Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Forging a Centurion, Part V

So what does a young man who has just graduated with a B.A. in Classical Studies and gotten married do next?  Go teach Latin in the inner-city!  My wife, also a soon-to-be Latin teacher, and I had applied in several different school districts, but one in particular showed promise, the Kansas City Missouri School District, and the reason was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Latin Grammar Magnet Middle School.  Now an elementary school, King was part of KCMSD's magnet program to fight segregation.  It had two Latin teachers in each of grades 6-8, and two Latin resource teachers as well.  Our first thought was that this was heaven on earth.  Eight Latin teachers in one school!  A public school where students wore uniforms and were required to take Latin!  Classical culture infused throughout the curriculum!

We soon learned that this was not Elysium, but then again, it was not Tartarus, either.  We worked with many wonderful colleagues and learned the true craft of teaching, something that cannot be learned in education courses or even while student teaching.  Our school was at 42nd and Indiana, just inside the 43rd Street gang zone that belonged to the Crips.  While we taught there, I teaching 8th grade Latin and my wife teaching 7th, we learned about the Crips and Bloods and gang life in general.  We discovered that the year before we arrived, there had been a gang lynching one block from our school and the body had still been hanging from the tree as the school buses full of children arrived at school.  One of my own more disturbed students was eventually withdrawn from the school after being arrested for armed robbery the night before.  Remember, I was teaching 8th grade.  One of my students took off the tie from his uniform, lassoed another student with it, and began dragging him across the floor while shouting, "Come on, dog!"  The mother of one of my students showed up for a parent conference wearing a pink leather mini-skirt and bustier, complete with bunny ears on her head.  Another showed up at the school with a belt and chased her son around the second floor in an effort to deal out punishment.

As I say, we learned a lot while we were there.  I learned just how much I love children.  I learned how to control a classroom while attempting to deliver instruction.  I learned the deep truth of the French essayist Montaigne when he wrote, "It is the achievement of a lofty and very strong soul to know how to come down to a childish gait and guide it.  I walk more firmly and surely uphill than down."  (Of the Education of Children)

I also began to develop more fully my beliefs about Latin instruction.  We used a book called Cambridge Latin Course, which remains a popular textbook today.  Pedagogically speaking, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the books I had in high school, Latin for Americans and Our Latin Heritage, and from the approach taken by the professors at Indiana University.  In short, the Cambridge series presents stories on the assumption that students will pick up the grammar as they go.  The books and instructors I had present the grammatical foundations of the language first, building up to more interesting stories.  I began to be convinced, and remain convinced to this day, that two students who start out with each approach and complete an undergraduate degree in Classics will end up in about the same place.  Most students, however, do not complete such a degree, and by the end of high school, the two students from the two different methods will be about as far apart as they could be.  In the end, a great many students will not go on to read Latin fluently, but the student who has been trained in the grammatical foundations will have a structure by which he can learn well not only other languages, but any other subject.

After two years of teaching at King, my wife and I decided to make the move to graduate school.  I remember a defining conversation about this decision taking place at the Pizza Hut near where we lived.  My first act was to contact my good friend and former Greek professor, Dr. Tim Long, at IU.  He gave me a list of the best graduate schools for Classical studies, and then drew a line, separating the top notch ones from those that were good and would hold almost guaranteed admission for me.  I applied to several and visited the University of Illinois, where I would have had a teaching position immediately as part of my financial aid package.  I had looked at The University of Texas, which was above the line on Dr. Long's list, but had decided not to apply.  After going out to a movie with a colleague from King who had gone to U.T. for her graduate work, she convinced me that, based on my G.R.E. scores, I would be guaranteed financial aid.  On a whim, I applied, and was accepted.

The next chapter in this story takes us to Texas, but I shall never forget the lessons I learned teaching inner-city middle school Latin my first years out of college.  Whatever ability I have to relate to students and present material in a way they can understand was forged in that crucible.


  1. I would love to hear more about why you prefer the grammar/translation method over the reading method. I have been successful with emphasizing the grammar, but have begun to be swayed by the arguments of the reading method. I am very interested in hearing a strong proponent of the grammar method, especially from one who obviously loves the language as you do, and who reads it well.

    Also, If you could use whichever text you wanted to teach Latin, what would you choose?

    Thank you very much,

  2. Nadine, thanks for dropping by. Let me begin by saying that both methods have their strengths and weaknesses. I favor the grammar/translation method, however, for several reasons.

    As you note, I do love the Latin language, and there are aspects of its beauty and power that can only fully be appreciated by understanding the grammar. Consider the glories of a periodic sentence as constructed by Cicero, think of the poetic depth in Vergil. One can certainly read them and gain glean meaning without fully grasping the grammatical, poetic, and rhetorical pyrotechnics, as I am sure many less-literate, original hearers did. Yet there is so much more to appreciate when one does grasp these aspects.

    In addition to the pleasure that comes from this deeper engagement with the linguistic aspects of Classical authors, there is the further benefit in increased ability to read, write, and speak elegant, powerful, and persuasive English. I have watched student writing improve in depth of content and elegance of style as it has displayed more latinate qualities clearly derived from the student's deep engagement with Latin authors.

    As for the role of translation, let me refer you to my article on the matter: http://stevenrperkins.com/Articles/Depth%20and%20Charm%20of%20Latin%20Translation.pdf.

    Finally, I have taught from the Ecce Romani series, the Cambridge series, and the Latin For Americans series. Again, they all have strengths and weaknesses. While it is far from perfect, I have taught from LFA the most, and at least among these three, prefer it. I do like Wheelock combined with a reader, such as 38 Latin Stories by Groton & May, but that is probably best for an undergraduate class or independent study.

    Hope this helps!

  3. Thank you. I have learned from Henle, and have been teaching from it as well. One small homeschooling class was having troubles with it, so after much research I switched them to Lingua Latina by Oerberg. Then I spent the next 4 months on an extremely steep learning curve, realizing that I didn't just change texts, I changed entire philosophies. It's been a little consuming.

    The students prefer Oerberg. I prefer Henle. If we stick with Oerberg, which we might, due to their preference, I am going to attempt to teach it in more of a Henle style, with far more emphasis on the grammar.

    But, I was thinking this is because I am a beginner, and am inexperienced. I am terribly relieved to find very experienced people who prefer to be heavy on the grammar.

    Do you speak Latin much in class, or is class entirely in English?

  4. I have recommended Henle to homeschooling friends of ours. Henle's grammar book is excellent, for simply, well-organized, quick reference.

    We do speak some, but never as a graded exercise or a major part of the class. We great each other with "Salve" and "quid agis hodie?", but not much more in first year. In the upper levels I sometimes (emphasize "sometimes") speak more in Latin during warm-up activities or when discussing a text, but always with reference to a particular text. Most of the time, however, we are discussing literature in English.

  5. I posted a thank you, but it disappeared.

    Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to help a neophyte. I am having such fun learning this language, and am eagerly preparing for being able to read the ancient literature.

    My students have agreed to move back to Henle, saying that while they found Oerberg's text to be more entertaining, they felt they learned more with Henle. This could be primarily because their instructor is more comfortable with that text, but I'm okay with that.

  6. Fiddlemom...you are more than welcome! My wife, also a Latin teacher and former assistant principal and headmaster, currently homeschools our children. Feel free to email me directly at steve@romanpersonas.com anytime you have questions. Latin teachers are a friendly bunch who love to help each other!