Collaboration Across Levels in the Teaching of Latin at Burlington Public Schools
written by Magister Gregory Stringer, BHS Latin Teacher
It is an old adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it also wasn’t built alone. On December 6th, as part of the World Language Department’s ongoing mission to improve our professional practice in the classroom via observation of our peers, I had the chance to spend the entire day at Marshall Simonds Middle School to observe my counterpart, Latin teacher John Walsh. Magister Walsh (magister is Latin for “teacher”) is now in his third year at MSMS and his impact has already been extraordinary. In just three years, enrollment in middle school Latin has gone from just 45 students in 2015 to 79 students currently in the program, an incredible increase of nearly 76%. John Walsh has re-energized the program and after spending the day with him, it is easy to see why.
Magister Walsh met me in the main office of MSMS at 7:15 and, after showing me around for a bit, he took me to his main classroom and we discussed his plan for the day. The first students filtered in around 7:40 to begin the first class, a group of 13 seventh graders. One of the first things that surprised me was the lack of bells at MSMS. Although the day and its transitions went relatively smoothly, I noticed that their 40 minute classes are often much less than that as more than a few students are often filtering in several minutes after the official start time. That said, John did a remarkable job of keeping to his plan in spite of this and accomplishing a great deal with each class.
In that first class, John presented the students with whiteboards and a sentence from a story that they had recently read. Students were asked to draw the sentence on the whiteboard without words and then, after a few minutes of drawing, Mr. Walsh collected them and instructed the students to get to work on their Gimkit homework assignment while he prepared the next phase of the activity. Gimkit, by the way, is an interactive game-show like study tool created by high school students, wherein students win imaginary “money” for correctly answering questions, in this case, identifying Latin vocabulary terms. This was very interesting to watch as the students were clearly engaged and, unlike Kahoot (with which it shares many qualities) students were able to work independently and at their own pace and I have now incorporated it into my rotation of class time and homework activities. With the students fully engaged in this, Walsh placed their sketches on the back row of desks and then proceeded to take the students on a “gallery walk” where the students had to identify the Latin sentence based on their classmates illustrations and connect the number of the drawing with a list of the sentences from a Google Doc on their iPad. Magister Walsh played some quiet, soft music in the background which helped keep the students calm and relaxed during the process. For the last few minutes of class, Walsh projected the images from his iPad and called on students to guide the class through which pictures matched which sentences. Around 8:20, Magister Walsh released them to their next class. This was an excellent class wherein all students seemed engaged for the whole period and which nicely balanced a small amount of teacher centered instruction with a great deal of effective independent learning.
Magister Walsh’s second class, 15 eighth graders, began to file in around 8:35. I was impressed at how quickly and orderly the students got their books and prepared to read. I was even more impressed once they began to read! Several things became immediately clear: First, all of the students read remarkably well given their age and experience. All students demonstrated a strong command of not just pronunciation of the individual Latin words, but also of pacing, chunking, and intonation on the sentence and paragraph level as they read out loud. Next, the students demonstrated very high levels of comprehension, which Magister Walsh tested by asking “circling” questions after each paragraph – “Where are the Roman soldiers? How long is Roman sword? What is longer, a hasta (“lance”) or a pilum (“javelin”)?” These questions were asked in Latin and the students were encouraged to answer in Latin and many did. Magister Walsh even asked a few interpretative questions, such as “why does Julius think the Romans are better soldiers than the Germans?” While these questions were asked and answered in English, the students were expected to justify their answers with words or phrases from the text, just as they would do in an English or History class, therefore reinforcing skills that go beyond the Latin classroom. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the students seemed to really enjoy reading Latin! All students were engaged and eager to understand and learn from the information presented in the text, which, of course, is what learning any language is ultimately all about.
For his third class, which was held in a different room halfway across the school, many students were absent due to their participation in the school band, so Magister Walsh was left with a group of 11 eighth graders. The students were therefore encouraged to work on written comprehension questions corresponding to the same reading which students in the previous class had been reading. Walsh worked his way around the room, providing guidance as the students largely worked quietly and independently. After about 25 minutes, he called them back to order and he led his groups of young Latinists through potential answers, balancing use of English and the target language as they worked on mastering use of a grammatical construct called the possessive dative.
Next followed a long break, nearly two and a half hours, as the daily rotation meant that none of Walsh’s sixth grade exploratory classes met on this day. During this time, we ate lunch, refilled our coffee, and talked long about strategies for teaching Latin, recruiting students, and using technology in the classroom. We also had pleasant conversations with some of his fellow language teachers and the school librarian about some of the differences in operations between the middle and high schools in Burlington.
Around 12:35, Mr. Walsh’s fourth and final class met, in yet another room, a group of 13 seventh graders. This began with Walsh checking off their homework completion, and then students volunteered their answers and Magister skillfully and gently corrected their small errors in grammar and syntax while being careful not to discourage participation – a very difficult balance to achieve. About halfway through the period, the class moved to a reading of the last part of Chapter V of the Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (“Latin Language demonstrated through itself”) book – a book of graded readings and lessons that is in entirely in Latin and is at the core of our shared curriculum. Again, I was impressed at the students’ ability to read and understand the text as Latin, just as we do at the high school, and not merely as “coded” English.
For the second half of class, Mr. Walsh moved to vocabulary practice via projected images, followed quickly by a game of Quizlet live which he conducted in a manner he calls “legionary style” – a reference to the tactics of ancient Roman soldiers. As different from a traditional game of Quizlet live, wherein students in teams of three or four work collectively on their iPads to find the correct synonym or antonym for the Latin word provided, in “legionary style,” students on teams stand in lines and then approach one by one a desk where all of the team’s iPads are gathered. In this way, all students are equally responsible for all the words in order for the team to succeed, as opposed to a traditional game wherein often one particularly strong student can dominate the team and drive the selection of the correct answer before the others have a chance to think. I found this to be a particularly ingenious way of accomplishing many goals at once: evening the playing field among the teams (one particularly adept student cannot guarantee their team’s victory), increasing individual student responsibility to reach the team goal, and even teaching a bit about Roman military tactics, which relied on a greater sense of group cohesion and teamwork over individual excellence.
On the completion of our day together, a few things immediately leapt out to me. First and most importantly, how fortunate I am to have a colleague like John Walsh. Mr. Walsh is thoughtful, creative, patient and kind with all his students, passionate about the subject matter, and committed to excellence and improvement. When he started working at BPS, one potential area of disagreement was the fact that I had long since committed myself and my program to Active Latin, wherein students are taught to read, write, listen, and speak directly in the target language, as opposed to a “traditional” Latin program in which students work almost entirely through translation into English. A product of the prestigious but very traditional Boston Latin School, Magister Walsh had never had much exposure to Active Latin and had never seen it used in a high school classroom. To his great credit, after relatively few conversations, observations, and professional development workshops, he eagerly and courageously took on the very daunting challenge of learning to speak Latin and, starting in his second year, to conduct his classes along a similar model as the Active Latin methods I use at BHS.
That said, John has created something that is truly his own as well and I learned much from him and this experience. I dare say his classroom management skills are better than my own, as he was able to guide these classes of younger students in and out of transitions with such aplomb as to make me envious. Likewise, his knowledgeable and creative use of technology well outstrips my own facility with these tools of the trade. Finally, he has found many effective and innovative ways to adapt and improve techniques and materials that he learned or borrowed from observing me, as well as creating many lessons and activities that are entirely his own. For these reasons and more, I can’t say enough about how grateful I am to have such a sharp, courageous, and committed colleague. Gratias tibi ago, Magister!