In Latin, students bring an ancient language to life through collaborative learning and historical engagement.
Salvete! (Hello!) In Latin 1, students have been learning the basics of how to read, write, and even speak in the language of the ancient Romans. To do this, students have had to engage both their analytical and creative powers: not only have they been learning a new system of communication; they've had to build, through imagination, a context in which this system can exist. Studying a 'dead' language means first bringing it to life: understanding it as more than a set of symbols and sounds governed by particular rules, but as a product (and a tool) of human life.
One way they've brought this language to life—given it a human context in which to exist and take on meaning—is through their own oral communication with one another in the classroom. Teaching students to speak and listen in a dead language is unusual; Latin classes at most schools just focus on reading ability. In our class, students speak Latin out loud in almost every class. Sometimes we have conversations with one another (“Hello, what's your name? How are you today?” etc.); we pronounce new vocabulary out loud; and we review and practice noun declensions and verb conjugations by reciting them part by part as we throw around the seminar table one of Proof School's “rock pillows” (if you catch the pillow, you say the next part of the grammar system we're practicing), an activity that very well might be the first ever academic pillow fight. In all these activities, students practice listening to each other and working as a team, and they begin to understand language (all language) as a raw material for making and re-making meaning together with other people.
Another way in which students bring Latin to life in the classroom is by imagining the people who spoke it on a daily basis back in ancient times. Students this block got a chance to decipher Latin graffiti from Pompeii—images of real Latin scrawled, complete with small drawings and even cross-outs, on stone walls and preserved there for thousands of years. This graffiti gives us insight into aspects of daily life in ancient Italy and also reminds us that Latin was once a living language with variations of spelling and pronunciation and with speakers of varying literacy levels. After reading some of these scripta in parietibus (“writings on walls”), the students drew some Latin graffiti of their own...well, on paper, which we hope to post on walls around the school.
Furthermore, for one week each block, the Latin students of all levels come together to read a longer Latin text in translation and talk about the history and culture of Ancient Rome. This block we read selections from the Roman historian Livy, who wrote a history of his own people at the end of the first century B.C.E. after a series of bloody civil wars and at a moment of great political turmoil and transition. We read sections documenting the founding of Rome and the creation of its first systems of government and religion. We looked at a map of the Forum (the center of political and religious life in Rome) and talked about Roman religion and its intimate connection to political power, bringing up modern-day issues of secularist vs. religious governments. We talked about Livy's notion of history and its purpose (as he describes it) and about his tendency to relate multiple and contradictory stories without stating which he thinks is true.
In all of this, we worked on the fundamental skills of close reading and writing, and we considered what to do when confronted with a culture different from our own—with its own, very different understandings of things like gender, religious worship, and statehood. We practiced setting aside our own assumptions about the world in order to explore a different world view. This sort of cross-cultural investigation, through historical or literary texts, helps students to come to understand their own views about the world as just that—points of view, which are created by and through language, whether it's a language of ancient peoples from thousands of years ago or our own language today.