almost all chosen to spend some of their summer days learning another language–much more interested and motivated in advance than the average student we might have during the school year.

      The main thing I hope to convey, in this post and frequently throughout the blog, is ways in which trusting specific techniques in which we have trained (and, ideally, been coached–e.g., high-yield ways of asking questions), combined with openness and responsiveness to interesting things that students do or say in the moment, often leads to lessons even more engaging and effective than those we can plan in advance. I think that the engagement in this video, such as it is, can be traced to those things–specific, long-practiced techniques applied to a situation in which students had revealed an interest.

      I hope this helps at least a little bit! I have found that it is tricky, especially outside of live workshops, to convey both what an actual class session might look like and the techniques and mindsets that make it work. Your comment is a good reminder of how important it is to make explicit to our fellow teachers the actual techniques that we’ve found contribute to high-quality interactions.

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