Latin Teacher Profile: Brian Gross

In Medias Res |

Brian Gross joins our Latin teacher interview column and discusses his career at Cathedral High School, language learning AI, and how active Latin pedagogy serves students with language-based learning disabilities.

Brian and his students at the Vatican Museums during his school's 2023 January Term in Rome.

Tell us a little bit about the school where you teach Latin.

I teach Latin at Cathedral High School, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis, IN.

Are you the only Latin teacher at your school?

No, luckily I am joined by two amazing colleagues, John Streiff and Lainey Adams. They have so many complementary skills and areas of passion that make me a better teacher.

To your knowledge, how long has your school had a Latin program?

Great question. The school is 105 years old, and as far back in the records as I can see, we have offered Latin.

Roughly, how many students at your school take Latin every year?

Of our 1200 students, roughly 200 students take Latin. We also have Spanish, French, German, and ASL as language options.

Does your school offer extracurricular or enrichment opportunities for students interested in Classics?

We are part of the Indiana Junior Classical League, the Latin and Greek club for Indiana. In addition, we also offer student travel to Rome every other year during our two-week January term.

Does your school offer Ancient Greek in any capacity? If not, is there student interest in Ancient Greek?

My colleague John Streiff has long been an Ancient Greek enthusiast. I took two years in college and can muddle through the New Testament with minimal success! John has offered classes as independent studies for those students who want to learn Ancient Greek, especially those who are considering majoring in Classics in college.

What has your career path looked like? How did you become a Latin teacher?

I definitely had an interesting journey. While I majored in the Classics and English at Butler University, I never really considered getting into education. I toyed with the idea of applying to grad school at the time of graduation. I was very interested in Roman novels and Apuleius, but nothing called out to me. I spent the next year working for a property management company while tutoring Latin on the side for a few students I picked up at the high school level. At the end of one tutoring session, a student let me know that his teacher had quit mid year and claimed they were canceling the Latin program at his school. Like most news delivered by a teenager, there were a few missing facts–but I still applied for the job that very night.

There was something about the idea of a program ending that just felt tragic to me. And I felt like, after enjoying Latin in high school and college, I was indebted. I owed it to the students, and to Latin more broadly. I ended up starting full-time the following year.

The most amazing part is that I teach in a program specifically for students with language-based learning disabilities. (Commonly, but not exclusively, dyslexia.) I have long said that if I wasn't working with this population, I would have left education years ago. But this was an opportunity to work with students who aren't naturally strong with learning second languages. Many of them have been exempted from language classes since their middle school years because their schools assumed it would be too hard for them.

For these students, learning Latin is a gateway to understanding English vocabulary, grammar, and really just the nature of written and spoken languages. Working with this population forces me to think critically about what I teach and how I teach it, and to take nothing for granted. Being involved with this program has fundamentally shifted my view on why we learn Latin.

What pedagogical methods and theories inform the way you teach Latin? Do you ever incorporate an active/spoken approach?

I am a firm believer that every teacher teaches the way they were taught until they learn otherwise. How could it be any other way? So when I started teaching in 2013, I taught the way I was taught. Grammar-based, kill and drill, cranking out paradigms until students memorized every verb and noun form. But the problem, as we know now, is that they won't really learn how to read or understand Latin this way. And I was realizing that I didn't really know how to read or understand Latin either. That's because I had learned it as an artifact, not as a language. The way I conceptualize it, it's like studying every single kind of butterfly pinned on a cork board, but never once seeing one out in the wild. Sure, you know all about butterflies, but you're missing a very big part.

So I knew I had to get better, and I had to learn how to read Latin as a language, not just translate it. Our program switched from Latin for Americans to Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata. I was blessed that my colleague John Streiff was in a similar position and also wanted to improve. We jumped in on everything, including the Living Latin in New York City conference. We forced ourselves to use spoken Latin regularly in the classroom to create more input for our students, and we read the latest literature on how to use new methods in the classroom.

The shift happened slowly and then all at once. Reading got easier, not just for me but for my students as well. Vocabulary was imbued with meaning as authentic representations of the thing itself, grammar was picked up through natural repetition and only taught explicitly as necessary. I stopped feeling like a fraud, which is something I know many teachers struggle with. But the way out of that isn't hiding your deficiencies but embracing them and deciding to improve.

Now I'm at the most exciting stage of my job, where I try to think of ways to make my classroom look less like a classroom and more like an authentic language experience. Most of my quizzes are reading or spoken comprehension exercises with ridiculous premises, like I am a patient who only speaks Latin trying to tell a medical intern (the student) what's hurting, or I'm a lost tourist asking for directions on a map. Sure, these are not ways that students will ever encounter Latin in their lives, but it's crucial for their learning to treat it like a “real” language, because it is and because that's the way our brains are programmed to learn. Anything else is an artifact.

Brian and his students visiting the Dying Gaul at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? What is the most challenging aspect?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is the creation of language with the students. Times when a student will create content that I would never have imagined, or ask a question about something I had never considered. That's cool. That can only happen in this unique situation, with this unique individual learning this unique language. It can't be replicated.

The most challenging part of the job is always going to be the menial tasks around it that make up the job itself. Grading homework, emailing parents, dealing with discipline. Those things are the nature of being a high school teacher but also feel so insignificant compared to the fun parts. Having to start with a new group of students every year, getting the buy-in, convincing them: it's worth the work, trust me, we get to have fun with this.

Which texts and authors do you enjoy teaching the most, and why?

So I predominantly teach the Latin I and II levels, though I co-teach Latin IV with my colleague Laine Adams. In Latin I and II we don't venture too far outside of Lingua Latina, except for reading Pugio Bruti. But in Latin IV, we loosely follow the AP curriculum of Caesar and Virgil.

The Aeneid holds a special place in my heart; it's what got me excited about the classics when I was in high school. Teaching the Aeneid opens so many doors to so many important conversations. Of course you have to talk about the Trojan war, Rome's own civil war, the collapse of the Republic, the rise of the principate, imperialism and colonialism, the relationships of fathers and sons, of mankind and the divine, of what it means to carry on after tragedy and loss. Nihil novum sub sole. There's so much of what it means to be human in that text.

We also teach Caesar's De Bello Gallico. I was blessed to attend Paideia's Caesar in Gaul travel course, I believe in 2015, in which we explored the text in depth with accompanying site visits around France. It was a life changing experience, and one I try to impart up on my students. Caesar’s Latin is just so accessible in so many ways, and then sometimes it can hide something amazing.

What is your favorite Latin textbook?

For teaching, I've enjoyed Lingua Latina over the last five years. There's something devastatingly campy about it, where it feels like it's an episode of the Brady Bunch. There are hilarious and ridiculous comics I've seen on Reddit in the last few years, written in pretty darn good Latin, that are spin-offs of the story line. But it generally does a good job introducing the students to the world and the tangible things they would encounter–family, nature, daily lives–that even in the freshman year can foster healthy discussions.

For myself, I prefer Wheelock. In the summer of my sophomore year of college, realizing I had a lot of work to do when it came to Latin grammar, I picked up a copy of Wheelock and opened it up, refusing to turn the page until I was confident I understood everything I read. If I didn't, I would go back and reread. That system worked great until the chapter about the supine, which I confidently believe to this day no one truly understands. I mean come on, a verbal abstract? Now we're just talking crazy talk. But it worked for me, and I did master the forms well enough to set the foundation so that when I really learned the language later, I was ready.

How do you hope that studying Latin will positively impact your students’ lives?

I want them to understand that hard work and dedication, when given time, can overcome all things. I want the experience of learning Latin to break down narratives they have formed about themselves, and for them to discover that they are good at school and language learning. I hope they look back on our class as a pleasant time when they were allowed to be kids, that the stakes were low, that they could try and fail and try again, and that this happy time of their youth can buoy them during tough times. And I want them to think of Latin as a legacy that they carry on regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, that this is part of their heritage.

Where do you see the discipline in 20 years? What’s the future of the Classics?

This is such a great question and one I've been considering constantly, especially with the rise of large language models like Chat GPT. This year I'm starting my first year as an educational technology coach, so I've been more plugged in than most with the ways AI is changing language learning. Truth be told, I can't imagine 5-7 years out at this point.

For language learning, I think there's going to be a revolution in personalized learning that never really manifested in the Google era. I can only imagine a platform like Duolingo with AI capabilities, tracking exactly what words and grammar students understand, creating personalized content like stories on the fly to meet their interests–even videos, games, learning resources, the types of things a teacher would make if they had all the time in the world–immediate access to the entire corpus of literature, and the ability to focus on one individual child. All I can say is that it is going to move very, very quickly, because educational technology companies are technology companies with big investors. The only difference is they already have a foothold in most school districts and already have access to reams of student data.

We are already living in a time where people are desperately seeking meaning from so many different avenues, and I personally believe that the doorway to the humanities, which Latin and Greek open up, is better than most. As we continue to crash into the world of human-like intelligence with AI, it's going to be more important than ever for us to have a conceptualization of what it means to be human.

Why should high school students today study Latin?

Latin offers us 2700 years of culture to explore and new avenues of understanding that are unlocked through the language. Heck, we even get to understand our own language, English, to a much greater degree! Latin also informs our understanding of our legal system, medicine, and the natural world. I've always proposed Latin as a class on why the world is the way it is. If you don't like the way the world is, great, take Latin and understand better how to change it. And if you like the way the world is, great, you now have access to many of the ideas that underpin it. I think that's cool.

In Medias Res

In Medias Res is the online magazine for lovers of Latin and Greek, published by the Paideia Institute.


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