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.