Latin Teacher Profile: Diana Beste

Allegra Forbes |

In this first installment of In Medias Res' new Latin teacher interview column, Diana Beste discusses her career at Choate Rosemary Hall, Latin mottos, and knowledge-based learning.

Diana Beste teaching Latin at Choate Rosemary Hall in 1984.

Tell us a bit about the school where you teach. What is it called, where is it located, and what type of school is it?

Choate Rosemary Hall is a coed boarding school in Wallingford, CT, just outside of New Haven. Our talented students come from all parts of the U.S., Europe, Asia and Africa. Because we are a residential school, the role of a faculty member extends beyond the classroom; over the years I’ve lived in various dormitories, advised our many day students, coached and run various programs on campus. Choate students interact regularly with the greater community of Wallingford, and because we are so close to Yale University, there are also great resources nearby for teaching and learning.

Are you the only Latin teacher at your school?

No. I have two wonderful colleagues, one of whom also teaches a popular senior English elective called “The Classical Tradition”.

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

Both Choate (formerly an all-boys’ school) and Rosemary Hall (a girls’ school) had Latin programs from the very beginning. Rosemary Hall’s motto was altiora peto (“I seek higher things”), and Choate’s was quaesivi bona tibi (“I have sought good (things) for you”). I always preferred altiora peto - the verb is present tense and I assume that the student is the subject; to me it sounds as if the goal of a Rosemary Hall education is the ongoing pursuit of excellence and lofty ideals. Our current motto is Fidelitas et Integritas–a nice one for our times, when as educators we attempt to infuse character-building into our daily conversations.

My favorite was a special anniversary motto, Vetus Tamen Iuvenesco in the early 90’s. “(I am) old, yet growing young”. I used this recently in a speech for a colleague who was celebrating her 25th year of teaching at Choate. I prefer to translate it as “Long standing yet I am growing young again”. I love what this says about a school, but also what it means for me as a seasoned educator. When I think about retirement, I realize that the rejuvenating effect of teaching and supporting young people has been a miraculous benefit.

How many students at your school take Latin every year?

Currently, Choate students choose from Latin, French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic to fulfill the diploma requirement. Out of 850 students, 95 students chose Latin.

That's a huge percentage!

We've seen a spike in enrollments in the past decade - I’m not sure why, but we are working with students with some previous middle school experience in Latin (locally and abroad) as well as the neophytes.

Does your school offer extracurricular or enrichment opportunities for students interested in the Classics, such as a Latin club, student travel, et cetera?

In recent years our Classics Club has been very active, due to strong leadership. Before Covid we participated in Teaching Literacy With Latin, which was successful mostly because we liaised with the Spanish Community of Wallingford. We've also had a long relationship with St. Stephen’s School in Rome, where we send students for a term abroad. For students who take our upper level Latin reading courses, there is an opportunity to create a kind of “classics concentration”, usually culminating in a Capstone project.

Does your school offer ancient Greek? And if not, is there student interest in having an Ancient Greek course?

When there is sufficient student interest we'll offer an intensive introductory course. The last time was in the 2019-2020 academic year when I taught four amazing students using the text Learn to Read Greek. We are thrilled that seven students have enrolled in Greek for this coming year!

Every year, Diana brings her Latin II class on a field trip to the Yale Center for British Art to find inspiration for a Latin composition assignment following Chapter 16 of Ørberg: "I like to encourage writing as much as possible, and since Chapter 16 “TEMPESTAS” lends itself well to images of the sea, I have the students choose an image in the collection and write not only a description, but also what they think the painter was trying to express."

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

My students think I'm peculiar because I started dreaming about teaching Latin when I was a teenager. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where I had an amazing Latin teacher. Mr. Kizner was scholarly, avuncular and expert at connecting with adolescents. He also knew how to use humor to ease the daily angst we experienced at this highly competitive all-girls school. Growing up in the ‘70’s, I heard it said that Latin was in decline, and my family tried vehemently to discourage me from majoring in Classics. “You’ll never earn a living!,” they insisted, so in college I spent more time learning modern languages and taking English and art history courses. My desire to teach Latin was relentless, however, so I applied to the MAT program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. On my first day of graduate school the late Ed Phinney, another great mentor, asked me to teach an Intermediate Latin course that semester. My first lesson was on the passive periphrastic. I recall spending hours preparing that lesson, but it was thrilling.

That was 1979, and I’ve taught Latin every year since. I’ve worked at two day schools, I’ve served three terms as Choate’s Language Department chair, and for several years I traveled the world recruiting students for Choate’s Admissions Office. I’ve even tried being an Upper School Principal in Greenwich, CT. I’ve been intentional, however, in dedicating the past ten years to teaching (and learning) full-time, as the classroom remains the place I love most.

That's amazing that you knew from so early on that this is what you wanted to do. We've touched on this already, but what pedagogical methods and theories inform the way you teach Latin? Do you ever incorporate the spoken approach?

As a disciple of Reginald Foster (Schola Aestiva ‘95), I try to make the classroom a challenging but fun place to learn, and whenever possible, speak to my students in Latin and encourage them to practice speaking, even if it’s just repetition, recitation or responses to questions. To the greatest extent possible, I want the kids to hear more Latin than English, and at all levels, I prioritize production, i.e. lots of written Latin on any topic that relates to what’s happening at school, in the world, or in my students’ lives. Often art is the springboard for such production. Ørberg's Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, our current textbook for levels I and II and part of III, has made those goals easier to achieve.

What I also learned from Reginaldus is the value of the Ludus, those elegantly wrought worksheets of his that combined literature, grammar, and composition, and were infused with his inimitable humor. I try to find time to create new Ludi as often as possible, and in the coming year, it will be fun to see if they are ChatGPT-proof!

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

Some students I teach are superstars from day one, and that’s fine. But what is most rewarding is seeing the progress the average student can make in Latin over time. When a student who has struggled with Latin in the early years suddenly blossoms in the fourth year literature survey course, I am elated. We occasionally see students who go on to major or minor in Classics in college and eventually teach Latin. In fact, my dearest colleague today was a student of mine in the early ‘90’s.

Although most Choate students are intellectually curious, the pressure they feel to earn stellar grades and “do it all” can be a constant obstacle for deep learning. When I arrived at Choate in 1983 I overheard a colleague calmly telling her students “Latin is the easiest thing in the world to learn if you work at it, but the hardest thing in the world to learn if you don’t.” In recent years, one of my greatest challenges is the need to train my students to be effective language learners. That process takes time, patience and even toil on their part–but the rewards are rich and permanent.

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

No one Latin or Greek text can do the job entirely on its own, so I’ve become fond of pairing when possible. As I mentioned, I like Learn to Read Greek by Stephanie Russell and Andrew Keller, and find it pairs well with the JACT Reading Greek text. For Latin, I supplement Ørberg with tons of reading material and exercises from Wheelock, Ecce Romani as well as readings I encounter from ongoing professional development.

As for authors, I love to teach whomever the students take delight in and can legitimately feel empowered reading. Tossing Catullus into the second year curriculum paves the way for an appreciation of meter, idiom and the persona the poet projects. This past spring I took Daniel Gallagher's Tweeting with Catullus Telepaideia course and learned so much about teaching from the way Daniel conducted our weekly meetings and his fabulous and funny Ludi. My goal this fall is to restore the pace and rigor of the literature survey course, which got hit hard by the disruptions of Covid. I’ve enjoyed introducing those students to Seneca, whose Epistulae Morales I read a few summers back with Jenny Teichmann (another great teacher of mine). Teenagers seem to easily understand the didactic voice of the Epistulae, and relate readily to what Seneca writes about time, the dangerous effects of the crowd, and what makes for a good life. I’d love to teach Virgil once more before I retire, and will continue to incorporate some of the newer authors I’ve read recently, notably in Marco Romani’s Telepaideia course on Americana Latine. If I had to name a favorite author, that would be Horace, though my students will likely not appreciate his artful wisdom until they are middle-aged.

How do you hope that studying Latin will positively impact your students' lives, academically and otherwise?

Well, to quote Reginaldus, “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity.” Lately the conversations in language teaching circles have prioritized developing effective (but not always refined) communication skills at the expense of internalizing content. I hope my students acquire a body of knowledge of the Classics and understand the nuances of language, so that there is a solid foundation upon which to build their later studies and lifelong appreciation for the Humanities. I don’t worry about the decline of the Classics as much as I do the decline in literacy, due in part to relaxed standards in secondary education across the U.S.

Where do you see the discipline in 20 years? And what's the future of Classics?

Throughout my life there’s been a doomsday aura around the Classics. And yet here we are, and the discipline has not only survived but is thriving on every continent on earth. VETUS TAMEN IUVENESCO! The Classicists I’ve met embrace change and adapt, demonstrating how the study of Latin and Greek remains relevant, especially in this era of STEM’s predominance in education. Organizations like Paideia, the numerous and excellent resources online, and the reach of the internet convince me that the future of Classics is bright.

The study of Latin continues to intrigue young people - this summer we have 14 students taking beginning Latin, 11 of whom are international students from as far away as Indonesia. Furthermore, Ørberg can be found on the other side of the world, printed in Chinese. Although I'm retiring from the brick and mortar classroom next spring, I'm confident there will be students to teach and, thanks to Paideia and other such organizations, there will be abundant opportunities for me to learn more. As Reginaldus would often close his correspondence, I say to the new generation of Classicists: “VALEBIS, VIGEBIS, FLOREBIS, RIDEBIS, GAUDEBIS!”

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Allegra Forbes

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

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