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.

De Arte Coquinaria

Many teachers of classics include in their curriculum a unit on Roman dining, whether through reading Petronius’ Cena Trimalchonis at the upper levels, or a story inspired by this piece in Cambridge Latin Course’s Stage 32, or Ecce Romani chapters 32-34, or Lingua Latina’s Chapter 30.  Teachers may also incorporate some kind of actual Roman banquet into their year, perhaps combining it, as I do, with an awards ceremony.
What I’d like to propose in this article is to take this to the next level, and to present an idea to focus on food and cooking per se, where students will have the chance to explore in greater detail ancient foods, their preparation, stories and myths having to do with food, and at the same time be able to use Latin actively to explain an authentic activity (i.e. cooking).
Depending on the year, I use this project to fulfill a number of linguistic and cultural goals:

  • accusative case review (including in + acc vs. in + abl.)
  • commands (imperatives or subjunctives, depending on level)
  • future tense
  • purpose clauses
  • improving food and dining vocabulary
  • practicing both presentational speaking and listening skills
  • examination of herbs, plants, and animals – their mythology and relationship to food
  • exploring the Cena Trimalchionis
  • myths that include food / hospitality (Baucis and Philemon, innumerable scenes in the Aeneid, Erischthon, etc.)
  • Planning a convivium for an awards night

The idea is for students to make a video that showcases a particular recipe, perhaps in the style of a Food Network cooking series.  Students must explain in Latin (appropriate to their level) how to cook their recipe and must name all the ingredients to be used.  During the video they must also share a story that relates to some ingredient included in their dish.  My own students have done, as examples, the apple of discord, Cato’s warning to the Romans about how close Carthage is by ‘accidentally’ dropping a fresh fig from his toga in the Senate, Appius Claudius and the drowning of the sacred chickens, or a medieval story about how the Queen Elizabeth of Hungary once had her paralysis cured by a hermit who suggested she soak rosemary in wine and then rub it into her limbs.
Videos tend to be about 10 minutes long and can be quite creative!  Here’s an example from one of my Latin 3’s scripts this year (written entirely by students with some suggestions):

E: quid primum faciemus?
G: primum, calefacite furnum ad trecentesimum septuagesimum quintum gradum. deinde, farinam in catillo ponite, et salem aeratum addite. farinam et salem aeratum cochleare miscite.
E: quid tum faciemus?
G: deinde, miscite amygdalam in frusta secata, cinnamum, et ros marinum. tum miscite succum ex uvis, succum malorum granatorum, et mel in poculo. lac addite.
E:pulchre fecisti Giuditta! auxilium visne?
G: sic! (Electrae dicit) funde primam mixturam in secundam mixturam et misce. feram atroptam rotundam novem unicarum.
E: bene redolet!
G: quidem!  (omnibus dicit) nunc fundite mixturam in ferculum et triginta minutas cibum in furno coquite.
E: Malum granatum esse signum Proserpinae scisne?
G: certe?
E: sic! Quando Proserpina puella erat, Hades puellam abstulit. Hades Proserpinam in Tartarum tulit, quod Proserpinam amavit. Dum in tartaro, Proserpina sex semina mali granati edit. Ergo puella ad terram revenire non potest.

After the videos are made, students vote for the best one, which we then make, using the Latin instructions, in our school kitchen.  In past years, we’ve watched the NLE’s Forum Romanum episode on Apicius while we eat.
I hope that this sparks some ideas for using food in some way in your own classes.  Please share in the comments section anything that you’ve done or resources that you find useful when teaching about food or Roman dining customs.
iubeo te bene coquere et esse!
Further Resources

  • Piper Salve, a German neo-Latin textbook which has in the back several dialogues pertaining to cooking as well as extensive useful vocabulary.
  • Anna Andresian’s Vocabula Picta, which includes a chapter on vocabulary in the kitchen.


Lights, Camera, Action! Making and Using Movies in your Classroom

In this age of Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, it’s wondrously easy for both us and our students to make short films as projects in our classes.  Editing software is often cheap, even free, and anyone who has a smartphone or tablet can capture video footage.  Students are excited about movies – adults are too (did you see how many advance tickets Star Wars: The Force Awakens sold before it’s premiere?).  So the question naturally becomes how to harness this tool and enthusiasm in a useful way in your classes.
Below I present some ideas I’ve used myself or seen used by others.

  1. Myth Movies – mythology is a core part of almost any Classics teacher’s curriculum, and what more fun way for students to connect with myth than to recreate a favorite myth with bad costumes, bad acting, and cheesy special effects?  When I first started this many years ago, I’d let students get into groups and film their adaptation of their favorite myth.  Most turned out OK, a few abysmally bad, and some have been brilliant for one reason or another.  One idea that has been very popular is a vote for Best in Show, in which laurels and extra credit are given to the movie with the most votes.  Sometimes I let a second class decide the winner (helping create a culture of continuity and expectation through the levels), and sometimes I also give a Best Reason Award and ask every student in the class to explain what part of the adaptation they liked best about their favorite film.  But after awhile seeing mostly the same myths picked year after year led me to the idea I tried last year…
  2. Myth Mash Up! – In this idea we test myth’s power of symbolism, trope/stereotype, and theme to tell us interesting things about the human condition.  Students divide up into groups and then pick a random genre, two characters, and a place that they must turn into the trailer for a movie or TV show.  Last year I filled the character and place bags with the usual suspects (Jupiter, Pan, Achilles, Medusa, Mt. Olympus, a sacred grove, the wine-dark sea, etc.) and in the genre category I had Medical Drama, Cop Show, Horror, Romance, Sitcom, Talk Show, Documentary, and Comedy.  The movies were some of the most creative I’d seen in years, and since I also asked each group to explain the motifs, stereotypes, and so on of their movie before they presented it, the groups really thought about how to use the attributes of their places and people to work within the genre they were assigned.
  3. If you’ve got a good crew of upper level Latin students who can speak at the intermediate level, you can use them to make videos that your Latin 1 students can watch and get some comprehensible input from.  I haven’t made good use of this yet, but it’s in my wheelhouse for this year or next.
  4. Our school has a school-wide Language Fair and the upper level students in all languages create videos for their peers in the other languages to enjoy.  This can be a great way to showcase student talent and maybe even get a few people to double-up in Latin next year!  Last year my students did Myth-o-Mercials – Medea sold love potions, Pandora promoted boxes, and so on.
  5. There are short videos on YouTube presenting funny situations without using any words.  Here are some examples – Wildebeest from BirdBox Studio, Dinner also from BirdBox Studio, or Snow Cat from Simon’s Cat.  While I was at Rusticatio last year, we were shown two such shorts with many stops in order to not only describe what was going on but also to wonder about what might happen next.  There’s lots of opportunity for fun discussion and comprehensible input here while everyone practices their language skills.  This is best probably in an upper level Latin class where students have some command of basic vocabulary and can speak at the sentence or paragraph level.

How do you use videos and movies in your classes?  We’d love to know!  Add your ideas to the comment section of this post.