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Missing the Heart-Shaped Piece: How I Failed as a Middle School Latin Teacher

Publication Date: 2005-06-20

A Northfield, Minnesota teacher offers a lesson about teaching--not 'just' Latin, but everything. This message is so on-target and so well expressed that I have goose bumps. Thank you, Rob Hardy.

The author offers a list of what Latin teachers should resist. I'd say the list would hold every teacher in good stead: resist standardization, resist incentive plans, resist the temptations of conventional success. Resist the temptation to distribute rewards and make everything fun. Your job should be to create enthusiastic amateurs who are devoted to the uselessness of Latin. When asked to state the reasons for studying Latin, resist the SAT-boosting argument, or the mental gymnastics argument, or any other candy-coated incentive, and offer instead the heart-shaped piece.

This article was published in Classical Journal and appears with permission.


In the fall semester of 2002, I began my short career as a middle school Latin teacher. A position had opened up at an affluent suburban middle school (grades 6-9). A popular Latin teacher had retired, and no licensed Latin teacher had come forward to apply for the position. I had a Ph.D. in classics and experience both as a teacher of elementary Latin at the college level and as a subsitute teacher in grades K-12. I had also completed some pre-licensure coursework in an MA.Ed. program. I thought that I was prepared for the challenge. This is the story of how I failed.

In the week of orientation before the first day of school, I learned dozens of fascinating statistics about the school district. I learned, for example, that 83% of parents in the district had a bachelor?s degree or higher, and that the median household income was $66,000. I learned that children of parents with a bachelor?s degree of higher were more than twice as likely to be ?high achievers? as children of parents who had only earned a high school diploma. The same was true of children of parents earning more than $36,000 a year?again, more than twice as likely to be ?high achievers.? I learned that 3.4% of the senior class at the high school had qualified as National Merit semifinalists ?more than in any other high school in the state. The district certainly didn?t try to conceal the fact that its students were soicioeconomically positioned for success.
Through all of this, I was almost lulled into thinking of my prospective students, with their hormones and appetites and sudden impulses, as docile statistics, neat bar graphs that would raise their hands quietly and wait to be called upon. The reality, of course, was very different.

I was hired to fill a .75 FTE position. This translated into six classes and one hundred and sixty-five students, most of whom were taking Latin because of the former teacher?s reputation for distributing candy.

I took a poll in my classes. Forty percent of my students were taking Latin because they thought it would help them get a higher score on the SAT. Nearly sixty percent were taking it because the former teacher had given them candy. I had found only a handful of students who thought Latin might be intrinsically interesting.

Most of the students clearly expected me to be a Pez dispenser, not a Latin teacher. I had ninth graders who had been taking Latin for three years who told me they had never learned anything from the former teacher because she had made everything into a game and handed out Jolly Ranchers for each correct answer. The goal was not to learn Latin, but to earn a piece of candy. As a result, in my ninth grass class I had only three students, out of thirty, who could recognize the present tense in the first conjugation. After three years of studying Latin, they couldn?t remember six verb forms.

The principal gave me encouragement in the form of motivational rap learned from an educational seminar:

Good, better, best,
Never let it rest,
Until your good is better
And your better is best.

This didn?t, however, help me with my predicament, which was that I had stepped into an experiment in pop behaviorism run amok. Most of my students were so hooked on reinforcements?on candy?that they had lost all interest in the behavior?learning Latin?that was supposed to be reinforced.

I actually had a student who asked me, ?How do you expect us to learn Latin if you won?t give us candy??

My experience supported the contention of the educational writer Alfie Kohn, who argues that ?extrinsic motivation,? whether that be candy or grades, is detrimental to education. Kohn writes: ?The more often I promise you a goody to do what I want, the more I cause you to respond to, and even to require, these goodies? [T]he other, more substantive reasons for you to do your best tend to evaporate, leaving you with no reason to try except for obtaining a goody.?

Faced with the pressure to maintain high enrollments, and to maintain discipline in the resulting overcrowded classes, the former teacher lured students to Latin, and subsequently managed their behavior, with candy, games, and projects involving soda-and-vinegar Vesuviuses erupting over papier-m?ch? Pompeiis.

The students I inherited expected Latin class to be a sort of pedagogical pi?ata: a certain amount of blind intellectual flailing about, followed by a shower of candy. As soon as they found out there was grammar involved, they started falling away. As a result of this grammar shock, high school Latin teachers often find themselves teaching one or two seniors as an overload. This attrition is the logical consequence of a course sequence that begins with candy and ends with the ablative absolute. It?s bait and switch.

When it became clear that I was attempting to teach Latin without candy, an interesting thing happened. Most of the students in my classes lost all interest in the class. By removing their artificial incentives, I had removed their reason for being in the class. On the other hand, about fifteen percent of the students welcomed the change because, for the first time, they found themselves learning Latin. Their love of learning and interest in the subject provided an intrinsic motivation for learning that required no artificial reinforcement.

These students were tired of games and sugar-coating, and were eager to get down to the difficult but rewarding work of learning to read Latin. When they actually started to read Latin, they began to notice the remarkable economy of the language. They began to notice the similarities and differences, both lexical and grammatical, between Latin and English. They began to realize that working with grammar and vocabulary in context was more rewarding than playing a game.

The Cambridge Latin Course does an excellent job of contextualizing grammar by introducing it in reading passages before making it the focus of explicit instruction. Students find themselves correctly using the pluperfect, for example, well before learning how to break it down into a paradigm. It is, in fact, the games that tend to decontextualize grammar, taking it out of the context of meaningful reading and placing it onto a Bingo board.

I recently gave a talk on the history of Indo-European languages to a group of homeschoolers. These were students who never received grades for their work and who are not required to take state-mandated standardized tests. At the end of the talk, one of the students told me, ?You?ve made me want to be a philologist!? This contrasted starkly with the response I received for the same talk when I delivered it in my public school Latin classes, where the students asked me, ?Do we have to know this??

Alfie Kohn, writing about the dependence of students on incentive plans such as candy and grades, comments: ?The signs of such dependence are questions such as ?Do we have to know this?? or ?Is this going to be on the test?? Every educator ought to recognize these questions for what they are: distress calls. The student who offers them is saying, ?My love of learning has been kicked out of me by well-meaning people who used bribes or threats to get me to do schoolwork. Now all I want to know is whether I have to do it?and what you?ll give me if I do it.??

I failed as a middle school Latin teacher because I was unable to meet the challenge this situation presented. In place of candy, I wanted to offer them my own love of Latin. I found it too disheartening to have that offer refused.

In my brief career as a public school Latin teacher, I came to the conclusion that standardized testing, combined with the pervasive system of rewards and punishments, has for many students succeeded in breeding the intrinsic interest out of education. What matters is not knowledge itself, but the grade for which it can be exchanged. The goal is too often not a genuine love of learning, but success. Success is more easily quantified than love. Success shows up in bar graphs and PowerPoint presentations, in high levels of post-secondary education and high median incomes and large numbers of National Merit Seminfinalists. How do we measure love?

In my eighth grade Latin class, we looked at a photograph of a victim of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a cast made by pouring plaster into the molds created as the bodies of the victims turned to dust inside the hardened volcanic ash. This particular victim had died in the fetal position, knees to chest, hands cupped helplessly over mouth. This absent, human-shaped figure was an emblem of what had drawn me to Latin as an eighteen-year old college freshman. Each word was like a solid object I could hold and examine, a shell or a stone. Each word had its function in the sentence, it couldn?t be lost or misplaced or mistaken for something else. It filled me with a certain orderly satisfaction, as if I were putting things away neatly in their proper drawers, carefully labelled for posterity. But my favorite Roman poet, Catullus, appealed to me because of his sense of incompleteness, the sense that there was a right word for what he felt in his heart that didn?t exist in Latin. He couldn?t explain his love. Here was a language, Latin, that seemed to fit together like tongue and groove, but I had a sense of someone left holding a heart-shaped piece that just wouldn?t fit.

It was like those human-shaped pieces at Pompeii. Strangely, the fact that they?re so human makes you miss their humanness. They?re gestures in the direction of sadness and loss and all the things they must once have felt, both living and dying. It was like the child in the photograph, with her hands cupped over her mouth. The appeal and power of Latin was in that missing piece she was holding in her hands: Catullus?s love, Turnus?s groan as his shade fled to the underworld, the dying quality of human language that we attempt to transform into something solid that will outlast us.

I might have missed that if I had started taking Latin in middle school or high school. I, like so many of my students, might have seen Latin as a means of fulfilling a language requirement, or as a machine for generating SAT vocabulary words.

It?s distressing to me to find myself in agreement with an arch-conservative like Tracy Lee Simmons, who writes: ?Classics is, by a time-honored reckoning, supra usum ?it?s beyond use. Much of its value lies in its superfluity.? Or as sociologist Andrew Abbott said, more broadly, in an address to freshmen at the University of Chicago: ?The reason for getting an education?is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself. Not because it gets you something. Not because it is a means to some other end. It is better because it is better.?

In a culture that demands that we get something out of an education?either high standardized test scores or employment opportunities?I had a difficult time justifying Latin to my affluent students, who were under so much pressure to succeed. I couldn?t honestly tell them what Latin was good for. I might have turned, as does Simmons, to a quotation from Emerson, who wrote: ?Let us not forget that the adoption of the test ?what is it good for? would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage.? The truth is that we need useless things.

I wanted desperately to spark in each of my students an interest in Latin for Latin?s sake. I wanted them to appreciate it for its rose-like beauty, not for its cabbage-like utility. I wanted my students to appreciate Latin?s uselessness. In this, I failed.

I failed, in part, because I can?t come up with any reason for studying Latin that my students found compelling in a culture in which places a premium on the things that generate success. Latin, I am convinced, is entirely unprofitable, as prairies and old-growth forests are unprofitable. Latin is unprofitable, but we are poorer without it, as we are poorer without bluebirds or family farms or any of the things that are being driven out by our profit-driven and standardizing society.

Classicist and nature writer Janet Lembke makes the connection between environmental conservation and the study of the classics. She writes: [The classics] may be as imperiled as Charadrius melodus, the piping plover, in these days of little Latin and not an iota of Greek? It might not be amiss to add a fourth R?Resources?to the long-reigning trinity of the school curriculum. Not only would the planet?s natural resources be covered, but also the infinitely touchable, tastable, pleasing, and fully renewable resources of the imagination.?

On September 12, 2001, as I drove into the city past the silent airport, I listened to Bach?s useless B-Minor Mass. I wondered if I was living in the same world that produced something so beautiful. As I listened to the music and to the melodious Latin it accompanied, I was aware that much of what we fear in the world, much of what threatens our lives, arises out of empty stomachs and bombed out homes, out of oppression and injustice and exile. Vergil and Bach will not root out the causes of fear and suffering in the world. But for some of us, things like these are what make the world worth saving. These are the things that tell us of a world beyond our own hunger, beyond our own fear and suffering. Latin is one of the things that anchors us to our past, and an attachment to it can help our species survive: because this has endured, so must we.

I couldn?t convey this to a hundred and sixty-five students who were learning to narrow their educational vision to the size of a bubble on a machine-graded answer sheet. I couldn?t convey this to students who are growing up in a culture in which education is too often viewed as product development. I couldn?t help them find the heart-shaped piece.

My plea to Latin teachers is to resist standardization, resist incentive plans, resist the temptations of conventional success. Resist the temptation to distribute rewards and make everything fun. Your job should be to create enthusiastic amateurs who are devoted to the uselessness of Latin. When asked to state the reasons for studying Latin, resist the SAT-boosting argument, or the mental gymnastics argument, or any other candy-coated incentive, and offer instead the heart-shaped piece.

Latin wasn?t offered in my high school. It was the first thing I signed up for when I started college. It was something new, something I had found entirely on my own. The reward was not a piece of candy or a high standardized test score. The reward was reading this:

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla?

The reward was holding this heart-shaped piece of dead language in my hand, and feeling its vibrations in my own beating heart.


Works Cited

Abbott, Andrew. 2002. ?The Aims of Education Address,? University of Chicago Record 37.2:4-8.

Kohn, Alfie. 1999. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A?s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston.

Lembke, Janet. 1990. Looking for Eagles: Reflections of a Classical Naturalist. New York.

Simmons, Tracy Lee. 2002. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, DE.


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