Doing Projects Right

I confess that, for much of my high school teaching career, I’ve had reservations about giving project assignments to my Latin students. Latin language and Roman culture have always been the focus of my courses, and students make the best progress through sustained, frequent engagement with the language. Above all this requires time and attention, precious things in the average public school day and often under assault by various centrifugal forces. Taking time away from learning the language and about the culture in order to conceive, organize and work on an individual or group project has seemed to me a spectacular misuse of time.

Of course, looking back now, from the vantage point of the end of my teaching career, I am aware that my attitude says as much about me as a teacher and a person and about my various intelligences as it does about pedagogical principles. So there may be an element of kharma as I find myself teaching in a tiny semester school with an overall emphasis on human ecology—both knowledge of the natural world and awareness of our species’ place, actions, and impact upon it.

Here experiential learning is emphasized in all subjects at least to a degree. Math is taught with an eye to real applications; science is taught with a lot of field work. My Spanish colleague teaches a unit in which his students describe an animal from our Traveling Natural History Program in great detail, focusing on their senses and their physical evolutionary adaptations in order to thrive in their environment. My French colleague makes every exam a real-world situation—for example, call up a hotel in Quebec City, make a reservation for the weekend and ask about parking arrangements in the Old Town (obviously the hotels are alerted ahead of time and agree to participate). My Mandarin colleague makes holiday dishes with her students entirely in the target language.

And me? I feel my hands are tied both by my school (oddly, I think) and by the programs of the schools my students come from. After six years of doing summer Latin immersions, I would like very much to use the 400-acre campus as my classroom and teach about the natural world and the Romans’ view of it in Latin. For one thing, this would support the science teachers’ efforts to teach binomial nomenclature. For another, it would make me once again terrifically excited about teaching.

But I can’t get my school to buy into this, because most of my students come from big-city, college-prep independent school programs and they are in pre-AP or AP Latin courses as juniors. I do understand this, but it is a pity.

Anyway, the final week of our semester is taken up by our Human Ecology Capstone (HEC) project, to which an entire week is devoted. This can push semester finals back before Thanksgiving (although some of my colleagues of course give them). This is one of many reasons I offer doing a semester final project instead of writing an exam.

I give students about 2/3rds of our semester to choose and work on their project, so they don’t get overloaded with having to work on their HEC project at the same time. I make it clear that three formal write-ups of their progress are as much a part of their grade as the project itself. Aside from alleviating the perils of procrastination and avoiding conflict with their HEC projects, my thinking here is that some projects do very worthy investigation of a topic, but don’t really come together at the end; also, a student may well convince herself that her original conceptional frame was just faulty. I see no reason why that conclusion in itself should penalize a student; a lot of bright ideas end in failure in life.

Results over seven years have ranged from good to truly fantastic. Out of about 45 projects, I’ve only had one that I would characterize as unsuccessful and one case where the student changed topics mid-stream. The latter student ended up writing a rap based on Francisco J Cabrera’s Latin poetry about the Aztec culture hero Quetzalcoatl and teaching himself how to scan hexameters in the process, so the end result was quite a success. The gifted Latinists have generally chosen topics that allow their talents to shine: one student wrote a 25-pp. paper investigating William S. Anderson’s and Richard J Tarrant’s editorial choices for the Phaethon tale in their Teubner and Oxford texts of the Metamorphoses (1.747-779; 2.1-328). That a high-school junior could organize this amount of data and say anything analytical about the evidence I found astonishing.

Another student, with whom I read Iliad 1, was quite interested in mythology and posed the Judgment of Paris question to the school community via a survey form. At first I thought this project was more than a little wacky, but the results proved interesting. Aphrodite got very few takers (were adolescents shying away from admitting how much they think about sexual attraction?), and the rest were evenly split between Hera and Athena. And everyone wanted to use their power for the good of humankind. My school is a remarkably altruistic place. This student was disappointed in a 2/3rds response rate on the survey and was only partially assuaged when I told her that any marketing or political survey company would jump for joy at such success.

Our school chef, a very experienced professional in the kitchen, has very wide-ranging knowledge of the history of food, loves working with our students, and has been more than supportive of students who want to investigate Roman food. Six of my students have planned and prepared a Roman supper for the school community (about 70 people). I require a Latin menu card for each table and a 10-minute pre-supper talk on available ingredients, eating habits over the course of a day and Roman preferences for flavors. And I love watching high school students up to their elbows in raw pork, stuffing sausage casings.

Of course, what I’m describing is unimaginable in many school situations. By applying to our school, students are self-selecting for personal responsibility and self-motivation in their learning. They expect to do a lot of physical work and learn by direct, hands-on experience. According to the Buck Institute for Education, a leading promoter of Project Based Learning (PBL), a challenging problem or question, sustained independent inquiry, and student voice and choice all are “essential design elements” characterizing good PBL. I’m very grateful to have an opportunity to see what PBL offers students who are succeeding in traditional college-prep programs, and I hope to embrace the model in my own teaching even more.

About Stephen Farrand

I've been teaching Latin to high school students, on and off, for 30 years. I've worked in both private and public schools in 4 states. I hope to finish my career with my current job at Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki, where I work part-time. I have been a proponent of oral Latin in the classroom for a long time: I remember sitting at a Mensa Latina at CANE with Alan Dobsevage in about 1989, and I shocked my fiancee by speaking Latin to my uncle (a Jesuit) at a family gathering in 1990. I've also worked hard to learn Russian, so I speak a modern language with a case system like Latin's and flexible word order.