Monday, June 30, 2014

Why I Like to Speak Latin

I am a Latin teacher in Southeastern Virginia. There are several reasons I came to try conversational Latin. First of all, I had a very strong education in German in college through the intermediate level. I attended the University of Vermont and obtained a BA in Latin there. While my Latin and ancient Greek classes used a grammar-translation approach, I spent many hours in a language lab for German, plus all our German classes were immersion. German is an inflected language with a different word order from English, and I got a taste of thinking and speaking in a foreign tongue, which I enjoyed.

My travels in Italy have also played a role. I am eternally grateful to the Fund for Teachers and other organizations that made it possible for me to study extensively in Italy in the Summer of 2010. I studied as much phrasebook Italian as I could and found I needed it to get by in the areas of Campania where our group was staying. The less touristy the area, the less English was spoken. The experience of needing to listen, speak, and use every resource at my disposal to understand what was going on around me and to communicate my needs fired up an interest in the active use of Latin in my own classroom.

I also blogged extensively about the 2010 trip at As a teacher, I thus became a role model of someone who creates online content and does not just passively consume it. I continue to blog regularly on various topics up through the present day, a fact which pleasantly surprises my Latin students. These and other experiences have led me to use more technology in my teaching, to create experiences where students can create online content for others to use (district policies permitting), and has provided my class with background information and pictures to share during those "teachable moments" that arise in all classrooms. Like many Americans, I had never heard of the fascinating caves and remains at Sperlonga prior to this trip, for example.

During another, earlier trip to Italy, I was a teacher accepted for summer study at the American Academy in Rome. This was in the summer of 1988. Reginald Foster held his famous summer Latin immersion programs in the same neighborhood where we were headquartered, il Janicolo, where I had the opportunity to overhear participants of the immersion program walking through the streets, talking fluently and confidently in Latin, albeit with an ecclesiastical accent. At that time I wished I could converse with them.

Back then it seemed a bit of an esoteric and flaky thing to do, but the rise of spoken-Latin events in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world since then make it seem more practical and increasingly main-stream. It is something that can be done often enough that one can develop one's skills and use them regularly. If I can get by in non-English speaking areas of Italy with my little bit of broken, phrasebook Italian, why can't my students and I get by in an immersion environment in a language similar to Italian, but one which I have a much more thorough knowledge of, both of its vocabulary and of its syntax, however passively acquired, and even of its history and culture?

Also, if my students develop active Latin skills, there are places of higher learning where they can continue to apply them if they choose. I wish there were more, but at least I don't feel I am teaching my students a skill they can never use again, or never use outside my classroom. 

Since 1988 I have had the privilege of working in a couple of high-poverty school systems with students of diverse ethnicities, mostly African-American. In an effort to reach a broader range of students, I began to experiment with oral teaching methods, starting with Total Physical Response, which I learned from a pamphlet I had purchased through the ACL Teaching Materials and Resource Center. I had strong success in teaching to a range of learning styles and engaging even some students who were, frankly, not all that interested in learning from textbooks. I began to think it would be neat to teach Latin students in something closer to the immersion experience I had enjoyed in German in my college days. Unfortunately, beyond TPR, I was not sure where to proceed. 

I have also done some reading on language acquisition and am convinced that the grammar-translation method through which I had been taught is fundamentally flawed in that it only appeals to a very limited range of learning styles. I also obtained not only a Masters Degree in Classics from Tufts University but also a Masters in School Administration from East Carolina University, where I also was trained as an instructional specialist. It was at ECU that I studied about Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligences, and I also learned that many of the students who drop out of U.S. high schools drop out due to boredom and due to the fact that they see little relevance in what they are learning in high school. 

When I returned to the classroom, I wasn't sure what I would do, but I was determined to do things differently and to at least avoid boring my students wherever possible. I felt I needed to find fresh ways of educating and of challenging them. I joined the Latin Best Practices List, a Yahoo group full of wonderful Latin teachers, where I mostly lurk (and still do). There I picked up some other ideas about the importance of Comprehensible Input and its usefulness for language acquisition. I attended my first Conventiculum, Conventiculum Dickinsoniense, in the summer of 2010, but Conventiculum is designed for people who already can read Latin and who already know its grammar passively, but just need to learn to speak it. There are some good ideas that can be applied in my classroom, but I was still at a loss where to start beyond some thematic vocabulary and TPR. 

So from there I took a Blaine Ray TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop, and there I got the tools I need to take my Latin classes further in a conversational direction. Our school system uses the Cambridge Latin Course, which is strong on stories, anyway, so I am trying to blend the two approaches at the moment. Right now I am thinking about getting a little further away from the Cambridge in class, perhaps using it mostly for reading homework assignments along with the use of the CLC Online resources. The CLC Online and E-Learning Resources can help my students avoid frustration with the massive vocabulary involved in reading the textbook series. In class I am currently thinking of using made-up stories that involve the Greek and Roman gods, since mythology is a weak point of the CLC, and many of my students want more mythology. I may change my mind; I always have more ideas to try than I have time to implement in a given school year.

I actually joined my first Conventiculum in 2011 because it was an inexpensive way of getting recertification points in my content area, which North Carolina, the state where I was teaching, had recently required. North Carolina is near the bottom in its pay for teachers, I was teaching in one of the poorer districts, there was no money for this kind of staff development, and the Conventiculum offered a quality experience within a reasonable distance that I could actually afford. So I basically enrolled in the first one to keep my job. But I am so glad I did! I attended a Conventiculum Dickinsoniense again last year and followed it up with a Dickinson Summer Latin workshop where we read, under Dickinson's professors, all of Book IV of Ovid's Fasti using a traditional translation approach. 

I intend no offense to the Dickinson professors; they were wonderful! But I found the translation approach so ... boring and sterile, in the wake of the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense's immersion program, that I truly wished I had had more of the immersion experience. Terence Tunberg told me last summer that he felt I was ready to follow up on Dickinsoniense with the Lexington experience, so I signed up for both Conventicula this summer. In the future I would like to attend one of the summer-long immersion experiences available in Italy if I can somehow find scholarship money to attend. 

In my own classroom, I find my Latin I students are much more enthusiastic about the language as a result of their experiences speaking, listening, and acting stories out, so while I feel I am a beginner at teaching this way, I want to continue to improve and move in this direction. I continue to seek out immersion experiences to improve my own command of the language, because it's fun and enriching, and to pick up ideas that I might be able to adapt for my own classroom. What I like about Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg's program is that I can use Classical pronunciation, participate relatively inexpensively, and learn without leaving the East Coast. Plus they are true experts in the language, and they are both wonderful and caring teachers. I want to take every opportunity I can to study with them while they are still around and willing to do it. I feel I missed a valuable opportunity to enroll in Reggie Foster's programs, and I am not going to waste other opportunities to immerse myself in a language that I love.

I am in a large school system with quite a few Latin teachers and a thriving Latin program. Most of my colleagues think I am nuts to want to speak it. But so far I have been free to experiment with my methods. I have the support of my Assistant Principal of Instruction and of our district's head of foreign languages. Where I have the opportunity, I would like to spread the enthusiasm for the active approach and for comprehensible input both within my school system and in neighboring school systems. I am Vice President of the Tidewater Classical Symposium, a regional group, so I plan to find some non-threatening ways of spreading active methods through that group regionally.

I have had a lot of training in student engagement under the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform through my prior school system, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. I often use an engagement meter in my Latin classes to ascertain what is working for students and what is not. I am not sure that that my own immersion experiences led to more use in the classroom as much as my students' feedback is leading to the change. Most really like it. I also use a lot of technology and Smart Board exercises due to their feedback about what works for them. I really try a lot of different methods to try to reach as many of my students as I can. I also realize this is a generation of mostly digital learners.

What I would really like to see, long-term, is for my program to grow enough that we need another Latin teacher at my school. I would like us to attract someone who is trained to or at least willing to use an active approach. I am convinced that it is not only the true "traditional" approach, but the way of the future if Latin is to continue to thrive locally, nationally, and across the globe.

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