Latin


Project Domus

For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed leading my eighth-grade Latin class in a project on Roman houses. I am sure that many teachers of Latin have some sort of domus-related activity, and this is mine. The project aims mainly at introducing students to this important aspect of Roman daily life; it also offers plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast their own lives to ancient ones and to engage in Latin language composition and communication through simple descriptive sentences.

I like to start this project by discussing different the living situations of Romans, from the insulae of cities to urban domī to elaborate villas in the countryside. They study a number of houses that were preserved and excavated around the bay of Naples. We hone in on the typical Roman domus, discussing different generic rooms in the Roman house and their apparent uses and features (e.g. the vestibulum, atrium, culina, peristylium etc.). An impressive array of resources are available to students, and here are just a few that I have enjoyed using:

VROMA does a lovely job of clearly labeling rooms with links to names and longer descriptions of the rooms’ apparent uses. I love the simple floorplan as well.

This site does a similar job with a few more rooms added to the layout.

This virtual tour is a neat video, and it works for activities where you want students to identify different rooms (they could even do it in Latin!).

This video was created by a student (of either History or Latin). He brings up some interesting points and identifies room names for a quick and dirty review.

Khan Academy has a number of resources as well, like this article on the house of the Vetii.

After discussing and describing the Roman house, students are tasked to create their own domī. They go about choosing features, frescoes, and furniture for their houses, which would appeal to Roman taste as well as their own. In years past, the final products have come in the form of posters, dioramas, and google drawings, and I also ask students to describe their houses and the function and/or appearance of the rooms and the objects within.

Students tend to enjoy this project because of the degree of personal choice and creativity that goes into designing their own home. Some students–and even some adults–may never have given any thought to the architecture and design that they might want in their own house; this project gives them an exciting opportunity to do just that. I will add lastly that the project brings together culture and language learning and is easily tailored to students’ ability and comprehension.


A Response to Mary Beard 3

I wanted to write a response to Mary Beard’s August 11th “A Don’s Life,” entitled “What does the Latin actually say?” because I think it hits on a lot of the struggles Latinists are having but don’t talk much about, and why I think it means we should as a community start to reconsider at the collegiate level what we actually want graduates of our programs to be able to do. You should go read the essay (and even the comment thread if you dare) but in essence Professor Beard grapples with the idea that she “would never quite feel [she] had mastered the languages I thought I was trying to learn.”

In it she also talks about how difficult Latin can be for her. While reading classical canon authors there’s always a translation to fall back on, but with a set of 16th century texts she’s consulting for a project there are no translations or commentaries, and she (bravely, I think) discusses her difficulties in reading them.

In her essay I see my own past and struggles. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many people (professors to teachers to undergraduates from all kinds of backgrounds), and so I know from experience that many people have had the same experiences as Professor Beard. The fact that most graduates of Classics programs, and even Classics professors themselves have a hard time reading texts outside of their specialty is I think an issue worth talking about. We’ve focused so long on grammatical knowledge, philology, and close readings that, while we’ve produced excellent analysts, we don’t generally experience Latin as a language in the same way we do English or another modern language, and that can have consequences.

Take the AP Latin course as an example.  It never asks students to work in Latin, and translation is always the end goal.  That back and forth can be slow and inefficient.  It sometimes means that students don’t really understand what they’re reading – I’ve heard many stories from AP scorers of beautiful translations they’ve read but that come from a different passage than the one the candidate was asked to translate. How many times have you overheard a student complain that “I know all the words, but I don’t know what it means?”

And if we ourselves in the course of our research find something difficult, we compensate by reading translations and referencing commentaries because, as Professor Beard puts it, “most of the classics we have to read…are so damn difficult.” She suggests that “Thucydides or Tacitus…was probably almost as baffling for native speakers too”, and in a post-essay comment dated August 13 at 10:36 am (Eastern) she challenges “anyone who has taught Tacitus’ Annals not to have used [the hunt for the verb method]” and bets “that was true for the teachers of the second century AD too!”

Except that that can’t possibly be true. Plenty of people in antiquity and in the Renaissance were able to read ancient authors without more trouble than we would read Shakespeare or Chaucer today. Universities and the Catholic Church regularly used Latin as internationally as we use English today to discuss heady problems of science, theology, law, and philosophy. Was everyone’s Latin superb? Of course not – but then we have a wide range of English proficiency today as well.

Professor Beard admits we can’t read those authors with the same level of fluency today because we don’t learn Latin actively as a language. Many modern language studies show that real fluency at the levels needed to understand these kinds of texts comes from use and from extensive reading. I’d like to ask an honest question – are we satisfied as a profession about the level of reading proficiency personally and with our graduates? And if we’re not, what could we be doing differently? Looking to the past (the humanist tradition in Erasmus and others) and the present (modern language studies) can provide insight into improving our reading proficiency across a wider range of authors and time periods.

I’ve seen first hand what a more active approach to Latin – treating Latin as the language it is rather than a cultural artifact to study – can do for proficiency. I’ve seen people who can read a wide variety of authors from different time periods without much more recourse do a dictionary than I would for something written in English. I’ve seen people give both prepared and ex tempore lectures in Latin on topics ranging from philology to history to science. The Paideia Institute offers a weekend conference in New York where nearly all the lectures and discussions are done in Latin. The University of Kentucky offers a Master’s program in Latin where students read, write, and discuss only in Latin. I’d like to think that the people involved in these programs aren’t any more extraordinary than you or I, but simply have taken a divergent path in the yellow woods, and that has made all the difference.

So I come back to my original question – what is it that we want students with Classical degrees to be able to do?  What should be the expectations for fluency for those with a BA in the Classics, a Master’s, or a PhD?  Why don’t we think it’s important to train our students to discuss, read extensively, and write in Latin?

These are questions well worth exploring.

 

 


Reflections on Teaching 3

This week’s guest post comes courtesy of Eleanor Arnold, a Latin teacher in Athol, MA.  She has some frank and honest reflections on her first year teaching struggles and how she turned things around.


My first year as a high school Latin teacher was a trainwreck. The kids and I were both miserable. They hated Latin, and I was starting to hate Latin too. I was trying to teach Latin the way I had learned it and successfully taught it as a graduate student through charts, parsing and translating. But for these students and in this setting- rural poverty, students with little or no expectation of going to college- it just wasn’t working. A more experienced teacher would have handled things better, but they got me instead.

Midway through the year, I found out about Comprehensible Input, which you can learn more about at LIMEN. I spent the rest of the school year going to workshops, reading blogs, and experimenting. Things improved.  Basically, the goal of every activity is the same: expose students to Latin they can understand.

To ensure understanding, the idea is to “shelter vocabulary” tightly to a small group of words that have the highest frequency in Latin literature. The students have the time to internalize the words, rather than “learning” them for a quiz and then forgetting. There’s no “hard grammar” anymore. I taught indirect statement in Latin I by presenting it in conversation every day for a week, and they have no problem understanding it now. They memorized noun and verb endings, but our goal is always comprehension, not production or identification. When we read in our native languages, we don’t think about the grammar or play “find the verb.” We just read, and pictures appear in our minds. I want my students to experience that with Latin, and bit by bit they’re getting there.

You don’t have to use spoken Latin to do CI, but it helps. The more I speak with my students, the better they read. It’s as simple as that. For me, a wonderful side effect of speaking Latin is that I get to engage with the language I love in a totally new way, and my Latin is improving as a result.  You also don’t really have to be very good Latin speaker to use it in a Latin I classroom, but I find that the more I do it, the better I want to become.

I have had to let go of a lot of things I believed in. I don’t worry as much about accuracy any more, so long as my students understand the gist. Assessments are totally different: they’re based on comprehension, not translation. The goal now isn’t to parse, but to actually read. Because we’re not working on a word-for-word level, I can help struggling students without it feeling like cheating. When a student gets something almost right, I can celebrate with them instead of chastening them because the tense was slightly off.

As for results? They are learning Latin in a way they never were last year. Even the lowest performing students can read and write some Latin. It’s certainly not Cicero, but passages that would have taken them two hours to translate last year take fifteen minutes now. Enrollment is up for 2016-17. Incredibly, I’m not doing any more prep or grading than I did last year, and the prep I do have to do is more interesting than making up a translation test or vocabulary quiz. Last year, I’d hear “I hate Latin.” This year, I hear “Latin is my favorite class.” Kids write things like “Tyler optima est” on my board. Another classmate may insert a “nōn” in there, but it’s all good: they’re playing with Latin instead of fighting it.

There’s no magic bullet for language learning. I’m still tired at the end of the day, and I still struggle with classroom management and participation. But we’re not miserable any more, and even the bad days are more interesting and productive than my good days were last year. I’d call that a success.