Friday, February 17, 2006

Classical Literacy

One of the activities in my classroom which has made me very proud and provided much satisfaction is the teaching of what I call "classical literacy." One is classically literate when he recognizes and understands those Greek and Latin mottoes, abbreviations, phrases, terms, and Greek and Roman mythological, historical, and literary references and allusions found in everyday, modern English.

When I was a student, I felt very awkward (and even a bit foolish) when someone discovered that I was learning Latin and he would toss out a sine qua non or an illegitimi non carborundum [sic] and I would just have to shrug, not having a clue as to what he meant. I didn't want my own students to have that same feeling of inadequacy, so I began teaching these tid-bits on a daily basis.

The process goes like this:
  • Every class period I introduce two items of classical literacy (There used to be only one a day until we moved to block scheduling and then needed to double up in order to cover the same amount of material). These items can be selected at random or (even better) come from being heard or seen in the recent media. At times, the "Jeopardy" game show can provide the suggestion.
  • All classes and all levels are taught the same items. These items do not repeat during the same school year but may repeat in subsequent years. I have found that after a student has taken Latin with me for four years, he or she has become quite the expert and should be called "classically literate."
  • I keep a running list on the side board in my classroom so that these items can always be seen by my students. I have them keep a complete list with explanations and examples in their notebooks. [Sample of Classical Literacy Items]
  • When we reach twenty items (evey ten class periods), we have a "Classical Literacy Quiz." This is almost always a matching quiz designed to boost confidence in learning and provide a less-stressful (read "easy") quiz grade. Most students perform quite well on this quiz but, surprisingly, some do fail. I attribute the failing grades to those students who do not pay attention in class and/or do not make an attempt to review or study. [Sample Classical Literacy Quiz]
  • At the end of the semester, we have usually accumulated around 80 items. About three days before the semester exam, I offer an "Optional, Extra-Credit, Classical Literacy Test." Every item presented during the semester is included on the test. The format is fill-in-the-blank WITHOUT a word bank. The only thing the student is given is a translation, a request for translation, a description, example, or suggestion. The student is awarded 1/10th of a point for every correct answer for up to +8 points on the semester exam. I round up at every 0.5 points, so a score of a 37 earns +4 points on the exam. Most students earn around +3 or +4 points, but some do earn a +5 or +6, and even a very few a +7 or +8 (there were two students who earned the maximum amount the first semester of 2005-2006, one with a score of 76, the other with a 79! She will always remember that one item she missed which prevented her from getting a perfect score!). [Sample Classical Literacy Test]


Anonymous said...

Can I steal this idea? It is quite good. I would like to add it as part of their homework assignment, where they have to search for the translation and then explain it to the class next period.

Mark A. Keith said...

Steal away! I like the aspect of having the students present classical literacy to the class. We just have to reinforce the idea that there is much more information out there than what lives on the internet.