Grammar-Translation? I'm Your Man!
In high school, I learned Latin the grammar translation way from the good ol' Jenny book. Let me say, I absolutely loved it. I am all about grammar, and the 4%er in me absolutely LOVES parsing words. I truly enjoyed declining nouns and conjugating verbs. In school, I could not get enough of diagramming sentences and of creating sentence trees. Like most Latin students at that time, I learned all of the necessary grammar in two years and then immediately transitioned to translating Caesar and other classical authors in Latin 3 so that we could translate Vergil in Latin 4. I loved translating and quite honestly, that is what I thought Latin was. I was always told "Latin is not a dead language, but a read language," but in hindsight, I was never doing any real "reading" but "decoding".
In my undergrad years at UCLA as a Classics major (which came after I realized that I did not want to major in sports medicine any longer), I continued seeing Latin as a grammar-translation language, as in class, all of us students would take turns translating aloud Latin sentences into English, and all of the discussions would take place in English. But why should classes not be conducted this way if this is how most Classics departments view and treat Latin?
While pursuing my Master's degree in Latin at UGA, I had the opportunity to teach Wheelock's Latin as a teaching assistant. Wheelock's Latin definitely employs the grammar-translation method, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Following graduation from UGA, I taught for two years at a private school, which used Ecce Romani, a reading methodology textbook. I never felt like I had a handle on it, because the pedagogical approach was so foreign to me.
In 1999, I began teaching at Brookwood High School as the 2nd Latin teacher, where the book used at that time was Latin for Americans, a grammar-translation textbook. I was back in familiar territory with this approach, and I flourished, and let me say, I was a damn good grammar-translation teacher, as the Latin program grew from 225 to over 300 students in a few years.
Speak Latin? You Have Got to be Kidding Me!!
Because I had been taught that Latin was only a read language, the idea of speaking Latin seemed pointless to me. I was one of the biggest vocal opponents of any type of spoken Latin in the classroom, as this approach seemed misguided - why should we speak Latin if our end goal is to translate the works of Cicero into English?
Reading Methodology - say what?
In 2004, my district underwent textbook adoption, and I was chosen to pilot the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC), a reading methodology book. Although I was not truly familiar with the approach, I came into contact with the North American Classics Cambridge Project (NACCP), a professional "support-group" for CLC users. This group had teacher-created/peer-reviewed materials already made, and because of my involvement with the NACCP, I really began to see the frivolity of the grammar-translation method. My district adopted CLC, and a year later, I was asked to join the NACCP executive board, where I became (and still am) a co-Moderator/co-Owner of the Yahoo CLC group. And yes, I was an even better reading methodology teacher, as our Latin program continued to grow, now requiring a 3rd teacher. Soon, I began giving presentations and workshops across the southeast and east coast on behalf of Cambridge University Press on how to use the reading methodology in CLC.
In 2008, I started to become bored with teaching Latin. Not that I did not enjoy it, but I felt like I needed to explore some new avenues. I had heard about TPRS and how there were actually Latin teachers in the US who were using spoken Latin in their classes, something which I had never done before. I attended a TPRS workshop led by Blaine Ray himself, and this new approach seemed to have potential. I began to incoporate it in my classes, and it was definitely a nice change. Students seemed to enjoy it and were engaged in the stories which I created, but in terms of spoken Latin, that was the extent of it. TPRS was just another trick to add to my pedagogical arsenal, but I still held onto the idea that Latin was only meant to be a read/translated language.
Teaching AP Latin - Hitting the Wall
In the fall of 2009, my school finally allowed me to teach AP Latin, which was to translate portions of Vergil's Aeneid into English. I LOVE the Aeneid - I remember how much I enjoyed translating it in high school, and my thesis topic was on the Aeneid.
I had 34 students in my first year of AP - we actually needed two AP classes to manage it, and I was ready to introduce them to Vergil. But after a few months, it became apparent to me that only a handful of those students could actually do the massive amount of work required. For the rest of the class, translating Vergil was just way too difficult; they would just memorize the English and never really look at the Latin.
I blamed the students, calling them "lazy;" I also blamed myself for this, wondering where I had gone wrong with it all. I finally came to the realization that it was not the students or I which was the problem, but that it was the material: It was indeed too difficult for them. Asking students to translate Vergil after only three years of Latin was brutal. I remember thinking "Who of my students wants to become a Classics major after this, because this is not enjoyable at all?" I also came to the realization that even though I myself was able to do this when I was in high school, these students (and most students in general) were not I; I was the exception, not the rule. And if one takes a look at the ACTFL language standards as to what students should be able to do after just three years of language, we Latinists have it all wrong.
I became incredibly disillusioned with teaching Latin as a whole; I started to see the futility of teaching Latin with the end goal of translating Cicero and other classical literature, because this view only appealed to a select few students; what about the rest? I had secretly enjoyed the fact that only "smart" students took Latin, but now I was beginning to see that this view was wrong. So what saved me from leaving teaching? Rusticatio.
Rusticatio - A Haven
A number of professional acquaintances had been to Rusticatio, a weeklong, summer, spoken-Latin immersion "camp," sponsored by SALVI and led by Nancy Llewellyn. As a last resort, in the spring of 2010, I decided to attend, and let me say this: it was the hardest professional thing I had ever done. I had never spoken Latin before in conversation (and never knew that one could) and really had no clue what anyone was saying since I had never heard Latin before (and this was after 12 years of formal schooling and 13 years of teaching it!). I struggled to put together even the most basic sentences. But in spite of all that: this was the first time that I ever had seen Latin as a TRUE language. Latin did not die in AD 476 with the fall of the Roman Empire; it was still a vibrant communicative language, and instead, it was we Latinists who were making it a dead language. There was such a collegial and supportive atmosphere among the attendees and instructors at Rusticatio that it was okay if I was struggling; no one expected me to be at anyone else's ability but my own. I vividly remember Nancy Llewellyn on the opening night, saying in English to all of us, "Do you see this spot I am holding? (she then threw the spot on the floor) I will never put you on it. I will never put you on the spot. Instead, let me put myself on it."
I have now been to Rusticatio for four summers in a row, and my speaking ability has dramatically improved since my first time. It has become my summer tradition, and my Rusticatio friends have become like my summer family. I consider myself now a strong Intermediate-Mid speaker. Rusticatio is and will always be for me the safest academic environment in which I have ever been, and every year, I look forward to hearing Nancy's "spot" talk.
I liken myself to the apostle Paul: once I was the biggest opponent of any spoken Latin, but now I am a huge advocate of speaking the language. In fact, after my first Rusticatio, I actually became quite bitter about my own high school and college Latin experiences - why was I never taught to speak Latin? Why was this kept from me? And more importantly, how could I teach Latin like any other language? For a few years, I pondered this, and I came across Comprehensible Input.
Now - Comprehensible InputIn the summer of 2013, I had the opportunity to attend three different workshops on CI in the Latin classroom, led by fellow Latin teacher and friend Bob Patrick, of which one was a weeklong Pedagogy workshop sponsored by SALVI. I already knew TPRS, but I did not realize that it was part of something bigger known as Comprehensible Input. This was exactly what I was looking for. I have now begun to apply CI to my teaching and am having a blast doing it!