Why I Don’t Give Pop Quizzes: Translating Charlie (#101)

“I just don’t know how to put it all together,” a student in my elementary Latin class exclaimed after we had taken our weekly quiz. “I know the vocab words but when they’re all together in a sentence…..!??!!?”

She was not the first to voice this worry; a number of students in my classical Greek class said the same to me yesterday (plus they have a different alphabet to contend with). You can put all the words from ch. 5 and 6 onto flashcards and know them back and forth; you can memorize lists of verb endings and even know how to conjugate “to give” in the present tense backwards (dant, datis, damus, dat, das, do) and still feel like you’re staring into the depths of box containing a mega-piece jigsaw puzzle. You know there’s an order to putting it all together but how?


“How do I translate it, what am I hearing, what is that word doing?”: These phrases also run through Charlie’s big brain when he hears a couple of sentences, especially from a new voice, with its different accent, phrasings, pitch, vocabulary. Even when an unfamiliar person and face speaks slowly and gently, he is still tuning his ear to what is, in some ways for him, a new language. More than often I have seen him slide into frustration, rage, and “behavior” when someone (however well-meaning) has kept talking, kept adding on phrases and phrases. When the assumption is made that what is “fun” for many children–art class, gym, reading a story–is simply that for Charlie, there is even more for him to deal with. That new face presents not only a foreign language, but a foreign viewpoint.

Charlie likes traveling and seeing new places and people. But it takes him much, much longer to grow in comfort with these–to be able to listen for the accent of the place and translate for himself; to put it all together. Too often, it does not occur to Charlie even to ask, “help!”. Very often, Charlie expresses himself not in language but in physical activity–his running the length of our house, fast, and smashing face first into the couch signifying “I am excited I am happy!”.

This morning after fielding a call from Charlie’s school about his rocky start to the day as I crossed over the Pulaski Skyway, I talked for a long time with a student. Translating from ancient languages is not easy for her and I admire the strategies she related to me, as she explained how she looks at the different parts of a quiz–the single vocabulary words, the words in a sentence, the extra credit grammar question–to figure out the answers. The whole quiz is, I suppose, a sort of map of a strange place with vaguely familiar clues to be figured out.

I don’t give pop quizzes–I tell my students I dislike how these creates an “atmosphere of fear and distrust”–but Charlie must feel himself ever on the verge of receiving such a surprise; of being nabbed in a state of “oh no, I didn’t study!” and “there goes my grade!”. In the real world outside the classroom, surprises certainly strike all the time and the lesson I’m learning today is how to help, to teach, Charlie both to take the Unknown face-on and boldly, and to know when to duck.

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