Thursday, March 30, 2006

Why Do I Teach?

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I think I first heard this smirky phrase when I was a student in high school. I probably even laughed along with it. After all, I never intended to be a teacher. I entered into Virginia Tech planning to major in math and computer science. I was going to get a high-tech job and bring home some high-tech money. So how did I end up teaching Latin? I had taken four years of Latin in high school and kept it on my college schedule just for fun. I wasn’t ready to give up something in which I had invested so much time and effort. It was my comforting diversion from all those numbers, proofs, and commands. As I slogged my way through five-hour freshman calculus and computer science classes stuffed full of math geniuses and techie wannabes, I took a look around one day and asked myself, “Do I really want to do this with my life? Do I really want to chain myself to a desk and stare into a computer screen all day long?” Searching my soul and receiving a bit of advice from those who knew me better than I knew myself, I realized that the world of numbers and crunching them wasn’t for me and I turned my diversion into my vocation. In the spirit of Robert Frost who knew something about wandering around the woods, I went from the major of the masses to the major of the obscure few and, indeed, that distinction made all the difference.

I have loved the ancient world as far back as I can remember. I recall being thrilled when I flipped through the television channels as a child and stumbled upon such wonders as Ben Hur racing his chariot, Spartacus leading his army of slaves, or even Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck being chased by lions in the Colosseum. I fondly remember discovering my mother’s Latin textbook, opening it at random, and resting my eyes on the Latin word amicitia - “friendship.” Ever since that time I have nourished this friendship with the ancient world and turned it into a love affair.

Taking the less-traveled road of being a Latin teacher, though, does come with a challenge. I have been part of many conversations which play out in a predictable direction. I meet somebody new and she asks, “What do you do?” “I teach,” I reply. “Oh, really?” she says, often with some sort of surprise or disappointment in her voice. “What do you teach?” “I teach Latin!” I say with pride and look her straight in the eyes, knowing her reaction will come in one of two ways: 1) her eyes open wide and she responds with amazement, “Do they really still teach that? Isn’t Latin a dead language?” or 2) her eyes narrow, her top lip curls, and she responds with disdain, “I hated Latin when I was in school! I can’t remember a thing and it never helped me out anyway!” On occasion I will come across the individual who actually loved taking Latin in high school, admitting how he benefited from Latin in learning English vocabulary or grammar, in conquering the SATs, or in getting an A in some other, now-forgotten, Romance language. All too often, though, a parent will admit that his child was taking Latin and, although he really wished his son had taken a more practical language, “You know -- something he can really use!” he was actually enjoying the class.

I take in all these responses, often with a nod and a grin, and remain confident that what I am doing with my life is a good thing. I do not have to remind myself that I get to spend all day working with a subject I love and even getting paid for it! What is more, I get to pass on to others my affection for Latin and watch with pride as they learn and grow. I do not have any misconceptions that all my students will share in my enthusiasm or even develop their own friendship with the ancient world. Indeed I dare to say that some will take a year or two of the language and make conversation in the not-too-distant future about how they are surprised that Latin is still in the curriculum or that they had an awful time having to do all that work back in high school and still didn’t get a 2400 on their SATs. On the other hand, there will be those lucky few who persevere and reach the upper levels, reading and translating works of authentic Latin literature which contain messages still fresh, meaningful, and practical two thousand years later. Those who stay with the subject through their senior year not only take fours years of Latin, but also take four years of Mr. Keith. That is a scary thought. I know that this carries with it great responsibility and I stand in my pulpit and wield my pen carefully and thoughtfully. I like to think that they move off into this world with a bit more knowledge and wisdom than when they entered high school. That, in essence, is the very nature of education. They will become the mathematicians and the computer scientists and a host of other professions, some of which we haven’t even begun to imagine, and they will take with them a touch of humanity. It is my hope that I have taught them not only how to think but that I have given them something to think about.

Why do I teach? I teach because I can.

This essay was my entry in a contest for Riverbend HS faculty in 2005.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Relevance of Leonardo da Vinci

A poster of Leonardo da Vinci arrived in the mail the other day. Actually it was a promotion for a travel company, but I took it to the paper cutter, removed the advertisement from the bottom, and shamelessly added to the decor of my classroom. I posted Leo on the white board with magnets and now he watches over my students as they practice their synopses.

I was quite surprised at the reaction of my students to this image. Some students knew him immediately at sight; of course, everyone had heard of him. What they did not understand was why I had chosen to give him space in the first place. This became that proverbial "teachable moment".

I first mentioned that Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and inventor from the Italian Renaissance. I went on to explain that "renaissance" comes from the Latin verb renascor meaning "rebirth" and that the Renaissance was a rebirth of Greek and Roman ideals in art and literature. This then led to a brief discussion of the authors who wrote in Latin during that time period. I had never really talked about the history of Latin literature and most students assumed that writing in Latin went out of vogue with the arrival of the Visigoths.

I then revealed that the name of this artist was correctly "Leonardo" and that "da Vinci" was not his last name but was the Italian phrase meaning "from Vinci" and that to refer to him simply as "da Vinci" was incorrect. Students then quickly jumped with the statement that the title The Da Vinci Code was wrong. I agreed.

What happened next was very surprising and enlightening to me. A student, obviously exasperated and even a bit critical, cried out, "Who knows this? Why does it matter?" I replied that he now knows this and it matters because it is important to get things correct and to understand the truth. His point was that everyone knows who you mean when you say "da Vinci" and it might as well be his last name.

This whole experience has reinforced in me the notion that what we teach must be relevant to today's students or they will pass it off as meaningless trivia and, therefore, not worthy of their attention. Whenever I teach an item of Latin grammar or syntax, I always teach the English equivalent first so that they might understand better their own language. Likewise, my advanced students can certainly tell you that I work to compare the human experiences expressed two thousand years ago by Vergil, Ovid, Catullus, Martial, et al. to those felt by human beings today.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Early Roman History in Rhyme

I came across The Faber Book of Useful Verse, edited by Simon Brett (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd, 1981) on my shelves today and found this wonderful entry:

Aeneas built, in days of yore,
Lavinium on the Latin shore;
And Alba Longa's power was feared
Until the walls of Rome appeared,
By Romulus at length upreared.
The tribes that dwelt there first were these:
The Ramnes, Tities, Luceres.
When Romulus had left this earth,
Wise Numa reigned, of Sabine birth,
Who temples built, and pontiffs chose.
But Tullus combated his foes:
Three brothers with three brothers vie --
Horatii, Curiatii.
And Ancus made the Ostian port,
Sublician bridge, and many a fort.

The verse is attributed to Edward B. Goodwin who wrote around 1875. There is some indication that this may be part of a larger work. If anyone knows where we can find more, please let me know. I'll start looking on this end...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Can you believe it? Now that the secret is out, never again must we huddle our students into the back of a plane and cart them off to Italy in order to purchase a plaster-of-paris copy of the Colosseum or Michelangelo's David! We can now order all our must-have, Roman souvenir items from the comfort of our own homes!

Dr. Greg Daugherty of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, has alerted us of the existence of, which includes items not only commemorative of your trip to Italy, such as rosaries and flags of the Roma soccer team, but items of classical interest as well, including replicas of Roman coins, miniature Roman soldiers, books, posters, and more! Many items come with a complimentary postcard of the Colosseum mailed from the Eternal City!

Please don't get me wrong... Some of this is great stuff and sine qua non to the Latin classroom. Run, don't walk, to their website today! Push, shove, scream, and shout! Form a good, Italian line at their door! Andiamo!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Modern Ides of March

"Beware the Ides of March!" Many people will playfully tout this warning today without being completely aware of what they are saying. We owe the popularity of this phrase not to Julius Caesar or any other ancient Roman, but to a man who lived over 1600 years later -- the venerated William Shakespeare.

In Act I, Scene ii in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes,

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry Caesar. Speak; Caesar is turned to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Set him before me, let me see his face.

Fellow, come from the throng, look upon Caesar.

What sayest thou to me now? Speak once again.

Beware the ides of March.

He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.

Shakespeare has the soothsayer warn Caesar of the Ides; and Caesar chooses not to heed this warning because he could not or would not live his life in fear. In Act II, Scene ii, when Calpurnia begs him to stay home from the meeting of the Senate scheduled for the Ides, Caesar refuses to heed his wife and utters his immortal phrase,

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.

And later in Act III, Scene i, Caesar comes across the soothsayer on the way to the meeting of the Senate,

The ides of March are come.

Ay Caesar, but not gone.

Since the time of Shakespeare's play (1599), the phrase "Beware the Ides of March!" has become the work's popular legacy and, when used in modern context, has come to mean, "Open your eyes and look at what is happening! Pay attention to what's going on around you or bad things are going to happen! Don't say we didn't warn you!"

A side effect of the whole Ides of March pronouncement is the common notion that the Ides fall on the 15th of every month. Indeed, many believe that another bloody Ides comes a month later with the annual deadline for filing income taxes in April. In reality, the Ides fall on the 13th of every month with the exception of March, May, July, and October.

Next, we come to the discussion of Julius Caesar's dying words. Plutarch writes that Caesar said nothing, but simply pulled his toga over his head at the sight of Brutus (Parallel Lives: The Life of Julius Caesar, 66.12). Suetonius (De Vita Caesarum LXXXII) states that Caesar's last words, aimed at Brutus, were in Greek "Kai su, teknon?" ("You too, son?"). Again, our experience with this event comes from Shakespeare who makes Caesar's last gasp the popular, "Et tu, Brute?" ("Even you, Brutus?"). This phrase, in both ancient and modern context, has come to represent an expression of surprise or disappointment that someone is a part of something you never would have expected. You have been betrayed!

Finally, I have seen numerous versions of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, some of them very good and some barely memorable. The best death scene, though, comes from a production I saw several years ago at the Shenandoah Shakespeare Black Friar's Theater in Staunton, Virginia. Caesar enters the Senate triumphantly, sporting a regal, red sash around his white, tailored suit. He climbs the stairs to the seat and is, in due course, murdered. As he dies, he falls down the stairs, unwinding his sash as he rolls, leaving behind a trail of blood.

It is interesting how great an effect the literature of Shakespeare has had upon our understanding and memory of historical events.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Roman Noodles...

A little while ago there was a request on the LatinTeach list for a good mnemonic device to remember the kings of Rome. The one I use is:

Roman = Romulus
Noodles = Numa Pompilius
Toss = Tullus Hostilius
And = Ancus Marcius
Turn; = Tarquinius Priscus
Serve = Servius Tullius
Them! = Tarquinius Superbus

I think the "Serve" is my variation (the original had "Save")... but I give credit for the whole phrase to the inimitable Susan Schearer, now retired from John Handley High School in Winchester, VA. If someone has another provenance for this, please let me know!

P.S. The allusion to pasta is a nice touch!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Thomas Jefferson Made Me Do It

When people ask why the study of Latin and the classics is so popular in Virginia, I usually tell them that it is all Thomas Jefferson's fault. When he founded the University of Virginia in 1825, he made sure that Latin, Greek, and the classics were a cornerstone to a solid and rewarding education.

One of my favorite quotes from Mr. Jefferson is from a letter he sent to a Dr. Joseph Preistly. On January 27, 1800, he wrote, "to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury as in architecture, painting, gardening, or other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope's translation of him, and both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; and it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, or have not since acquired."

Friday, March 10, 2006

National Latin Teacher Recruitment Week 2006

I took the first few minutes of my classes these past two days and spoke to my students about the desperate need for teachers -- good teachers. As expected, I was met with surprise, amusement, silent stares, nods, and even agreement. Some students seemed very receptive and a few concurred even though they didn't want their peers to know.

My approach began with the need for teachers in general, how in our district (Spotsylvania County, Virginia) most of our new teachers come from Pennsylvania, New York, and, this year, Michigan. A few were even recruited in the Philippines! I talked about the need for math teachers, science teachers, and then launched into the crying need for Latin teachers. Most did not know this was to become a conversation about becoming Latin teachers until the Trojan horse was inside the gates and standing on the citadel.

I talked about how I had entered college with a notion to become a math and computer science major, how I had signed up for Latin as my "fun class" and because I wasn't ready to give up four years of hard and fun work in high school, how I had failed 5-hour freshman calculus (dashing all realistic expectations of becoming the next Bill Gates), and finally how my Latin professor, more than twenty years before NLTRW became fashionable, had announced to the class that someone someday was going to look at our college transcript, see that we had taken Latin, and ask us to teach. He had planted a seed that day and the rest was history.

I would like to think that my words perhaps have planted a seed which one day might sprout and grow. My advice to my students was basically to keep the possibility of becoming a teacher in the backs of their open minds. I admitted to them that if anyone had told me in high school or entering college that I was going to be a teacher, and a Latin teacher at that, I would have laughed and brushed it off as a complete impossibility... My, my, my, how things do change!

I am extremely proud to know that I do have two extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable young ladies who will graduate in June and go off to college with plans to major in Latin and become Latin teachers! Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for their decisions. They came to me last year when our new school opened already planning to teach Latin! They have been true gems and have set the exemplary tone for their peers both in class, club, and certamen. They will be sorely missed when they walk across that stage and grab their sheepskin with a huge grin. I will be wiping away the tears!

My parting shot to my students these past two days is that I get to play with Latin, something I love, every single day... I get to hang out with the coolest people in the world (the 2006 version of the American teenager)... and, on top of it all, I get paid to do it! What better job is there in the world?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

National Foreign Language Week 2006

This has been National Foreign Language Week and, in our school, Latin was assigned Thursday as our day to celebrate. I am proud to say that we made quite a splash compared to the other languages!

Our activities included:
  • A Poster Contest among all foreign language students - I gave the opportunity to my students to make a poster (on regulation-size poster board, 22" x 28") promoting Latin or National Foreign Language Week. There were more posters from Latin students than all the other languages combined! We asked for volunteers among the teaching staff to judge these posters and awarded candy bars to the top three winners. The criteria for judging was based on creativity, attractiveness, and how well the poster promoted their language and/or NFLW. Posters from Latin students won 1st and 3rd place!
  • Toga Day - The students could opt to wear a toga or other classical garb. I gave them a "Toga Confirmation Sheet" which each teacher must sign stating that they wore their toga in their classroom on that day and the students must turn them in on the day of their next class for extra credit. Some ground rules for this activity are that students must wear appropriate clothing underneath their toga and they may take off their toga for physical education class and any science laboratory involving fire.
  • An Advertising Campaign in which students displayed on their lockers a poster (made by me) depicting an image of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and the Latin phrase Lingua Latina Vivit! Each poster was given a random number and I announced that I would go around school Thursday afternoon and record the numbers I saw for extra credit. This was the first time I have tried such an approach and I must admit it was rather neat to walk through the halls and see these posters spread out on seemingly random lockers announcing proudly that Latin was still alive. But wait, it doesn't stop there... I also made 100 posters on bright yellow paper with a scene from the Roman Forum and asking, "Is Your English in Ruins...? Take Latin!" and "See Your Guidance Counselor Today!" These were posted by student volunteers all around the school for maximum exposure.
  • A Trivia Question - For this morning's announcements I wrote: "This is National Foreign Language Week and today is Latin Day! Bring your answer to the following question to Room 214 by 2:00 TODAY. The first correct answer drawn out of the box will receive a chocolate candy bar. What is the name of the British document called the "Great Paper", first written in 1215 which required that King John operate somewhat under the rule of law and began to set the foundations for guaranteeing rights for the people? It was written in Latin so that all civilized peoples could read and understand it!" I was quite surprised when no fewer than ten students hustled up to my door and placed their answers in the box. Usually we get two or three students who shuffle in and out throughout the day.

Activities such as these generate enthusiasm and pride in the study of Latin and promote the language among the students, teachers, and administration. Fortuitously, this was also the week in which students began signing up for next year's classes, so, perhaps, some shameless promotion will pay off dividends of increased enrollment figures in Latin I.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tempus Fugit

Most people, even those who have never studied the Latin language, recognize and know the meaning of the phrase tempus fugit -- "time flies." Popular culture has included the inseparable addage "when you're having fun" and so it remains.

Very few realize, though, that the original Latin phrase is tempus irreparabile fugit from Vergil's Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore (Georgics 3.284-5) and is much closer in meaning to Horace's carpe diem than the popular expression of surprise that the evening has passed while we were eating, drinking, and being merry.

Tempus irreparabile fugit essentially means "irrevocable time flies" or, better, "time flies and it's never coming back again." So... time does fly but not because you are having fun; rather, the reverse is true: you need to have fun because time flies.

The river in the picture is the Rio Grande winding its way through New Mexico. I took this photograph while playing hooky from the 2005 ACL Institute in Albuquerque.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Zesty Zeugmata

I recently gave a diversionary assignment to my students in AP Latin in which they had to create original zeugmas. We made a contest out of it and voted for the best three, with the winners receiving candy. The zeugmas receiving the most votes were:

1) I hiked up my pants and the mountain. (TM)
2) Saying, "Der goes dem game," the redneck killed the deer and the English language. (TS)
3) Colby made a cake and Teiji's day. (TE)

For a more complete listing, check out

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Italy's Umbrella Pine

In his letter describing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pliny the Younger writes,

Nubes...oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit. Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu evecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo victa in latitudinem vanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremve sustulerat. (Epistulae VI.16, ll. 13-18)

This passage immediately came to mind when I saw this perfect example of an umbrella pine tree in the ruins of Ostia Antica. I took this photograph in July 2005 with the intention of flashing it up on the wall from the digital projector whenever we read Pliny. Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words!

Class After AP

My students asked today what we were doing after the AP Latin Literature exam. Certainly they are not looking ahead and anticipating the end of the year... My reply was that we would be translating some of Horace's Odes. I had wanted to do the Catullus/Horace combination this year but a couple of very eager students convinced me that Ovid was the way to go. No problem on this end -- there was some things I wanted to do with the Amores anyway. In any case, I believe there are some poems of Horace that every serious Latin student must experience before graduating from high school. More about Horace later.

In the years that we have taken the AP Vergil exam, I often give my students a mini-lesson in ancient Greek. I have them learn to recite, read, and write the Greek alphabet, transliterate some Greek terms and roots into English, and then tackle the first few chapters from Crosby and Shaeffer's An Introduction to Greek and Balme and Lawall's Athenaze. The students enjoy this unique diversion and feel that they've gone back to first-year (which essentially they have) and that things are suddenly easy and exciting again. A few students have even gone on to take Greek in college. If nothing else, I tell my students that they can now go to college and identify the correct fraternity or sorority house advertised in the party flier.