Monday, August 20, 2007

The Wheel in the Sky

I was listening to the local classic rock station driving to the first teacher workday this morning and when I turned onto the street on which the school is located, I heard these lyrics:

Oh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning
Ooh, I don`t know where I`ll be tomorrow
Wheel in the sky keeps me yearning
Ooh, I don`t know, I don`t know

This song by Journey is not perhaps the most appropriate song (Google the lyrics) but the first line which Steve Perry kept singing was fitting. Each year is a new beginning. The graduating seniors have been replaced by the eager, tentative, incoming freshmen, and the retiring teachers have been replaced by eager, tentative, incoming rookies. Everyone gets a new, fresh start and the wheels keep on turning.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Here We Go Again!

It is the evening before veteran teachers are to report to school. The rookies have already spent three days in training camp. The supplies have been ordered. The floors are waxed. There's no doubt that a new school year is about to begin.

I look back at my summer with mixed results. I am a bit surprised because I am not even sure that summers are supposed to have results. I had grand plans of revamping all my classes and having all these amazing handouts and presentations ready to go. Ha-ha... no. There's no great disappointment, though, because things can always be revamped as we go, and that's probably better pedagogy because any revision will fit the students in their present situation, not in some pie-in-the-sky, administrative expectation.

I am embarking on my 21st year of teaching and, guess what, I'm still trying to figure it all out. If any teacher tells you they have all the answers and know exactly how things work, look at them askance, make up some excuse that you left your first day handouts on the copier machine, and move away. You may need to smile and nod, but that usually covers the requisite response.

I am planning to post more this year, if, for nothing else, as a means of therapy. For the first time in many, many years, I am the only Latin teacher in the building and will be teaching all five levels: Latin I, Latin II, Latin III, Latin IV, and AP Latin Literature (Catullus & Ovid). Add to this mix an active Latin Club, competitive certamen teams, and a bunch of other professional responsibilities. My wife is the head teacher-librarian (NBCT!) where I teach, my daughter will be entering the same high school (and having me as a Latin teacher) and my son will be in his last year of elementary school. They all have active schedules and life for the next 10 months or so is looking to be quite hectic. Therapy will be a necessity!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Crossing the Rubicon with a Ham and Cheese on Rye

I was making my way to the grocery store the other day and noticed that the construction at the community church across the street was almost complete. During the building I was impressed that the church was making such a large addition - more than doubling its space - and then learned how they were going to use their extra rooms. One wing is labeled "Education Center" and the other "Rubicon Cafe." I had to take another look as I left the grocery store to make sure I was reading it correctly. The church is very popular and has grown tremendously in the past few years since it has opened. It is nice to see them expanding their offerings.

When Julius Caesar reached the Rubicon River back in 49 BC, he had to make the decision whether to cross this boundary into Italy Proper at the head of his troops and, thus, essentially declare civil war on Rome. He crossed the Rubicon, declaring "Alea iacta est!" ("The die is cast!"), and passed the point of no return. He had made his move.

Now, a church calling its public cafe "Rubicon" is making quite a statement. It certainly adds a lot of pressure for someone who stops in for a ham and cheese on rye.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Authors as Prophets

On the day when the world was tearing into J.K. Rowling's seventh and final book in the wildly successful series about the boy-wizard Harry Potter and his fight against evil, I must admit that I, at last, picked up her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. I am familiar with the characters, the plot, most details of the story, and (being the parent of a 14- and 10-year-old) have seen all the movies multiple times. I discussed the seventh book with my wife and daughter who finished the tome the very same evening they waited in line to get their copies. Now that I know how the story ends, I am reading all the works with an eye to how the author develops her story and seek to tie up the loose ends as I come across them. I am still enjoying the story and expect to learn, first-hand, many more details of the story.

Early in the first book (toward the end of the first chapter), I was struck by a passage in which Professor McGonagall claims, "[Harry Potter will] be famous -- a legend -- I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future -- there will be books written about Harry -- every child in the world will know his name!" When Rowling was writing this first book, surely she didn't believe that her books would be so wildly successful. She could certainly hope so, but hindsight now proves her prophetic statement to be amazingly correct!

Immediately I thought of Latin authors who had made similar prophetic statements in their own works. Ovid writes, Mantua Vergilio, gaudet Verona Catullo;/ Paelignae dicar gloria gentis ego (Mantua rejoices in Vergil, Verona in Catullus; I shall be called the glory of the Pelignian race)(Amores III.15, ll. 7-8). Of course Ovid is writing after he has accumulated some fame but he has no doubts that he will be famous and deserves (rightly so) to be included in the same club with Vergil and Catullus. Further, Martial writes toto notus in orbe Martialis/ argutis epigrammaton libellis ([I am] Martial, known around the world for his clever little books of epigrams)(Epigrams I.1, ll. 2-3). He, also having already attained fame, has correctly predicted the future. Finally, there is the famous Latin quote which immediately came to mind as soon as I read Rowling's words, Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei/vitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera/crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium/ scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex. (I shall not entirely die and a big part of me will avoid Death; I will continue to grow fresh with following praise as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitoline with the silent virgin.)(Horace, Odes III.30, ll. 6-9). Horace is confident in his permanent place in literary history. He, too, though, writes with the knowledge that he is already a great poet. What did Rowling know of her coming fame and prosperity? Will her works become classics and be read many, many years from now? She (and we) really have no way to tell. Her legacy will assuredly rest in bringing countless people, including school children distracted by so many things outside of formal education, to opening a book and (obsessively) devouring it's words.

As a side note, I pondered Horace's words and realized how true his prediction still is. He said that he will continue to live, and subsequently be read, as long as the Pontifex climbs the Capitol accompanied by the silent Virgin. A different Pontifex (the Pope) still climbs a hill (the Vatican which is the Capitol of the Catholic Church) accompanied by the silent Virgin (Mary, the Mother of Christ).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Back to Basics

At the end of the school year I learned that I will be teaching Latin I this fall. Most teachers would not find this assignment surprising but I am a tiny bit nervous and becoming increasingly excited because I have not taught Latin I for well over a decade... maybe since 1994! I have taught Latin II, III, IV, V, AP Vergil, and AP Latin Literature, but the Latin I classes have always been covered by teachers who floated between schools.

This new addition to my teaching assignment provides me with the opportunity to apply those techniques and ideas which have been discussed and presented at numerous workshops, institutes, and on the LatinTeach list. Such things include oral Latin and pronunciation, emphasis on reading and not simply translation, and integration of culture, history, and mythology into the Latin (Why can't the questions and/or answers about these subject areas be in Latin?).

I have long inherited students who have adopted the philosophies, techniques, interests, and abilities of their Latin I teachers. Some of these teachers have been experienced, others fresh off the vine. I took their students and moved them forward from where they were dropped off. Sometimes I could make adjustments, sometimes not.

Now is the time for me to put up or shut up. I will be taking a group of students and teaching them from the very beginning. It will be an exciting ride... stay tuned!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Making Connections II: Paying It Forward

On a recent trip to Italy and Greece I called a student over to my table after dinner and invited her to sit down. I told her I had something for her to think about. Just that day we had visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City and I came upon this student standing in the middle of the floor, slowly turning her head. Her jaw had dropped and her eyes were wide open. This place, this moment, had made her trip. Everything else we would see afterwards would be fluff, second-rate -- exciting, but not as moving as Michelangelo's magnificent ceiling. This student had just graduated from high school where she had participated in four years of a very rigorous and demanding gifted program. She is also an artist and used this outstanding talent as a creative outlet. She will continue her education in the fall at the College of William & Mary, taking anything and everything but reserving space in her schedule for art and art history. Now, back to dinner. I told my student that this year was the 25th anniversary of my first trip to Rome and that I had come as a student, just having graduated from high school, with my Latin teacher. I told her that she needed to give consideration to bringing her own art students to Italy in the future and give some student the same experience my Latin teacher had given me and which I had just given her. I asked her to pay it forward. She said that she would...

Making Connections I

I know that I have posted an image of an umbrella pine tree before... but today I have a reason!

My students and I recently returned from a trip to Italy and Greece and I have a proud-teacher moment I have to share. We had just passed through the Porta Marina and into Pompeii when our local guide herded us into the shade and began his spiel about the city and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the site in AD 79. The guide went into great detail to describe the eruption and likened the cloud which rose from the mountain to a mushroom or a nuclear blast. One of my students bravely raised her hand and commented, "Pliny the Younger described the cloud as an umbrella pine tree." The guide paused a moment and replied, "Yes! Yes, indeed! You are quite correct!" and, with no umbrella pines in sight, described the tree for the rest of our group. Seemingly impressed that there were students who knew who Pliny the Younger was and had even translated the letter from Latin, he continued to make reference to the letter as our tour continued.

For the rest of the tour that afternoon, I was the one who was beaming with pride that my student had referenced material we had covered in the classroom and used it to make a visit to Pompeii more meaningful.
  • Footnote 1: When you take a group to Pompeii, ask for Eugenio/Eugene or Mimo. Both of these local guides are outstanding and will try to accomodate requests.
  • Footnote 2: If you have extra time in the schedule and the weather is cooperating, ask for more time after the organized tour to allow students to take more pictures or visit sites not normally on the tour, e.g., the amphitheater, gladiators' barracks, palaestra, etc.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Monumentum Amphitheatri Flaviani Nocte Visum

The Flavian Amphitheater at night...a much more peaceful place than during the day. This photograph was taken by the husband of a colleague during our trip in July 2005.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


I began class the other day by reviewing (very briefly) the indirect command and then asking for a quick outline of the story we were translating before picking up in the middle and moving forward. I was met with blank stares. I asked again, even calling upon some students by name. I was becoming frustrated and could feel my blood-pressure rising; I was thinking that no one in the class had bothered to do the assignment. Then I looked down at my lesson plans and realized that I had not even introduced the indirect command to them and they had not been assigned the translation... we had not even begun the translation! I paused. I smiled. I laughed. And then I told them to never mind -- that was the other class' assignment. Some looked relieved, some smiled, others looked annoyed (but that's OK, they look annoyed most of the time). I teach on the alternating day (A-B) block scheduling system and had confused my "A" day class with my "B" which was a couple days ahead.

I have made mistakes in the classroom before. I can remember introducing a topic once (I forget what it was) and, although not bothering to review my notes ahead of time, presented it to my students with great confidence and flourish. I scribbled away on the board and they dutifully took the notes. Then I told them to open up their books and look at some examples for practice. I was horrified (internally) to discover that what I had spent the last fifteen minutes or so explaining was wrong... very wrong. I paused. I smiled. I laughed. And then I told them to never mind, "Please take the notes you just wrote, rip them out of your notebook, and throw them away!" I even picked up the trash can and carried it desk to desk so that they could throw their notes away. I explained that, yes, even I made mistakes and that I had just made a big one. I then took a bow and said, "Let's start again."

In my twenty years of teaching, I have made numerous mistakes. I humbly express my mea culpas and move forward. Students need to see that teachers make mistakes, but, even more importantly, they need to see their teachers admitting them and correcting them. Some of what we teach in the classroom has little to do with the subject matter described in the course catalog. None of us is perfect and none of us should lead our students to believe that we are. Part of learning language is making mistakes and having those mistakes corrected and, thus, providing experiences to build on.

I remember early one morning in Rome. I awoke and slipped out of the hotel before my students were to meet downstairs for breakfast. I went to the cafe next door and confidently ordered, "Uno cappuccino, per favore." I had been practicing the phrase all the way to the counter because I wanted to use what little Italian I knew. The man behind the counter held up a thumb and said, "Un cappucino." I replied, "Grazie" and he gave me wink. I think I gave him a large tip and went on to enjoy my coffee at the table outside. Even though I know (in Latin) that adjectives agree in case, number, and gender, and that the adjective does not need to have the same ending as the noun, I now know that this Italian adjective doesn't end in an "o" but it still agrees with cappucino.

One of my students came to me yesterday and claimed that she had a teacher who had used a Latin phrase in the classroom. My student told her teacher that she had used it incorrectly. The teacher indignantly replied, "How do you know?" My student replied that she was a Latin student. The teacher snorted that she (the teacher) knew what she was talking about and continued on.

This teacher was unwilling to admit a mistake and, in doing so, lost some respect in the eyes of a student. We as teachers need to realize that we do have more experience and training, but we are not smarter or better than our students.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Doing my Latin homework takes forever!"

A student came to see me after school recently and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for helping her complete her Latin homework assignments -- translation assignments, specifically. She lamented that it was taking her over an hour to "do" her translations and then she still didn't understand what the Latin was saying.

I asked her to tell me exactly what she did and how she did it.

If she was given an assignment of 20 lines to translate from the story (in Ecce Romani II), she said that she copied down every word (even et and sed) in a long list and them looked up every word and wrote the English meaning next to it. After this tedious process she would look over the translation and then try to make sense out of it. She said that she would then become frustrated and usually give up.

I quickly saw the problem in this approach and offered some advice:

1) The problem - She was looking up the words outside of context. By making a list and writing down the meaning (usually the first one listed), she was losing or missing the meaning as it fit with the other words.

2) The other problem - She was looking up every word. I encourage my students to trust themeselves and guess at the meaning based upon the context. If she looks up movere and discovers that it means "to move," she has used valuable time on an item she could have very well anticipated.

3) My solution - Don't write down every word, or any words, for that matter. Read the sentence to yourself (preferably outloud) and then anticipate the meaning. If you need to look up a word (or a few words), do so but choose the meaning that works in context.

She took my advice and discovered that she could shave off over half the time she typically spent on translations and had a better understanding of what the Latin actually meant.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Masculinity of Julius Caesar

A recent article posted on David Meadow's outstanding blog, rogueclassicism, offered wonderful and concise information on how we know how the ancient Romans pronounced Latin. I've searched for the actual article but cannot put my cursor on it at the moment.

Julius Caesar's arrogant boast, "Veni! Vidi! Vici!" is one of the most well-known Latin phrases tossed about in a variety of contexts. Many who quote this ditty then go on to claim that it could never have been pronounced "WAY-nee, WEE-dee, WEE-kee" because Julius Caesar never would have been caught dead saying anything nearly so wimpy. It seems that the "W" sound is not masculine enough for this general-turned dictator-turned god and that it must have been pronounced with a very forceful "V" sound accompanied by a dramatic extension of the arms.

Well now. One's language is not a matter of choice but one of necessity. If a person wants to get his point across, he must communicate in the tongue offered to him. Imagine today the tragic discomfort of a man, a real man who has just gotten off an eighteen-hour shift building, bare-handed, a bridge across a raging river, who drives his mud-encrusted SUV through the drive-thru lane of the popular fast-food restaurant and must speak into the plastic character's mouth, "I'll have the Ballerina Belle Chicken Sandwich with the Pink Tutu lemonade, the Petey Pirate Jolly Roger Burger with the Ahoy Matey shake, and a side order of Baby Bunny Tasty Delight Cinnamon Rolls." Does he have his gym card taken away? Do his buddies cancel their hunting trip? Do his monster tires deflate for having to say such unmanly things? Of course not.

We cannot judge Julius Caesar and his masculinity based upon our perceptions in modern society. If "Veni! Vidi! Vici!" was pronounced with a "W" (and indications are that it was), who are we to judge whether this was a manly-enough sounding phrase? His language was his language and he spoke it without a thought. We've been told that the shoes of Roman senators were pink. Does this fact make that august body any less manly? I won't even mention that Julius Caesar is said to have plucked his body hair and even wore a tunic instead of pants. Were these girly-man traits the true cause of the fall of the Roman Empire? Hmmm...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Heading Down the Road

Today we reached the three-quarters mark of the school year. The weather is warm, the flowers are beginning to bloom, and the trees are starting to bud. Springtime has come to Virginia. This means, of course, that our teenagers turn their thoughts to matters other than Latin.

Now comes the battery of state testing, the barrage of field trips which have, up-to-now, been denied because of preparation for state testing, and the myriad of other distractions which come alive this time of year.

I have often said that anything you want to teach you really need to present before the final marking period. Don't get me wrong... I will continue to teach and offer opportunities for learning, but I need to remind myself not to get too frustrated when things don't go as smoothly as possible. It is time to vary the activities and keep the students guessing.

I realize that I'm not offering any specifics in this posting -- perhaps later.

Things to remind the students: 1) The only way to coast is downhill. 2) Yes, we are going to continue to work after the AP exam, and, no, we will not be having a film festival. 3) Seniors! The last day of school is June 1, not April 1. I realize that your acceptance letters have arrived, but that doesn't mean that you have finished the race. We are rounding the final turn but the long straight-away remains!

Oh, yeah... the photograph is from our visit to Ostia Antica in 2005.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


marginalia (MAR-je-NA-le-a) n. pl. Notes, thoughts, ideas, doodles, and the like written in the margins of a book or textbook.

When I began this blog as an experiment over a year ago, I named it "Pro linguae Latinae magistris." My goal was to share ideas and experiences that would be useful for other Latin teachers. I have enjoyed the replies of teachers and (something I find very interesting) others who have an interest in things classical. I have now renamed my blog "Marginalia" not because my purposes have changed, but because it better describes what I actually ended up writing. I hope my past comments have been helpful in some way and that my new postings will continue to be of interest to Latin teachers and others who find such commentary useful or entertaining.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

History Repeats Itself

In the "The more things change, the more they stay the same" department, we have news out of Italy which reminds us (sadly) of an incident from the ancient Roman world.

CNN reports that a riot between the fans supporting the rival soccer teams from Catania and Palermo has resulted in the death of a police officer and the arrest of 29 brawlers outside the stadium. The officials in the Italian soccer federation have canceled all soccer games for the weekend (Feb. 3-4, 2007) and may consider longer suspension of Italy's most popular sport.

How different is this news from the scene illustrated on the picture above? This fresco shows the fighting between the inhabitants of Pompeii and the nearby town of Nuceria in AD 59. This conflict resulted in the suspension of gladiatorial contests in the town for ten years.