Latin in Lexington: My Experience as an Aequora Site Coordinator
The Paideia Institute’s Elementary School Literacy Program Comes to the Bluegrass State
Bourbon, horses, and… Latin? Lexington, Kentucky, land of the bluegrass, affords not only the opportunity to enjoy picturesque, rustic landscapes, horses that are treated as heroes, and strong spirits, but also the opportunity to experience spoken Latin of the highest order. Cultivated and tenderly cared for by the esteemed University of Kentucky professors, Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova, the Institutum Studiis Latinis Provehendis, or the Institute for the Advancement of Latin Studies, along with the annually held summer Latin conventiculum, have marked Lexington, however surprising a place, as a hotbed of spoken Latin. Students in Lexington are able to interact with Latin as a living language not only at the university level, but also while in elementary and middle school. Working in tandem with the Paideia Institute, graduate students at the University of Kentucky such as myself lend their enthusiasm for speaking the ancient language to nearby elementary and middle schools which would not otherwise offer Latin class to their students. Such is the mission of Paideia’s Aequora program: to make Latin available to the youth who would otherwise be without it at school. We strive also to present Latin not as a puzzle, but as a living, relatable language which is fun to learn and interact with. Sometimes the students end up having a bit too much fun with Latin, but more to come about that later! Nonetheless, leading Aequora sites in Lexington has provided me with the rewarding and unique experience of introducing youngsters to the joys of Latin.
It was at the end of my first semester as a graduate student in Classics at the University of Kentucky when a colleague in my department asked if I would be interested in succeeding him as the site coordinator of Lexington Aequora after his imminent matriculation. Having been introduced to active Latin through Living Latin in Rome ’13, I was thrilled at the opportunity to further my involvement in the Paideia community which started me on my Latin journey some five years before. Moreover, I was excited at the opportunity to teach kids about Latin — something which I had not yet had the chance to do. Perhaps it was the prospect of their vast imaginations and wonderment at new topics. Perhaps it was the prospect of being granted respite from teaching angst-ridden undergraduates about the perfect passive system (but what fun is there to be had as an undergrad without a bit of angst?). Whatever it was, it was a chance for me to play a bigger part in the active Latin community by introducing some of the Lexington youth to Latin as a spoken language. I remember wondering what the kids would think when I told them that Latin can be and is spoken still by people today — something that I myself was awe-struck to learn shortly after I undertook my study of the language. I soon found out the answer.
One of my first major tasks as Site Coordinator in Lexington was to manage the foundation and implementation of a new Aequora site at St. Leo School. Situated among the relaxing, green pastures of the Lexington-area countryside, St. Leo School is a fairly small, Roman Catholic institution which offers a K-8 education to its students. Although the school holds the Catholic faith as one of the central tenets of its mission, students of all backgrounds and traditions of faith are encouraged to enroll. The principal of the school, Dr. Helena DiBiasie, had heard about Aequora from her daughter, a professor of Classics at the University of Mississippi, and was interested in starting up an Aequora program of her own. The plan was to hold the Aequora sessions once a week during the regular school day. The contingent of fifth and sixth graders of St. Leo School would break from their normally scheduled classes to partake in a 45 minute session of Latin. A few calls and e-mails later, the new site had been successfully formed. Arriving at St. Leo School for the first day of Latin class, I suddenly felt strangely nervous as my car came to a halt in the parking lot. “Why are you so nervous?” I thought. I had been teaching Latin 101 at the university for some time now, and I thought myself to not be a complete stranger to standing in front of the classroom. Looking back now, I think I was nervous at the perceived expectation of performance, for entertainment, from the kids I was about to meet for the first time. “What if they don’t laugh at your cheesy jokes? What if a bunch of kids never take Latin again and it will all be your fault?” Doesn’t our inner-voice always have the most pleasant things to say? I steeled myself and walked into the school. What I saw when I entered the classroom momentarily staggered me. Some twenty-odd uniformed students, sitting with hands folded neatly upon their desks, along with their teachers and principal, were all looking expectantly up at me. I gulped down a dry breath and let fly a hearty, “Salvete discipuli!” I proceeded to talk at them in Latin very briefly about who I was, where I come from, and what I was there to do. After I was done, they were all looking at me, as anyone would expect, as though I had antlers. I repeated myself in English and then asked the class if Latin was a dead language. One brave student at the front of class said that she thought it to be a dead language because nobody speaks it anymore. I feigned taking an arrow to the heart, and, staggering back, I heard the students erupt with laughter. I went on to attempt to convince my young audience of the vitality of the Latin language. In this moment, I gratefully borrowed Jason Pedicone’s “Latin as a living-dead language” theme from his commencement address at Living Latin in New York 2017. I asked the kids if they were familiar with the television show, “The Walking Dead.” As they are all far too young to watch such things, naturally every student said that they had seen the show. I likened Latin to the living-dead zombies of the show: it is dead insofar as it is a few thousand years old and not spoken by a politically-collected group of people, but it is living insofar as those of us who still care for it keep it so. In this way, my first day at St. Leo School was a successful one. The kids were now willing to consider Latin not strictly as a dead language, the language was made relevant to them, and I was able get a laugh out of a Latin class, an arduous task indeed.
Kids learn fast. I returned to the second session to be greeted by all the students: “Salve, Magister Schade!” I was impressed that they were able to retain the difference between singular and plural imperatives in their greeting of which I taught them the week before. It was now time to begin the Aequora curriculum, one which informs students of who the Romans were, the language they spoke, when and how their civilization was started, some of their customs, and of their myths and stories. One of my favorite aspects of the Paideia-issued Aequora curriculum is the provision of a short vocabulary list at the beginning of each unit, the memorization of which is enforced through seamless integration of the vocabulary in the subsequent lessons. For example, after learning about the Roman Empire in Unit 1, there was a fun activity for the students to complete which asked them to pretend that they were citizens of the Roman Empire who were stopped by Roman guards. These guards ask them questions such as, “Quid est nomen tibi?” or “Quid agis?” to which the students are asked to respond in Latin using the relevant vocabulary they learned at the start of the unit. The students were able to retain the vocabulary more effectively and efficiently through such activities than they would have, had they only studied flash cards or through mere repetition. I found out early that through activity and relevancy — two things which the Aequora curriculum provides much of — learning Latin for the students became relatively easy and enjoyable. In the first unit the students learned about the expanse of the Imperium Romanum, when it was started, and when it came to an end. In calculating how long the Roman Empire lasted, the students were shocked at our own country’s relative infancy. As we discussed the origins of Rome, the kids were able to see in their workbook an image of Romulus and Remus beneath their wolf mother. They were very perplexed at this image and could hardly wait to learn more about these mythical brothers and what in the world they were doing underneath that wolf. Before we were able to turn to a more profound discussion of that subject, we turned, in the following weeks, to the topic of Romance Languages and derivatives.
The Aequora classroom in my experience was diverse, with several students having the ability to speak Spanish, some even French. Many of the students were thrilled to hear that Spanish, the language their parents spoke at home, is derived from Latin. One student had family in France and was delighted at some of the similarities the French language shared with the one of Ancient Rome. The students were able to easily understand how the Romance Languages, Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Romanian derived from Latin. This made perfect sense to them after having been shown the close similarities between words like “bene” and “bien,” or “nomen” and “nombre.” However, the students of St. Leo School, bright and perceptive, asked, “Well, where does Latin come from?” Uh oh. Delving into a discussion of Proto-Indo-European hardly seemed appropriate for the setting. I attempted to explain to the students that Latin, along with Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, arose from PIE — and not the kind you get at Baker’s Square. I pulled up an image which delineated the languages which stem from Proto-Indo-European and tried to explain how PIE was a language created at a place called the Eurasian Steppe long ago. Such digressions, prompted by unexpected questions, inevitably lead into obscurity and the consequential glazing of the eyes of your young students. Being as creative and inquisitive as they are, they revealed to me the fine line and educator treads when complying with such a deviation: give too much information and knowledge is obscured, give not enough and a crucial connection for knowledge is missed. At any rate, teaching the students about English and Spanish derivatives not only will aid them in their standardized tests, but also served as a means to orient and unify the diverse classroom around the Latin language as a shared method of interaction.
In the weeks which followed, the students learned of how Latin is a highly inflected language, one which forms its meaning through morphological changes of its words and not through the syntactic order of words in a sentence, as is the case in English. After a thorough review of the notions of subject and direct object, the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Latin began to become clear to the students. To supplement these grammatically-focused lessons, I utilized the book Ecce Romani: A Latin Reading Course to get the students reading and translating. This activity was very much enjoyed by the students. They called the activity decoding, and they were quite adept at it. Seeing them breeze through a passage of Latin in their very first attempt to translate the language served as one of many occasions on which I was thoroughly amazed at the intellect of my precocious pupils. Witnessing their excitement as the meaning of each passing sentence revealed itself to them nourished my optimism as it pertains to the continuation of the Latin tradition in the generations to come.
Having learned some history, some grammar, and having done some good old fashioned translating, the culmination of the students’ time in Aequora was at hand, much to the apprehension, I must say, of myself and their classroom teachers. It was time for them to perform their skits about Romulus and Remus, the brothers about whom they were so desirous to learn more, and they were buzzing with excitement, brandishing yardsticks as swords, when I entered the classroom that day. I am pleased to say that performances of the groups who chose to accurately portray the unfortunate end of the defeated Remus were carried out safely, albeit enthusiastically. Other groups opted to perform an alternate, peaceful resolution to the story of the two brothers; such alternate histories resulted in Rome being called instead names such as Romuremusland and the like. When I asked the students what their favorite part of Latin class had been on their exit survey, almost unanimously they answered: the skits.
Such an answer comes to me as no surprise. Despite its being ancient, Latin is enjoyed most when it is brought closer to us. As is evinced by Paideia, by universities or other institutions which strive to increase the activity and relevancy of Latin, by our Aequora classrooms, bringing Latin closer is most easily achieved when we students of the language, ourselves, move closer together - when we form communities. Aequora is a community which, true to the definition of the Latin noun from which it gets its name, provides a level playing field for students of all backgrounds to behold the virtue and beauty to be found within the Latin language and to carry it with them as they become the citizens of tomorrow.