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Teaching Latin: A Glimpse into my Classroom

When you teach Latin (and tell people about it), you generally get two reactions:
1. That’s AWESOME!
2. What… ??
If you want to jump around this long article, it’s basically in two parts:
So, since our school requires Latin, we have two groups that we’re constantly trying to coax aboard the boat: Parents and Students. My school’s Latin II syllabus does a pretty good job speaking to parental concerns, so check that out if you’re looking for the arguments for the adults.

Making Latin Fun

Convincing the students generally falls on the shoulders of the teacher, but I think it’s an easier job as you have about a month to do so at the beginning of the year before they really sign you off as uninteresting, boring, or useless. It’s not impossible to get them back after that first month, but it does take a bit longer than if you have a plan in place to haul them aboard from the beginning. It can be a tough sell to a 13-year-old who thinks he will go pro in the NFL or become a video-game designer that Latin will help him so much in studying Law and Medicine (even though a lot more of those students become lawyers and doctors than pro-football players or video-game designers). At any rate, because Latin is required, they’re all in my classroom on day one no matter what.
That brings with it its own host of problems. We all know from experience that anything we’re coerced to do is immediately less attractive than anything we choose ourselves. This is true of books we’re forced to read in Literature and History and courses we’re required to take (as many kids as hate Latin hate Math). So, one aspect of my job as the Latin teacher is to help my students understand two things:
1. Learning can be fun (even something you think you don’t want to learn)
2. Latin is good
I have read very little on gamification, but I found this article to be a helpful introduction and I’ve played many games in my life. If you’re annoyed by the buzzword, then just substitute some other word like, “Making Latin Fun” or “Engaging My Students” or something. I’m not a fan of buzzwords either, though I like that gamification covers a range of concepts neatly in one word. I encourage my students all the time with many analogies and lessons taken from the sports field, and the Greeks are generally blamed for making sport a front-and-center obsession in the West. We US Americans are not the first culture to idolize our sports heroes. So it’s helpful when some of the things we love most about games bleed over into other aspects of our lives. The four I’d like to focus on are:
1. Cooperation
2. Independence
3. Mastery
4. Purpose
Many games are played on teams [Cooperation], but the individual [Autonomy] must work to bring his particular strengths [Mastery] to that team for the overall goal of winning [Purpose]. This analogy helps me in many ways structure my Latin period and engage the attention of my students to the task at hand, every day.

Teaching Cooperation

My students who have me more than one year in a row still remember my number one rule: Cooperate with others, compete with yourself. I think we often over-emphasize the competitiveness of nature and the economic model we live it without giving due notice to the cooperation that makes it all possible. Even something like driving to work can’t be about competition, at its most extreme, that competition would cause more accidents, not fewer.

Knowledge is a particularly important arena in which to acknowledge this. With the exception of patenting intellectual property or important state secrets, no one loses anything by sharing what he knows with another. Put another way, knowledge is not a zero-sum game—that is, I don’t have less because I gave you some. It reminds me of the famous Plutarch quotation that holds a prominent place on this blog:

The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.

 If the mind is to be ignited, I don’t lose any of my own fire in sharing. The only way I do lose out, is if I try to make someone else’s fire warm me for my whole life. So, no only should we share our fire, but we should zealously try to make others’ fires our own. Pass that torch!
Keep the flame of teaching Latin alive

Teaching Independence

I tell my students often enough—no one can learn this for you. It seems strange coming on the heels of cooperation, but that’s exactly the point. We can’t cooperate with shiftless loafs who contribute nothing of themselves. My dad always defined an adult as someone who “could take care of himself and was willing and able to take care of others.” If I were teaching adults only, I’d probably put independence first and cooperation second, but middle school boys are so insecure that they need to practice cooperation first (rather than tearing one another down) and then learn real independence and confidence.   Teaching, as Plutarch says above, is not the act of inserting knowledge into the brain. If it’s anything, it seems to involve the presentation of knowledge in a way that can be more easily ascertained by the student. What the student ascertains or comprehends, though, is much more a decision of the student than it is of the teacher.

So learning doesn’t require a teacher, only a learner. It’s important to help all my students realize this as early as they can in the year. One of the best ways to do this is to create transparency in the grading system. That said, I tell them everything that goes into their grade at any time, and they can get a print-out of all their scores at any time in the quarter from me.

Another helpful aspect of this is that my school does not use a Learning Management System that allows parents to see the grades before our students do. This emphasize autonomy and personal responsibility with our students. Your grade is your grade, not your parents’. No, it is not your Mom’s job to yell at you and then you start to take Latin more seriously. Rather, you should have a personal connection with me where you can come talk to me about your grade, what you don’t understand, and how to work to improve your understanding. If you don’t, I’ll reach out to you several times first, and only after having done that with little or no success will I partner with your parents to find the motivation. Ultimately, though, we’re training you to take responsibility for your own actions and all their natural consequences.

Teaching Mastery

While every discipline brings with it just that—discipline, we don’t study most things with that end in mind. “Let me do some more math because it’s going to increase my discipline-points!” said no one ever. Rather, we study a particular craft, discipline, or skill in hopes of achieving mastery—that level of achievement where the mechanics of the art are in our muscle memory and we can focus on what we can produce or understand by means of this newly acquired art or skill. Even virtue is a habit in this way. You live the habits of virtue to promote your own happiness and the flourishing of those around you, not to increase in more virtue (although both often happen hand-in-hand).

Victory for those teaching and learning Latin

So, I encourage my students to master the grammar of Latin—not because it will help them on their SATs (though it will), not because it will augment their understanding of their native grammar, and not even because it will increase their ability to focus and discipline themselves in the study of something arduous or difficult. It will do all these things, but they’re not the purpose of the study. Rather, the purpose of the study is to gain access to the men, their poetry and prose, and ultimately their ideas in a way that doesn’t have to be translated. As Pope John XXIII argued, we teach Latin to give our students direct access (as direct as we can) to the Veterum Sapientia, the Wisdom of the Ancients (English translation at this link). I will eventually write a post on just this document, and the fruits that John XXIII argues exist in the study of Latin and other ancient languages like Hebrew and Greek.

Will all the boys achieve mastery and read Cicero and Vergil before they leave our school? No, but that doesn’t mean we can’t begin with that end in mind. Not everyone who starts a marathon finishes it, but getting as far as he can teaches each runner a lot about himself, and is still worth it in the end. Failure is always better than not starting.

Teaching Purpose

And this mastery ties into purpose pretty easily. If I can get most of the boys excited about what Latin is capable of expressing to them—opening up a world outside of 20th century America and freeing them of the logical fallacies of chronological snobbery or progressivism. This myopia is primarily cured by looking at the world through the lens of other cultures: wrestling with St. Thomas to understand him on his own terms and in his own words; seeing the heroic virtue of Aeneas or Cicero while also admitting their flaws; comparing Jerome’s Vulgate with their English translations of the Bible.

My students know that I’m not willing to accept anyone failing at Latin unless he chooses to do so. He can choose to do so by sitting on the sidelines of my gamified classroom, described below. No one is forced to play, but most students want to by the end of the year.

Teaching Latin

A Peek Into My Classroom

I break my daily class (45 mins.) into three roughly equal sections:

1. Quiz
2. Silent Work
3. Translation


During the quiz section, they’re quizzed—grammar, vocabulary, or translation—on something they already know. They must bring their own loose-leaf and pens, and if they come unprepared, they fail the quiz that day. All quizzes can be made up until the end of the quarter, as long as the original grade was a C- or lower. A grammar quiz early on would simply be declining a noun. By the end of the year, it is as complex as a full verb synopsis. They know not only the kind of grammar that will be quizzes, but usually the noun, verb, or noun-adjective combination I will be expecting of them. 
For vocabulary quizzes, I ask no more than five words, they must give me the entire lexical form, and I never test them on more than fifteen words at a time (at the beginning of the year, they study 7 words each time until they’re more comfortable with the patterns). 


They submit their quizzes alphabetically (and silently) and I immediately begin to grade them while they work on a translation assignment of about 5-7 lines. This is open book work, but silent and individual. It generally takes me about 10-13 minutes to grade the quizzes and input the grade in the book, and then we go over the common mistakes on this quiz and move into the Translation work for the day. 


Here we have the most fun, though honestly a lot of the kids thrive just knowing that this will be the structure every day and that they’re not expected to pay attention to the teacher for the full 45-minute period with no break in a long, boring lecture. At any rate, I have all the students’ names on notecards and I randomly select their names from the pile. They are then required to read after me and translate (usually a clause, though by the end of the year half of them can handle full compound or complex sentences without fear). They are given a grade on this assignment as well, out of 5.
To encourage active participation of the other students while this student is “on the spot” I have a stuffed animal (this year it was an owl we christened, Bubo, which is Latin for owl) that I can throw around to volunteers who can help the student with things he has missed or things he has admitted he does not know. The volunteers have no risk of losing points, they can only earn +1. If a student gives a perfect translation when called upon, and helps a few times that day, he can easily end the class with 7 out of 5 points. Additionally, on some days we don’t get through all 20 students for random translation, so those students who bravely volunteered and earned the “+1” but we’re never called on for a full translation end the day with a 5 (a +2 would end the day with a 6, a +3 with a 7, etc…). 
A sidenote on the owl or throwable object. It needs to be soft enough that it won’t (really) hurt anyone, but heavy enough that you can easily throw it to the back of the classroom. Beanie Babies work particularly well for this, and our owl this year flew through many hands during two daily periods of Latin and one of Greek. Here are before and after shots for comparison. You’ll need to buy a new throwable object about once a year.
Teaching Latin with Stuffed Animals
Brand New Bubo (he’s called γλαὐξ in my Greek classroom)

This is a great way to gamify the class, use competition, prevent finding translations on the internet at home (or copying each other’s translations), keep engagement high day after day, and ensure that every student succeeds in this required class. In other words, I’ve found it to be a great way of teaching Latin. I also teach History, Greek, and English, and my highest averages by far are in my Latin class because the vast majority of the grade comes from quizzes that are repetitive (they’ll be quizzed on a first declension noun over twenty times in their first year) and knowable. They’re never without help for translations (my help and the help of the more confident students), so they can’t as easily give up and decide they’re “just bad at Latin,” and finally, it’s a really fun system!

The downsides of teaching Latin (for the stuffed animals)
Bubo, much worse for wear…

So, sound off in the comments. What do you do in your classroom? I’d love to hear it and add to my own ideas. I’ve learned quite a few games from the spoken Latin groups that are proliferating online. I should post my own views on that sometime, as well, but I’m excited to see what they are bringing into the classroom as well.

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