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Validating Spanish in the Latin Classroom

(Originally printed in Cloelia, Spring 2002.)

Most teachers, when asked to include something in their Latin classes that is not specifically listed in the curriculum, think to themselves, “One more thing? Impossible.” The first time I heard about teaching some Spanish in the Latin classroom I thought to myself, “Well, that would be nice if I thought I would have the time and if I knew any Spanish.” That was also before I returned to the classroom, which I did in the fall of 2000.

When I began teaching at Porter Middle School, I had more or less what I expected in my 7th and 8th grade Latin classes: the majority of the students were white, a few were African-American, and a few were Hispanic. However, my Exploratory Latin class for 6th graders was comprised mainly of Hispanic students, admittedly many who enrolled not for Latin but for the 2nd half of the course, Spanish, in order to get an easy A. And to my surprise each of my 6th grade classes (there were four—each one lasting for 9 weeks) contained on average 2 students who were learning English as a second language. I often had to use another student who was bilingual to communicate to the first student. With 70% of the student population at Porter being Hispanic, I should have anticipated such challenges.

I kept a low profile that first year, observing and learning about my new environment. I realized ultimately that I needed to find a way to meet the needs of the Hispanic students--to find a way to make the Hispanic population at Porter not feel like second class citizens.

To this end, I created the 1st Annual Trilingual Challenge, which we held at the beginning of this year. This competition was nothing more than challenging the students to use a language other than their native language, specifically English, Spanish or Latin, to communicate with another student and to gather that student’s signature. The person with the most signatures won a gift certificate. Students were provided with a trilingual sheet of useful phrases.  I had hoped by emphasizing that there were three languages spoken at our school that it might not seem like one was valued more than the other. I complemented this sheet with a bulletin board in all three languages in the front hallway which I have changed several times this year, each time emphasizing the relationship between English, Latin and Spanish.

In addition, my attitude about what I could do within my own classroom changed from last year to this year, in great measure due to a session I attended at the ACL Institute last summer. Professor Edward George of Texas Tech University led a session on the linguistic shifts of classical Latin to Spanish. For the first time, I saw and understood the connections between Latin and Spanish. I introduced some of the charts Professor George gave us to my own classes this year. I now regularly ask for Spanish derivatives from my students, explaining to them that I want them to teach me Spanish. Hispanic girls who had otherwise been quiet and reserve were now speaking up, offering Spanish derivatives, oftentimes for Latin words which have no English derivatives, such as semper>siempre.

Funny thing, during this year I never thought to myself, “Ah, yes, this will be a good way to retain minority students.”  But the fact remains that I am taking my Hispanic students, validating their Spanish background, telling them that the Spanish derivatives they see are very important to me and that their connections to the language are as important as any we make in English. They are not second class citizens in my class. Spanish is not an inferior language in my room, but brought to the forefront as something valuable and useful.

Students pick up on this. If they sign on for more Latin it is not because I’m offering them something valuable in Latin, but because they think that my class is fun and, more importantly, that I value them as students.  And when I see new Hispanic students walk through my door, I think to myself what a wonderful learning opportunity I have--I wonder what new Spanish vocabulary they will teach me.

Ginny Lindzey
Porter Middle School
recently named “Outstanding New  Teacher” by the Texas Foreign Language Association

copyright, Ginny Lindzey, 2002

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May 26 , 2002

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