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Latin for those Who Live under Rocks, are Juvenile Delinquents, or Watch Entirely Too Much Television
by Jeanine Edson
Texas Classics in Action, Summer 2000.
At the end of the ’98-’99 school year, after the last final had been graded and my room secured for the summer, I picked up a stack of surveys I’d given my students earlier that month. I survey my students every year. Their perceptions of me and my course fascinate me. They evaluate ten statements about their teacher and ten about the course, from agreeing strongly with the statement to disagreeing strongly.
You can imagine my bewilderment when an analysis of the data showed 10% of my Latin I students did not think Latin was a useful course. How could this be? Were they living under rocks? Was is possible that the average14 year old public school student didn’t know that Latin students do better on the SAT than students of any other language? Didn’t they realize they were developing higher-level, critical thinking skills? Did they think they’d always known what somnambulism, sussuration, and sacerdotalism were? I thought I spent a lot of class time connecting Latin to the modern world. And I received 6 to 10 Latin Moments on average every day! Despite the fact that 10% of Latin I students was about 5 or 6 kids, this result was unacceptable. I would not be satisfied until all my students recognized the usefulness of Latin. Something had to be done.
In my district, we are experimenting with a new teacher evaluation system called Appraisal By Collaboration, or ABC. Teachers choose a banner question they’d like to explore throughout the year, collaborate with their fellow teachers and others on it, collect data on their progress, and present the results at the end of the year. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out how to get my students to see the usefulness of a Latin education.
First I had to come up with an appropriate banner question, something that would address the problem and could be quantitatively as well as qualitatively measured. After some tinkering, I settled on “Can understanding the relevance of Latin increase the motivational level and sense of accomplishment of my students and increase the value afforded my class?” Next, I had to think of a way to inculcate my students with Latin knowledge so they’d have the foundation necessary to apply their learning to everyday, modern life. I devised a series of mini-lessons covering six categories and ranging from 10-25 minutes a day for the entire year. Not a day would go by this school year, I vowed, when my students wouldn’t learn some Latin tidbit they could apply to their lives.
We began the year with conversational Latin. I knew teenagers would find talking very useful. We started by taking Latin names in a ceremony complete with bullas stuffed with good luck charms. Students learned greetings and pleasantries, school vocabulary, and how to talk about their families and the weather. Once we got to know each other better, we turned to the language of love. I heard my students practicing “Da mihi basia,” “te amo,” and “te diligo.” In an exercise called “Love Bubbles,” students added speech bubbles to illustrations of Roman lovers. One student had the Roman youth profess “Te amo. Te volo,” to a girl who, despite her demure, flirtatious appearance, was replying “Tu canis!”
For those whose interests do not lie in romance, we thankfully moved quickly to the language of insults, or vituperationes. My students were particularly enamored of “indiligens cum pigra familia” (you’re a good-for-nothing slacker with a dysfunctional family) and “saeva scaeva” (rampant she-devil) both of which I got from How to Insult, Abuse & Insinuate in Classical Latin. Keep in mind, I also taught them “me paenitet,” “ignosce,” and “mea culpa” during the same lesson.
The second grading period was spent on Latin used in everyday English. We started with abbreviations like e.g., ibid., i.e., and N.B. One of my students turned in a Latin Moment with a page from her calendar ripped out. She explained, “They are using i.e. wrong. They really mean e.g.!” Wonderful! My students were already feeling superior! We moved on to phrases like ad hoc, per se, quid pro quo, and modus operandi.
We also learned some famous quotes like “veni, vidi, vici” and “cogito ergo sum.” The overriding goal in my mind was to teach them about things that they were highly likely to encounter in their everyday lives. We talked about the orange juice commercial slogan “Squeeze the Day” and other allusions to famous sayings. The students had to go home and ask their parents what the mottoes of the colleges they went to were. (I was always trying to get the parents to have Latin Moments as well.)
It was at this time that we learned about the origins of the names of the months and days of the week. We also learned the Latin names for 10 colors by doing a color-by-number picture from a mythology coloring book. As much as possible, we connected new Latin terms to their English derivatives.
In the third grading period, we looked at mythology. I started with creation, covered the Titans and Olympians, the heroes Hercules, Jason, Perseus, Odysseus, and Aeneas, and then imports like Orpheus, Mithras, Cybele, and Isis. I drew pictures on the overhead projector as I told the stories, but some of the stories were so bizarre and confusing to them that I think I will do this differently next year. They don’t need such a scholarly, in-depth knowledge of mythology to understand allusions like George Costanza’s “I flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami” from Seinfeld. I’d like to read them Classic Myths to Read Aloud in Latin I. In Latin II we could take a look at the lesser-known myths. We also learned about Roman festivals and the impacts on Romans of Judaism and Christianity.
At this point we moved on to medical terminology. I tried to teach them common combining forms like cid- and cis-, corpor-, and carn-, and suffixes like -itis, -osis, and -oma, but what they really enjoyed learning about was prescriptions. They loved being able to decipher the fake prescriptions I put on the overhead projector. For some reason, those who hadn’t really thought of Latin as all that useful yet, found this really practical. Not everyone is going to stop to decipher an abbreviation or a foreign phrase, but we all get sick, right? I was starting to reel them in.
Another topic many students found useful was legal terminology, which we studied during the fifth grading period. I relied entirely on Legal Latin for this unit. We talked about real-life circumstances in which it’d benefit them to know such phrases. One of my students turned in a Latin Moment explaining how he’d pleaded nolo contendere in court earlier that week. Wow! Even the juvenile delinquents were coming on board!
The final grading period was to be spent on art. We were to cover sculpture, wall painting, mosaics, and coins. I had intended to show lots of slides and go into great detail, especially with the four styles of wall painting. We were going to make giant coins with students’ profiles on them, a project I heard about at the NJCL conference one year. Unfortunately, time was running out. After reading about the mosaics in the palace at Fishbourne in the Cambridge Latin Course Unit II, students made mosaic cards from construction paper. It was about Easter time at that point, so we had a lot of mosaic eggs and rabbits. We also studied a bit about glass in the CLC, so the unit was not a total loss. Next year I intend to stick to mosaics, coins, and architecture. I think students will feel more of a connection with these topics.
So was it successful? Absolutely. The number of Latin Moments increased and their quality improved. Teachers and parents shared their Latin Moments with their students, their children, and me. And I’ll never forget the day one of my students remarked how much Latin had helped them in AP English. Watching it from a distance, it was like that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the one character says “[The Romans] take everything we ever had and what have they ever given us in return?” One character says sheepishly, “The aqueduct?” and the rest join in listing nine other really impressive things the Romans brought to Judaea. “Latin has helped me in a lot of classes,” another of my students said, “like chemistry.” “Yeah, and biology,” another said. “Well, biology, that goes without saying.” “And history, it’s helped me with history.” “And Spanish.” “And anatomy.” “I think it’s helped me be a better writer.” Music to my ears.
Even more telling were the results of this year’s survey. Not a single student circled “disagree” or “disagree strongly” on the “this course is useful” statement. My students sought out encounters with Latin in every aspect of their lives. They were excited about and eager to share the connections they found. They were, indeed, more motivated and more secure about their knowledge. I can not wait to see what they discover next year.
Sources for conversation
Capellanus, Georg. Latin Can Be Fun. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996.
Marks, Anthony and Graham Tingay. The Romans. Usborne, 1991.
For scientific and medical terminology
Ayers, Donald M. English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. University
of Arizona, 1986.
For legal terminology
Masciantonio, Rudolph. Legal Latin. American Classical League, 1992.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. Facts
on File, 1994.
For coloring books
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