Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What Can Latin Do For You?

Lorna Robinson, Director of Latin Programs for CAGSE for which I am Executive Director, is a tremendously talented teacher. I had the luck to sit in the back of a class of nine-year-old's in Hackney in London. Hackney is one of the lower performing school districts in England.

Learning Environment

The day I sat in, Lorna had the kids learning the imperative tense in Latin by making signs telling someone -- or some people -- to do something. The idea was to get the spelling and endings right.

Lorna buzzed around the room answering questions while the regular classroom teacher kept order in a highly marshal manner that seemed almost reflex. The contrast between her strategy and that in which the Latin was taught made it clear how lucky the kids were to have Lorna, even if they learned no Latin at all.

Remarkable, Ordinary Kids

On the white board were conjugations, just as in any language class. There were no special guides for children -- no illustrations that often accompany text in books for kids of this age.

The children focused on their signs, correcting them as Lorna answered queries. My favorite was a boy who told his peers "Don't Eat Cats," although he had to correct one of his word endings to make it correctly plural.

The most remarkable moment, however, came when the sign-making was almost over. "That's an object, Miss," he said, without hesitating, in response to a query from Lorna at the front of the room.

Way Ahead of the Game

When I taught at an Ivy League school, my students had never learned the parts of speech in English. I very much doubt most of them knew them in Latin.

However, the Hackney kids had none of the advantages -- or experience that comes with age -- that my students had. Yet these nine-year-olds know their grammar because they interact with language in creative ways, rather than by memorizing rules.

Why Latin?

English makes very little structural sense when compared to many other languages.

Latin, on the other hand, is much more regular. As a root language no longer in use, it's immune from the kinds of changes that happen over time to the languages that derived from it.

There's another reason in England why Latin is such a powerful tool in a place like Hackney. The class system, no longer as visible as it once was, nevertheless has prevented Latin from being used in the schools in poorer areas. There are a variety of reasons for this, lefty reverse snobbery from the districts the least of them.

Consequently, the kids feel special when they can learn a language and a history that is usually not available. They also get special attention by having an outside teacher come into the classroom and stay all year, even if it's only for two hours per week.

Furthermore, most Latin teachers will tell you that Latin as a language changes they way one thinks just by the way one formulates meaning. In fact, the other teachers at this school have noticed a difference between the way these children's approach language, although they haven't articulated exactly how.

This is our theory, anyway, and it seems clear from observation alone.

Can We Prove It?

What's the difference between a rationalization and a business case?


In order to demonstrate the outcome we've observed in ways that are persuasive to those who make high-level decisions in the educational community, we've got one assessment this year -- by Cambridge University. This is for one class of students.

Next year, we'll have many more classes, and consequently, much more data. We'll also have another assessment by Cambridge, one for leadership skills from a representative of the Duke Business Consortium, one by a lexicographer and linguist who edits an Oxford University Press dictionary, and one by the University of East London (where these kids would end up if they went to university at all).

Stay tuned, and let's see what happens . . . .

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