Fortune favors the brave.
Such are the words of encouragement that greet students as they start Latin as sixth graders in Ms. Frazee’s class. Mayfield Junior School has offered Latin as a World Languages option for five years now. What inspires middle school Latin teachers? Is the language “dead” or the launching point for deeper thinking and inquiry? Latin teachers Jill Frazee and Morgan Bailey share their insight.
Why should middle schoolers study Latin?
Jill: How I like to describe it is there is the useful and the beautiful. The useful for increasing root word knowledge, which therefore increases English comprehension. The beautiful for the decoding skills that it encourages and for the notion of a new generation appreciating and carrying the torch of a language that has been so prominent in history and literature for Western civilization. It’s exciting to think of our students keeping it alive. I read an article about the decline in the humanities at the university level that said we might be losing contact with things that touch our souls. Science touches the souls of some kids, but it's nice to have that opportunity for those who like to sit longer with a root word, ponder and really get into it. Latin students seem to get that. We start my classes with a sharing of Latin moments- they see word connections, symbolism, architecture and more.
Morgan: For me, it's about the connection to history. The only reason I studied Latin is because I was digging in the dirt at an archeological excavation and needed that connection. I think learning the language really helped me understand the people a little bit more, reading what they were writing - in their words. So, I try to get the kids to recognize that connection to help with context and the idea of this shared tradition. The other thing is, it's just really fun. You know, it's a puzzle. Any time you're making those brain synapses work, making connections and figuring things out, that's great for training your brain. I have friends who are computer programmers, and they loved Latin. They compare it to basic programming skills. What does it do? What does it not do?
Jill: You're making connections constantly. You ask any of our Latin students, and they'll go on about finding the cross-curricular connections with their Latin. Latin moments will come from science. They'll come from day to day things. Ad Astra, the movie or term Quid pro quo. We’ve definitely heard that a lot recently.
Is there a particular strategy for teaching Latin to middle schoolers?
Morgan: It has to be active, so doing projects, making connections to other areas of the curriculum, and the real world. It has to be more dynamic.
Jill: On the flip side of that, because the goal at this age is not necessarily to complete multiple levels of Latin, I can go as slow as I need to for my students to get it. I think what's important, the reason I chose the book we use, is the stories they get to learn. Our book covers age-appropriate versions of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and some of the myths. They are great launching points for traditional classical education. Who's the hero of the Iliad…and so on.
Morgan: And what is the idea of a hero? Bigger picture, high level thinking questions with no right or wrong answer.
How do you keep students engaged?
Jill: In class, every chapter has a culture element. After every test, we spend a couple of days on culture, so right now, we're doing Spartacus and Roman slavery. We analyze primary sources, compare scenes in a movie version that correspond to those, and then discuss.
Morgan: We do spoken Latin where the students will do a dialogue, something in their books, and then film themselves – like a short play. We also did a Latin comic. Some of their Latin is still kind of wonky; they just play with it.
Jill: I did a year-long architecture project. The class did a walking tour in Pasadena to identify different styles; then they had to design their own buildings. First two-dimensionally, then three-dimensionally incorporating classical elements. Students had to use neoclassical terminology. The project revealed the legacy of the culture in the world. I’ve taken eighth graders to the Getty Villa to translate the tombstones they have in the collection.
We also participate in the Southern California Junior Classical League. It's called SCRAM- Southern California Regional Anarchy Madness, which is an event for every kid in Southern California who takes Latin. It’s a day of celebrating. Plus, I think that it provides common ground - they're not alone in studying Latin. And it's kind of fun because they find their people, you know, it's not every kid that will take Latin, and the like-minded come to this and they find kindred spirits.
With that said, the grammar has to happen as well. I would say I teach grammar very traditionally. They have to know their English grammar before they can do their Latin grammar. Sometimes that means a refresher English grammar lesson – like I did one on apostrophes when we were learning Latin possessives. It works though, and the Latin students get that little extra reinforcement. They have to write stories using derivatives from each chapter as well. We hunt for derivatives in the dictionary, from root words from that chapter. And then they write. I might show a picture as food for thought or they can just go on their own. They have to use seven derivatives grammatically accurate and in context. Sometimes students write more; they get so into it. Great for boosting vocabulary.
Morgan: We got off on a tangent when we were doing the numbers. The difference between cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers, and what did the Romans do? They didn't have a zero. How did that work? What was that concept?
If you could bring in someone from history, who spoke Latin, to teach a class, who would you choose?
Jill: Oh, I think Cleopatra would be perfect. I know she would knock everyone's socks off because she knew Latin along with many other languages. Just the idea of this incredibly smart woman in an era when women weren’t generally taught. She just would blast us out of the water. She was smart and she was savvy. She would have an awesome lesson plan – How to conquer Rome without killing a soldier.
Morgan: Marcus Aurelius. I think he would talk to kids in a way that would be engaging and fun and just for the sheer fact that he was so interested in so many things. Just as we hope our students will be.
At the 2019 SCRAM event Mayfield Latin students particpated in multiple middle school level competitions taking first, second, or third place in Reading comprehension, Derivatives, Mythology and a special "Project Runway" classical costume creation.