Making Latin Fun
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A Peek Into My Classroom
I break my daily class (45 mins.) into three roughly equal sections:
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!
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.