My first two weeks of teaching Latin at a middle school: a reflection

Mr. Jacob! Tall guy! Who are you? Are you replacing Mr. Mac?

These are just a handful of the many names I’ve been greeted with on the first day I came to help out as a teaching aid for Mr. Mac’s 7th-grade Latin class. And for the record, I am not replacing Mr. Mac.

A single step into the classroom and you’ll see Pompeian election campaign posters plastered all around the walls promising both patronage and candy, 3d models of Roman villas made of cardboard and egg cartons, and even an old model vinegar-baking soda model of Mt. Vesuvius atop one of the filing cabinets. It’s clear from the get-go that Mr. Mac teaches through project-based learning – his first and foremost goal is to engage his students.

The first week I came, students were working on their Roman villa floorplans in Minecraft, preparing for the house tours they would give later that week. I answered questions here and there about grammar questions but mostly I was scouting out how I could help. There was one time I tried to teach a student what the ablative case was in the word’s context in the sentence he was reading, and to my surprise, Mr. Mac told me to stop what I was doing immediately – grammar paradigms were for later. For now, comprehension was the priority.

This was part of his ongoing efforts to diverge from the grammar-translation Cambridge Latin Course lessons and focus more on a comprehensible input approach, a shift that hopefully will make it easier for students to read Latin, not translate it.

The second week was when Mr. Mac gave me the chance to plan and teach a couple of short lessons that would take up the first 10-20 minutes of class, and it went better than I thought it would:

Without displaying any text on the board, I read aloud a simple story I had written in Latin about Cerberus, noting the desires of many students to learn about mythology. This way, I was speaking directly to the students in spoken Latin, alternating between sentences like “Cerberus est canis” and “quis est canis?” to gauge understanding as I introduced concept after concept. When we got to unfamiliar words like “parvus”, I used hand gestures to indicate that it was an antonym of “magnus”, which they already knew. The best part of teaching this lesson was that some students I knew to be typically distracted on their laptops looked up and asked questions and displayed genuine efforts to pronounce the words right.

Since self-expression is a valuable form of communication that Latin curriculums typically don’t include, I designed the next lesson to gently encourage students to start conveying their feelings in Latin with a simple “quomodo habes?” activity. I listed emotions like “bene, pessime/optime me habeo, satis bene, etc.” with their English equivalents on the board, going around and giving each student a chance to answer. The activity served as a primer for the next activity, which was slightly more complex, in which the students arranged themselves from least to greatest by birth month. Again, I showed the ordinal numbers with their Latin translations on the board, which students had to use to know who to go behind or in front of (English was forbidden!).

Though I sometimes lost the students by tripping over my words and going too fast or forgetting how rambunctious middle schoolers can get, I think the main strength of these lessons was that eventually, the students forgot that they were learning Latin because the goal became communication. Stephen Krashen believed that this “forgetting the language” was a crucial part of becoming a fluent communicator. I’m excited to see to what degree I can keep fostering this “forgettance” throughout the year, hopefully by creating an environment where students are comfortable with making mistakes toward the greater goal of speaking what’s on their minds.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *