[download the Meditatio Lectionis]
This notes page, Meditatio Lectionis, is intended for use with an authentic Latin reading. Generally the reading will be text that is slightly above the students’ level of mastery, and students will learn to use this process to work through a reading. At the end of this process, students should have a firm understanding of the selection, a better (although perhaps not complete) grasp of the grammar used in the passage, and increased ability to manipulate the vocabulary. (Some teachers will recognize this process as Cornell Notes, specifically applied to reading literature in the target language).
Setting Up the Page
The header and footer of the meditatio should be self-explanatory. In addition to writing their name and the date (a practice I encourage my students to use on every paper that they begin or receive), there are spaces at the top to record the author and title of the work being read, as well as a reference to the section or lines of text included on a particular page. The footer includes a place to record the page, if students are using more than one page to take notes on a particular reading.
Students should be in the habit of making themselves aware of what they are reading. It is a good practice, before starting a reading, to give some context, including who the author is, the format and purpose of the selection, and the time period in which it was written. For instance, students should know that a selection from the Legenda Aurea is a Christian work of the 13th century C.E. Over time, they can be called on to make comparisons between this work and classical works, as well as humanist writings of later centuries.
The “unknotting” of the reading is the first step in getting students to really understand the content of the selection. Having taken some time to read at least some of the text (providing anticipatory set-ups, explaining or defining vocabulary and phrases in the target language, having students act out the reading, etc.), start to break the text down into more comprehensible chunks. When students are first learning this process, and do not have a lot of experience with texts, keep these sentences simple. Over time, the students will be taking more sophisticated notes.
Pay particular attention to oblique structures which can throw students off the story-line, such as indirect speech or pronouns. Restate these structures in direct speech, and replace pronouns with the original nouns. This will give students clarity, as well as providing opportunities to manipulate the language.
The inquiry stage of the process calls on students to evaluate what they are reading. Early on, in the lower level reading found in textbooks, students can create questions from the reading by simply replacing elements with the correct interrogative. For instance, given the sentence “Marcus librum legit,” one can quickly ask “Quis librum legit?”, “Quid legit Marcus?” and “Quid facit Marcus?” However, when the complexity of the reading increases, these types of simple substitutions are no longer feasible.
This is where the Enodatio provides the students with some scaffolding. Having already broken the selection down, students should be able to produce questions with relative ease. Remember that while the Cornell Notes process calls on students to produce higher level questions (cf. Costa’s three levels of questioning), in this context students are working in a non-native language; by necessity questions will be somewhat simplistic. That said, students should still be required to ask open-ended questions which may require them to make inferences – Cur? questions requiring a longer response, or Qualis? questions which make students pull on evidence from the text.
The immediate objective here is not deep philosophical understanding of the ideas discussed in the reading (although that is certainly the ultimate goal), but an increased mastery of the function of language. Using inquiry to have students, for example, demonstrate the differences between certain time and place constructions is still a rigorous application of this practice. Furthermore, students can, and should, take the opportunity to practice different ways of phrasing the same types of questions; instead of employing Cur? ad nauseum, students can experiment with Quare?, Qua causa?, Quam ob rem?, etc.
The final step of this process makes students prove their understanding of the passage. Either on the back of the meditatio, or on a separate sheet of paper, they must write a summary, in their own words, of what they have read. Some review of the meditatio is allowed, but the summary itself should be written from memory in a single sitting. If this is not yet possible, some further study of the text is required. This should be pointed out to students not as a failure, but a reinforcement of the process.
Although the students’ summary will be significantly simpler than the original text, with repeated application of this process, they should begin to experiment with more difficult structures automatically.
Using the Meditatio in the Classroom
As with any skill, this kind of examination of reading takes time. Students will need a certain bit of explicit instruction before they are able to untie readings on their own, and a great deal of practice in writing questions (indeed, students learning the Cornell Notes process in English require a great deal of instruction in effective question writing).
In regards to grades, this process provides many opportunities to give students feedback. The Enodatio should be collected and graded, giving students feedback on the effectiveness of their chunking; this is also an excellent place to highlight grammatical issues that will inevitably crop up. At the Interrogatio stage, students should not only receive a grade for the questions they have written, but their very own questions can be used to generate a comprehension quiz based on the original reading. Finally, the Summarium is a genuine and authentic exercise in writing. Avoid the urge to decimate this product with red ink, and instead focus on whether students have demonstrated understanding in the target language, and their willingness to experiment with new grammatical structures.
In the time before books were widely available, people practiced intensive rather than extensive reading, spending a much longer time with a text and frequently rereading. Early printed materials often included small pieces of existing text, surrounded by a great deal of scholastic commentary. Students will need help learning to approach reading without the goal of “finishing” as quickly as possible – unfortunately, many curricula still focus on getting students to consume a large number of lines within a limited period of time. The payoff, however, will be a greater understanding of text, without recourse to translation, improved mastery of grammar using authentic materials, and a greater ability to deal with unfamiliar text.