Teaching Latin in New York City’s Public Schools: A Panel Discussion Sponsored by the New York Classical Club, May 4, 2012*
The four contributions below and this introductory framing piece present the findings from a recent panel on the resurgence of interest in teaching Latin as a curricular requirement at the core of a liberal arts education in several newly founded public schools in New York City. Four relatively new schools are represented here—in the order in which they appeared on the panel—by a combination of teachers and administrators: Williamsburg Charter High School (Ron Janoff), South Bronx Classical Charter School (Lester Long), The Brooklyn Latin School (Jason Griffiths), and Maspeth High School (Kathleen Durkin). Each contributor provides some background on his/her school and then attempts to shed light on the teaching of Latin there. In each case, the authors offer an overview of the curriculum and method of instruction, a survey of student results, some reflection on the struggles encountered, and new ideas for moving forward.
I. Introduction: The Panel Discussion in Context
Over the last six or seven years I had heard about several newly founded public schools in New York City said to be introducing the Latin language as a curricular requirement for a broad-based education in the liberal arts. Having confirmed these reports and reached out to some of the schools—including those you will read about below—I wanted to find out more about what lay behind the resurgence of interest in Latin in our public schools and, more generally, what was motivating the push for a liberal arts education based on the classics in the inner city. Was it a trend, a fad, a movement, or a fluke? To help answer these questions and to provide the teachers and administrators directly involved with the chance to meet and talk to one another, I organized a panel discussion as the final annual event of the New York Classical Club (www.nyclassicalub.org), a registered not-for-profit 501(c) (3), whose mission it is to promote the study of classical antiquity in the New York area. The panel, “Teaching Latin in New York City’s Public Schools,” was held at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus on May 4, 2012 and attended by an enthusiastic audience of about seventy-five, [End Page 255] a combination of NYCC members and guests, students and teachers from both public and private schools, and interested members of the community.1
This short introduction aims to provide some framing for the panel itself and for the papers that emerged from it. I hope it will become clear, first, that there are several factors contributing to the newfound interest in Latin instruction in city schools and, second, that the teachers and administrators behind it are themselves staunch defenders of the place of Latin in public education and articulate proponents of the benefits of a classical education for individual students and for the school culture as a whole. Finally, I have included some proposals for action that we can take both as individuals invested in seeing the Latin language thrive and collectively as members of institutions with the power to promote the spread of classical education from grammar school to advanced levels of graduate training.
On the basis of our panel discussion and from what I have been able to glean over the years from my own observation of the schools and in conversation with their teachers and administrators, I believe I can identify at least three basic reasons why Latin has taken on such an integral role in the four schools singled out for scrutiny here. The first is vision, as each school below has benefited from having a visionary leader whose passion, conviction, and drive have been instrumental in its founding and in requiring Latin for (nearly) all students. Indeed, two of those visionaries—Jason Griffiths of Brooklyn Latin and Lester Long of South Bronx Classical Charter—offer their contributions here. Ron Janoff and Kathleen Durkin shed light on Eddie Calderon-Melendez and Khurshid Abdul-Mutakabbir, the visionaries behind Williamsburg Charter and Maspeth High respectively. Common to all of these founders is an understanding based on personal experience that Latin has something substantive to offer that can serve as a basis for learning the liberal arts and for forming students to become more self-aware and, ultimately, contributing members of society.
The second reason for putting Latin at the center of these curricula is related to the rigor required in learning it. Indeed, there appears to be some consensus among the contributors here that, while Latin is hard, the rewards of building a solid foundation in the language or, more simply, of gaining some exposure to its breadth, depth, and beauty notably outweigh the inevitable struggles that come from teaching it. All of our contributors suggest—and some even say outright—that the analytical skills exercised in learning the language are immediately transferable to studying other subjects, even those outside the humanities. In each case, it is clear that Latin has become vital to creating a culture of learning and of seriousness that reaches across disciplines and informs the core mission of the school.
This leads naturally to the third and, in my view, most important factor behind what I shall venture to call the “return to Latin” in New York City public education: the idea that Latin is special. I do not mean special here in any quantifiable way readily reflected on test scores—although Lester Long argues convincingly that the study of Latin has positively influenced results at South Bronx Classical—but in a way that affects the overall ethos of the school and [End Page 256] thus ought not to be underestimated. For although it is commonly taught in elite private schools and some specialized city schools, Latin is not generally a mandatory or even a regular subject in inner-city education, as it is in the public schools profiled here. Indeed, each of our contributors shows—either explicitly or implicitly—that studying Latin strongly suggests to students that they are engaged in something special and, yes, are themselves special for engaging in it. This sets Latin apart from other subjects and, given its highly visible presence in the individual curricula here, sets the schools themselves apart from other schools. In each case, Latin appears to provide focus and purpose to a more generally enhanced culture of learning that is perhaps summed up best by the words of Dr. Janoff’s student quoted below: “Latin makes you smarter.”
Of course, this may also be quantifiably true, as Latin is often said to aid in abstract thinking, to help with vocabulary, and to increase SAT/ACT scores, the numbers for which are in fact borne out in the articles by R. A. LaFleur cited by Long below. And yet, numbers do not tell the full story, as acknowledged by Long himself, who notes that Latin gives his school an otherwise rare opportunity to “engage in a little elitism: parents of the school are finally able to enjoy the feeling of getting something world-class.” The parents at Long’s school are evidently keen to give their children the chance to take part in something that reaches beyond the confines of their present circumstances—South Bronx Classical is located in the country’s poorest congressional district—and even across borders and through time. To be sure, knowing Latin offers access to texts written over the last two thousand years or more that cover the spectrum of history, art, science, religion, philosophy, and poetry; inherently interdisciplinary and inexhaustibly rich, the Latin language forms an integral part of the intellectual heritage of Western civilization. Thus, at Maspeth High School—the Classical High School of New York City—Latin teacher Kathleen Durkin can plausibly argue that, “Latin is the thread that holds our subjects together,”2 and I imagine that this could also be said of the other schools profiled here.
“A little elitism” is perhaps not undesirable, but the elitist moniker conventionally associated with learning Latin is turned on its head in the inner city, an inversion memorably captured in the title of Janoff’s paper, “The Elite Meets the Street.” What is perhaps most beautiful about the Latin instruction in the schools singled out below is that it embraces the students for who they are and becomes in turn more natural, pliant, and effective. Not surprisingly, the teaching of Latin here has brought with it notable innovation in pedagogy, often involving active Latin, the subject of an excellent article by Neil Coffee, “Active Latin: Quo tendimus,” from the pages of Paedagogus in an earlier volume (CW [End Page 257] 105  255–69). I may be biased—ignoscatis, quaeso—but this is the most promising development in Latin pedagogy in our lifetime and, like “the return to Latin” in New York City public education. I am ready to call it a movement.
In conclusion, allow me to offer two suggestions for capturing the momentum palpable in the schools profiled below and for supporting the study of Latin as the foundation of the liberal arts in public education throughout New York City and beyond. First, we have to get the word out and promote the Latin language in public education. For I have argued here—and it will be attested below—that Latin motivates students and parents alike and contributes significantly to a school’s sense of purpose and identity, or what I have defined above as “an overall ethos” and “culture of learning.” The schools described here offer models for others, and Kathleen Durkin states outright that Maspeth High School aspires to set an example for other schools in New York and across the country. At the very least, all the contributors are keen to show the world what they are doing: do not hesitate to contact them.
Finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is. I would like to see the Classical Association of the Atlantic States (CAAS)—the association behind this journal—set up one or two scholarships for summer study in the classics either at home (for example, a college course in Latin for an advanced high school student), or abroad, say, in Rome, with the kind of program now offered at the Paideia Institute for high-school students. The New York Classical Club has been a staunch promoter of the study of Latin and of classical education generally, offering many contests annually for high-school students to win cash prizes in translation, recitation, and dramatic performance. Why not create a summer-study scholarship for high-school students? Whatever form it takes in the end, such a scholarship—or scholarships—will show students that in addition to the deep and sustained satisfaction of learning an infinitely rich language that provides entry into a larger conversation—the conversation of the West, if you will—Latin can also offer more immediate rewards in the form of actual money. And that, I believe, is readily quantifiable!
Williamsburg Charter High School, or WCHS, is a community-based public charter school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. WCHS students come—by lottery, with no preselection—from local low-performing public elementary and middle [End Page 258] schools. The majority (70 percent) are Latino, mostly Dominican. They average two years or more behind grade level with serious math and literacy deficits, poor study habits, negative attitudes toward school, and low language skills in dialectical Spanish and street English. More than 80 percent are eligible for free lunches because their families live below the poverty line. The school’s mission is to provide a college prep curriculum in the context of a safe haven—anti-gang, anti-bullying, GLBT- and special-needs-friendly—in neighborhoods overwhelmed by violence, drugs, hunger, epidemic obesity, diabetes, and HIV-AIDS.
WCHS graduated its first class in 2007. The school has had a consistently high graduation rate and a high level of college acceptance. By fall 2011, despite numerous setbacks, nearly one thousand students were enrolled at WCHS’ large, fully equipped new building, but New York City officials objected to management arrangements and claimed there were undisclosed financial irregularities.
In spring 2012 the DOE revoked the WCHS charter. A major legal and community battle erupted, which resulted in a court ruling on June 27, 2012 in favor of WCHS. But in the turmoil of that year, more than 75 percent of the faculty sought teaching positions elsewhere, and the school was hampered in recruiting new students. Operating in a highly charged political atmosphere fraught with attacks from unions and the press, abruptly changing regulations and standards, and frequent turnover of education officials, WCHS enters its eighth year as an academically successful charter school struggling to regain balance and start anew.
Latin has played a major role in WCHS’s academic success. In writing the Charter, Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founder, chose to make Latin the sole foreign language requirement for WCHS students, for a full three years, with very few exceptions. Raised in Williamsburg speaking Spanish, he credited his four years of Latin at Edward R. Murrow High School with teaching him to write, in particular with having the skills in English to successfully write the one thousand-page charter proposal. He was thus expressing his own ambition for all the students rising out of the same impoverished milieu, and was convinced of Latin’s potential role in their scholastic success.
Unheralded when the school opened and outside of any contact with the New York classics community, WCHS was not a “Latin” or “classics” school per se. In the first year, 2004, Latin was not even offered. It was postponed until the 2005–2006 academic year, when Latin teachers were recruited via Craigslist and a curriculum installed based on Wheelock’s Latin. When Wheelock’s proved too difficult, the school switched to Latin for Americans. The result was sheer chaos. Two Latin teachers left, having done their best to deliver a grammar-translation package while facing student opposition, rebellion, sabotage, and failure. One remaining teacher, Kyle Patterson, a gifted linguist and natural-born teacher from Texas, survived the struggle but acknowledged the need for a new approach.
At that time I was teaching Latin in two New York City public middle schools—to mostly Chinese students in Manhattan, and mostly Mexican students in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A colleague told me there was a new high school in Williamsburg that was having difficulty with its Latin program and could use my help, since as well as having Latin certification, I had background in special education, literacy, and cross-cultural studies. I jumped in with both feet.
Given a month to observe the school and come up with a solution to their “Latin” problem, I researched Latin curricula intensively from Ørberg to Rosetta Stone, Jenny to Oxford and Cambridge. I scanned the Yahoo Latin groups. [End Page 259] I observed and interviewed students and teachers, and tried to analyze the resistance.
I made two recommendations: first, “Cambridge Plus,” that is, the full Cambridge Latin Course amplified by as much active Latin—spoken, neo-, dramatic, oral, physical—as the teacher can manage; and, second, to aim for a 100 percent student pass rate. For students with a history of school failure and with an expectation of failure, the only real remedy is success, and their success, real success, is the teacher’s primary responsibility. Zen paradox or not, it’s the heart of inner-city teaching, for Latin or any subject.
Cambridge uses and teaches the skills of proficient readers: anticipation, imaging, participation, summarizing, rewriting, and more. It is narrative-based—an exciting, ambiguous, often humorous, sprawling, picaresque novel adapted from a wide range of original Latin sources that transforms grammatical study into a necessary set of leaps in the service of comprehension. The gradual, spiral presentation of grammar and the systematic ordering of vocabulary give student and teacher numerous openings through which to reinforce a natural experience of language learning. The cultural focus on the matrix of the first century a.d. provides ample time for rest and digestion and a different access into vocabulary and narrative. Finally, the support materials of every sort, especially the audio, are so complete that every teacher can find a selection customized to suit students’ learning styles.
In addition to adopting the Cambridge curriculum, WCHS supported me at Terence Tunburg’s weeklong Kentucky Conventiculum in Spoken Latin in 2006 and sent Kyle Patterson to a Rassias interactive language immersion training program at Rutgers. We came back ready to use modern language methods as much as possible in the new Latin classrooms.
We recognized that for typical students in WCHS, Latin begins as something alien. It sounds something like Spanish (some even think it is Spanish at the start—after all, they’re “Latinos”). It is required, like other subjects, but since they could have studied other languages, it feels like something forced on them. Its value in the future does not at first work for students whose literacy skills leave them operating mostly in an oral present. And their prior experience of failure in middle schools remains a deep hidden vulnerability that resistance can mask. There must be immediate payoffs and daily victories for them.
For most, Latin is the one subject no one around them has studied. That is why active and spoken Latin has to come into play: students need something to show off—whether it is a proverb, a short poem memorized, a name, or a “curse word,” they need it as a small trophy to prove the value of what they are studying. They need to be able to greet their teachers and each other, to name common objects, to ask for things and to refuse to do things, all in Latin—especially until their confidence and interest in reading a story (Cambridge) begins to click in, which is usually toward the end of their first semester. They need to have the fun and banter they would have in studying a modern language, and lose the sense that Latin is different from other languages, or harder, or simply “dead.”
Trial and error soon began to highlight important routines and practices. WCHS students—often because of their Spanish background—excelled at pronouncing Latin, so recitation and reading aloud, singly or in groups, became regular practices. Learning to ask and answer questions in Latin—about themselves and about the stories—gave them a sense of power. With Cambridge, the vigilant teacher asks probing questions about the stories that draw attention to what is [End Page 260] unsaid, suggested, or possible. On the other hand, students need to be encouraged to ask questions that arise from their own experience: Did the Romans have gangs? Was there sexual slavery in Pompeii? Did they have tattoos? Were there black people there? Was there birth control? It would not hurt, moreover, for students to learn that such questions are also at the core of certain fields of research in classics today.
Interpolating Latin words into English when speaking to students—and encouraging them to do the same—is a funny, gibberish way of reinforcing vocabulary; but it also promotes the deeper sense that Latin is somehow buried inside English, so that having studied Latin one never hears English quite the same again—one of the lasting effects. As they become aware of the derivative aspects of vocabulary, a little coaching goes a long way in helping them identify derivatives in science and English classes—another small trophy that helps in the daily justification of Latin study.
If the expectation of failure is the greatest enemy, adolescent narcissism can be the greatest ally. Latin names, Latin birthdays, inserting their names in stories or dictations, making every achievement visible on walls, documenting performance and reading aloud through photos and short films, rewarding the use of Latin, or finding Latin in the outside world, flattering and praising (in Latin), calling home in English or Spanish with encouragement, singing—all work wonders in the teaching of Latin.
When the paradigms come—as inevitably they will, and should—we let the students make the charts. Encourage them to use Roman capital letters right off Trajan’s column or Pompeian script straight from the wall graffiti. After about a year and a half the patterns start to make sense and teach themselves.
But why bother, really? After all, aren’t they more likely to go into the military than go to college (since they often cannot afford it)? Wouldn’t it be better if we just spent a year improving their Spanish rather than teaching three years of Latin? They won’t be reading “real” Latin in any case (except for Catullus, Martial, some Suetonius, some Seneca, some Pliny). Even if they do go to college, they won’t be majoring in classics, will they?
Clearly three years of Latin, of Cambridge Latin, needs its own rationale. There should be payoffs at regular intervals, and the curriculum must be structured to make sure the practice of derivative study, or the analysis of sentence structure, or care in pronunciation, or the memorizing of proverbs, all add value to the student’s overall educational progress and experience. In student terms, “Latin makes you smarter.”
As new classes entered and others advanced, there were important thresholds. Students who completed three years were eligible to take the Latin Regents (or now, its equivalent). We had a fairly consistent passing rate of 80 percent,, with more than one hundred students taking it each year from 2008 on. As the first waves applied to college, we discovered that admissions officers treated three years of Latin with considerable respect, and counted it as extra effort—an important factor in college admissions. Even the SAT scores—though still low—seemed to get a lift from Latin. And graduates who came back reported how often Latin vocabulary helped them in their college reading.
At the start of the 2011–2012 academic year, WCHS (and two smaller satellite schools) had a team of twelve Latin teachers under the supervision of a curriculum director exclusively for Latin, and more than twelve hundred students studying Latin and mythology at four levels—a very large cohort by any [End Page 261] standards. Despite the bruising year of conflict for the school, WCHS’s Latin program had by then existed long enough and learned enough to raise a standard and serve as a model for inner-city Latin instruction at the high-school level. At this juncture, as the school reorganizes, we can hand the torch forward to others in public and charter schools who believe in the value of Latin for educationally deprived students. The goal is to bring the elite to the street—by teaching our students not just the language alone, but perhaps its deepest value: to become citizens of the world.
Oh, and don’t rule out Cicero and Vergil just yet—there’s plenty of time.
1. This essay has been adapted from panel presentations delivered at the ACL in Las Vegas in June 2012 and the CAAS-CAES conference in New York, October 2012, both chaired by Ronnie Ancona of Hunter Graduate School, New York.
South Bronx Classical Charter School
South Bronx Classical Charter School opened in August 2006 as a high-performing charter school serving kindergarten to fifth-grade students. We offer a classical curriculum in a highly structured setting, and both the curriculum and the setting are designed to give our students, whom we call “scholars,” the chance to develop as freethinking individuals and citizens of impeccable character ready to excel at college-preparatory middle schools.
In addition to being located in America’s poorest congressional district, the South Bronx has New York State’s highest pediatric asthma, murder, rape, and robbery rates. Furthermore, the Bronx is the lowest performing borough in education in the city. We believe, however, that demographics do not determine destiny.
South Bronx Classical is one of very few schools that has closed the dreaded achievement gap, typically defined as the difference in test scores between black and white students. Our scholars, all of whom are black or Hispanic, perform better than their white counterparts statewide. On last year’s state tests, our scholars outperformed their peers in the Bronx, in New York City, and in the state as a whole. In fact, our scholars even outperformed the students in Scarsdale, New York, an upscale community about a twenty-minute drive away by car.
Probably no aspect of the school garners more interest and discussion than our classical curriculum. As our students continue to excel and grow, and the fundamentals have been increasingly mastered, we begin to teach more of the classical aspects of education. The first and most notable of these aspects is Latin instruction, which starts in third grade. (There are other classical aspects to our school, beyond the scope of this article. For example, scholars receive daily debate instruction starting in fourth grade, and scholars in all grades receive Character Education on a weekly basis.)
This article seeks to explain the rationale for establishing our Latin program and how it has affected our scholars. To be sure, our priority is mastery of English. Latin instruction is not a large part of the school, with each scholar getting roughly thirty minutes per day. But, just like the traditional dash of basil in mom’s tomato sauce, Latin has proven to be a small yet key ingredient in our school’s success. [End Page 262]
There are many reasons for promoting Latin in inner-city elementary schools. One reason is vocabulary acquisition, given that as much as 90 per cent of English words over two syllables are derived from Latin.1 We know that Latin prefixes and suffixes add color and precision to our native tongue and that Latin abounds in the medical, scientific, and the technical fields.
Latin has certainly made a dramatic comeback over the past forty years as a vehicle to language arts for all students. Some programs have been particularly successful in inner-city elementary schools, notably in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Oakland.2
Latin’s beneficial effect on students’ verbal aptitude is well documented. For example, the increased level of literacy is highlighted on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as documented by R. A. LaFleur and reported by the National Council for State Supervisors for Languages.3 Tests conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) from 1988 to 1997 showed that students studying Latin outperformed all others on the verbal portion of the SAT.4
Many curricula offer Latin stories set in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire. Students experience life in Roman Egypt, Spain, Gaul, or Germany and learn how these cultures interacted with mainstream culture of Roman Italy. Their removal from the world of today allows students to rethink human questions and dilemmas and to consider issues and ethnic differences from a new perspective.
In our third to fifth grades, we have used both Minimus and Latin for Beginners. Minimus, published by Cambridge University Press, uses classical pronunciation and a nonsectarian pedagogical approach, with teacher-led lessons. The stress in Minimus is on vocabulary acquisition and Roman culture for background. With both books, our scholars learn vocabulary and sentence patterns not by rote memorization, but by seeing key words and phrases repeated frequently in the stories and exercises and often illustrated with diagrams or pictures. The South Bronx Classical scholars particularly like the cultural and historical lessons in both texts, as they provide a much-needed, non-egocentric perspective to learning history, allowing our scholars to learn about a culture that is highly foreign yet eerily familiar.
In our third grade, scholars can translate simple sentences (for example, Magistra docet discipulos) and obtain nearly 100 percent mastery in translating the sixty most common Latin words. By fourth grade, our scholars delve into Roman family life, education, work life, clothing, and military, and learn to translate another sixty words. Fifth-grade Latin weaves introductory grammar, [End Page 263] conjugation, yet another sixty Latin words, and Roman history. By the end of fifth grade, our scholars can translate basic English sentences, such as “Suddenly I got hungry and ate bread and fruit.” into the Latin inopinate esuriens panem malaque comedi.
For our new middle school, we have developed a curriculum centered on the classic Ecce Romani textbook. In these higher grades, however, the focus will shift toward translation and grammar. At the end of sixth grade, our scholars will begin taking the National Latin Exam, translating entire paragraphs into Latin, and of course continue learning about Roman government, family life, and famous people.
By the end of the middle school years, we hope that our scholars will be prepared for Latin instruction at the advanced level in high school. Of course, they will also be very well prepared to move to learning modern Romance languages such as Spanish and French.
One concern, spoken and not spoken, is that inner-city students either cannot or will not learn Latin, either because they are unable to learn it (particularly starting in the third grade, far younger than many private schools begin Latin instruction) or because it is not part of their culture (or is a part of a culture they might resist). These types of arguments usually come from folks with little experience in either Latin or the inner city. As mentioned above, our scholars outperform their white counterparts. Further, they have embraced Latin. Stories abound of scholars excitedly noticing Latin phrases or roots on billboards, signs, or in general reading. Our scholars astound the docents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and their knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology provides untold benefits in historical context and the literary arts.
Our program is unique for many reasons. First, we teach Latin in a poor urban environment. Second, and in my opinion more importantly, we teach Latin as a regular course beginning at third grade, far younger than any school (private, charter, or public) that I have encountered. Finally, we do not have a separate Latin teacher, but instead ask our regular classroom teachers to teach the language. For all these reasons we have developed our own curriculum to adapt to the unique challenges we face. This doesn’t necessarily mean “dumbing it down,” but we did have to adjust how we teach Latin to make it suitable to our scholars, mostly given our particular time constraints and the scholars’ previous knowledge.
Latin instruction has several benefits in addition to learning the language itself. Vocabulary acquisition of English, initially seen as the largest benefit, has been eclipsed by English grammar instruction. Most people learn basic English in their day-to-day activities as a child. However, at higher levels one needs to learn English through explicit instruction, which rarely happens now in American public education. Often students wind up learning English grammar through learning a foreign language. At South Bronx Classical, the teaching of Latin is key to improving our scholars’ knowledge of English grammar.
As a school with an enrollment over 60 percent Hispanic, we believe that Latin provides a true advantage to our English Language Learners, who are typically viewed as disadvantaged. The connection that our scholars make, even at eight years of age, between their native Spanish and Latin gives them a rare glimpse of the actual advantage they have in knowing two languages.
There is another, less direct, but no less valuable benefit to Latin instruction. Our scholars call the nation’s poorest congressional district their home. [End Page 264] What a great opportunity for them to indulge in a little elitism! Parents at the school are finally able to enjoy the feeling of getting something world-class.
But how do we know if we’re successful? School-wide, our results indicate we have developed a culture, curriculum, and structure within which scholars have met with success. Specific to Latin, we use quizzes and tests to assess scholar learning in comparison to the state’s standards for languages other than English. Overall, our scholars are learning Latin very well, meeting and exceeding the state standards based on our own assessments. New York began administering a Latin Regents Exam in 1934 but abruptly cancelled it in 2009, which makes official external assessment more difficult.
In sum, I believe Latin instruction is both a worthwhile area of study on its own as well as beneficial in other aspects of the school’s mission. Furthermore, I believe that much of our school’s clearly identifiable success is due to its Latin instruction.
1. Concordia College, “Why Study Classical Studies at Concordia?” http://www.cord.edu/Academics/Classics/whystudy.php.ValerieStrauss “Latin: A Language Alive and Well” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16275-2005Apr26.html.
2. M. G. Abbott and V. M. Barrett, “Inner-City Latin Programs Raise Reading Scores” http://department.monm.edu/classics/cpl/PromotionalMaterials/Inner-CityLatin-Programs.htm.
3. R. A. LaFleur, “Latin Students Score High on SAT and Achievement Tests,” CJ 76 (1981) 254 and “1981 SAT and Latin achievement test results and enrollment data,” Classical Outlook 77 (1982) 343. National Council of State Supervisors for Languages “The Role of Latin In American Education” http://ncssfl.org/papers/index.php?latin.
The Brooklyn Latin School
The Brooklyn Latin School (TBLS) was founded in 2006 with sixty-three ninth grade students and seven faculty members. Over the past seven years, we have grown to serve 525 students in grades nine through twelve, and we currently have thirty-eight faculty members. Our school is located on the border of the Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and we share space in a 116-year-old building with a public elementary school. Our mission is to provide a classical, liberal arts education, including the study of Latin, in a disciplined academic environment. We believe that the TBLS experience develops the leadership capacity of our students so that they may serve as leaders in their communities.
TBLS is a replication of the prestigious Boston Latin School, the oldest high school in the United States, and we are one of eight specialized high schools in New York City. Entrance into the specialized high schools is by examination. We have organized our school based on eight essential features, many which we have replicated from Boston Latin, including the study of Latin for four years by all students; a distinctive student uniform; a unique nomenclature based on classical language and the norms of Boston Latin; the utilization of seminars in humanities and language classes; a declamation program in English, history, Latin, and Spanish; the practice of interim assessments that use data to move student achievement; a supportive advisory system; and the expectation that all of our students will prepare for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme Diploma. [End Page 265]
II. TBLS Students
TBLS is one of the most diverse high schools in New York City. Thirty-eight percent of our students are Asian, 27 percent are black, 20 percent are Hispanic, and 15 percent are white. Our students come from all five boroughs of New York. Forty-one percent of our students live in Brooklyn, 39 percent in Queens, 11 percent in Manhattan, 7 percent in the Bronx, and 2 percent in Staten Island. Nearly 70 percent of our students receive a free or reduced-cost lunch. TBLS has graduated three classes, and 100 percent of our graduates have enrolled in college. The statistics, however, do not paint a complete picture of the varied experiences and backgrounds each one of our students brings to our classrooms every day, and their diversity and distinct perspectives are clearly one of the great strengths of our school.
III. International Baccalaureate at The Brooklyn Latin School
In the fall of 2009, we began teaching our first IB classes at TBLS. Our students take IB Latin, IB English, IB History, IB Math, and IB Biology, and they can pick their sixth IB course from the following choices: IB Physics, IB Spanish, IB Visual Arts, and IB World Religions. By the time our students graduate, most will have taken fourteen college-level IB courses. This is a significant challenge for our students, teachers, counselors, and families. We are one of the few schools in the United States that requires all students to prepare for the IB Diploma. Since making the decision to become an IB school, we have been committed to using the IB as a guiding framework to concentrate our work as a growing school. The IB Programme drives nearly every aspect of our school, including our over-arching philosophy, mission and vision, curriculum, and pedagogical approach. We strongly believe that the IB Programme is the best system for providing our students with the knowledge, skills, and character that will prepare them to become successful young adults. Our Latin program, along with our school, has been heavily influenced by our decision to adopt the IB Programme, and it is interesting to note that in the upcoming year, TBLS students will make up nearly 10 percent of IB Latin students worldwide.
IV. Latin at The Brooklyn Latin School
TBLS is one of few schools in the United States that require their students to take four years of Latin. For our school community, this is nonnegotiable, and it is a commitment that is not always easy for our students or our teachers. We have planned our curriculum by focusing on what our students need to know and be able to do on their IB Latin assessments in their senior year, and we have scaffolded our curriculum beginning in their freshman year with this end goal in mind.
In Latin I, we give our students a strong basis in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, achieved through a series of readings on the foundation of Rome and its rule by the seven Etruscan kings. Students leaving Latin I are able to read Latin aloud with attention to proper pronunciation; translate level-appropriate passages into English; form and manipulate Latin nouns, verbs, and adjectives; summarize Latin passages or comment on their plot and/or characterization and annotate Latin sentences to aid in translation. In addition, students who have [End Page 266] completed Latin I have mastered the first three noun declensions, adjectives of the first and second declension, the active and passive of indicative verbs in all conjugations, uses of prepositions, and apposition.
Leaving Latin II, our students have a nearly complete understanding of the grammar, vocabulary, and history needed to read unadapted ancient works. This is achieved through a series of readings focused on the late Roman republic, from the Punic Wars through the Civil Wars of the 40s bce. Our students have also learned the fourth and fifth declensions of nouns, third-declension adjectives, demonstratives, participles (including ablative absolute), indirect discourse, and independent and some dependent uses of the subjunctive.
In their third year, our students begin their course of study in the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB 1). The aim of IB Latin Year 1 is a thorough understanding of the grammar, vocabulary, and historical context needed to read and understand unadapted prose from Cicero’s speeches and poetry from Horace and Catullus. This is achieved through prereadings, adapted readings, and ample contact with the original Latin texts. Our students also master gerunds and gerundives, conditionals, advanced uses of the subjunctive mood, and advanced uses of the genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative cases. In addition, our students can comment on plot, characterization, and tone, make historical/mythological references, and discuss the stylistics of unadapted prose and poetry.
In their senior year, our students continue to hone the skills they learn in their first year of IB Latin. They continue to read Cicero, Catullus, and Horace, while adding selections from Vergil’s Aeneid. Near the end of their course of study, our students will sit for or complete three IB assessments that measure their skill development and knowledge level. These assessments include Paper 1, which is a sight translation of a passage from one of Cicero’s orations; Paper 2, which consists of short-response questions on Catullus, Horace, and Vergil; and an internal assessment typically consisting of an oral presentation or a research dossier. We are confident that after four years of studying Latin at TBLS, our students will have a strong knowledge, sound skills, and a deep understanding of the language. In our first year with IB Latin, our students averaged a 4.5 out of 7 on their IB assessments.
We face a number of challenges in expecting our students to study Latin at the IB level. First of all, because our students study a variety of authors (that is, Cicero, Catullus, Horace, Vergil), they do not really have the opportunity to study one author in depth. Secondly, students have to master challenging material more quickly than in most foreign-language courses. This makes it difficult for teachers to maintain an appropriate pace while giving personalized attention to the students who may need the most support. Thirdly, the focused curriculum based on IB standards leaves little time for external enrichment or the study of culture and history. Finally, with the large number of students we have in each class (thirty students per class) and the varied language backgrounds of our students (many of our students’ first language is not English), it can be difficult for our students to stay on track for the IB diploma. Thus far, Latin has often been the course that prevents our students from achieving an IB Diploma.
At this point in our development, we are most encouraged by the fact that nearly all of our Latin students are performing at an intermediate college level, with [End Page 267] our best students performing at an advanced level. At the IB level, our students are engaging with the material in and out of class in the same manner as a college Latin student. Going forward, we intend to focus on how we can develop student-led learning opportunities given the size of the program and our classes; offer individualized attention to a group of students with such diverse needs; and synthesize the distinct interests and backgrounds of our Latin faculty members to create a unified approach to teaching Latin that matches our philosophy, pedagogy, and student body. We look forward to working on these challenges and producing high-level Latin students for years to come.
Maspeth High School: “The Classical High School of New York City”
Maspeth High School (MHS) is a New York City public high school serving grades 9–12 that opened for the 2011–2012 school year in Maspeth, Queens. MHS is not a charter school, but a “limited, unscreened high school,” that in enrolling students does not screen based on testing or previous scores. It does, however, give priority to students in Queens District 24, particularly to those who attend our regular “open-house” information sessions. Our first class last year had 249 students (54 percent female, 45 percent male), of whom 230 were enrolled in first-year Latin. The student body was 45 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, and 19 percent Asian with fifteen students identifying as either black or other. Of the total, 92 percent were general-education students, and 8 percent required some form of restrictive environment (according to Individualized Education Plans). We had thirteen students classified as English Language Learners (ELLs), with sixty-seven former ELLs.
MHS has been dubbed “The Classical High School of New York City” by its founder and principal, Khurshid Abdul-Mutakabbir, whose vision it was to open a large public high school with the study of classics at the core of the curriculum. Principal Abdul-Mutakabbir has expressed his vision in the school’s mission statement, and he fleshed out this idea in a short article disseminated to parents called “What is Classical Education?”
In a classical education, we seek to find common threads amongst our various content areas and use inquiry to push students to connect our curriculum to [End Page 268] their lives. We stress the open exchange of ideas through reading, writing, and speaking. We will guide our students to mastery of both content and process.1
Abdul-Mutakabbir neatly captures here the rationale behind the emphasis on a classical education at MHS where language-learning is at the center of a more holistic approach to mastering both subject matter and methodology. Thus we continually stress reading, writing, and speaking and, in a sense, may be said to use the traditional trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric as the basis of instruction across the curriculum. This derives from the idea that a traditional education in the liberal arts follows a specific three-part pattern: first, to supply students with data, then to give them the tools to organize those data logically, and finally to equip them to express conclusions in both written and oral form. Across the Humanities then—that is, in English, history, classics, art, and music—we offer so-called “Socratic seminars” in which students are repeatedly questioned and encouraged to come on their own to a higher level of critical thinking and understanding. Declamation, the art of public speaking, is also a regular part of our training in the liberal arts. It is our hope that students will learn to integrate the information they receive and, ultimately, to acquire the tools to become literate and curious young adults who can read, write, and—perhaps most of all—think critically about a wide range of subjects and problems.
MHS’s goal is to have students take Latin for all four years to complement a more general education in the classics. Our ninth-grade curriculum, for example, is intensely classical across the board with the entirety of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Argonautica in English class and selections from Herodotus in history. The push to have Latin for all students through all four years sets MHS apart from other high schools, which often preselect students for Latin, which is treated as an honors course, or require only one year of the language, usually in tandem with a modern language. From our current class of 240 we will expand each year and expect to have an enrollment of eleven hundred students at full capacity. We have thus designed our program to expand from Latin I through Latin IV including a course in AP Vergil and Caesar by 2014–2015. In addition, ancient Greek will be offered in the third year as a two-year elective. It is our goal for all students enrolled in Latin III to pass the newly instituted examination in Languages Other Than English (LOTE, a comprehensive language exam developed by New York City’s Department of Education in response to the complete elimination of the NYSED Regents Comprehensive Examinations in Foreign Languages in 2010 and 2011). In the fourth and final year of Latin, students will be able to take the AP course for college credit or a survey in Latin literature. In a real sense, Latin is the thread that holds our subjects together, manifesting itself across the curriculum and making good on our claim to be “The Classical High School of New York City.”
II. Our current program
At present, the Classical Languages Department has two full-time teachers for its 231 Latin students. We started our inaugural class last year with Learn to [End Page 269] Read Latin,2 but after a few months decided to switch to Latin For the New Millennium,3 which we felt was better suited to the needs and experience of MHS students. Even with the unforeseen and rather sudden change of textbook, we have had optimal student buy-in! At the beginning of the year, we took care to create lessons where Latin was made relevant to the students’ everyday experience of the world. We discussed, for example, the presence of Latin on American money and the influence of the classics on the founding fathers. While students were reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in English, they were also tackling adapted passages from De Bello Gallico in Latin and learning about the First Triumvirate in history. This was no accident, as our curricula have been designed to intertwine, and our staff is constantly working to support one another. In addition, we had several assemblies dedicated to Latin, where we showed a video montage for Saturnalia, sang Latin carols, and even performed a play in Latin—with English narration—on the death of Julius Caesar. This last, in fact, was put together by non-Classics Club students in their own free time! The Classics Club itself was at first slow to grow, but has now tripled in enrollment and even competed in New York’s competitive high school certamen.
Of course, not all our students have taken to Latin and the classics in their first year, but we will continue to work with them and guide their study according to the course set out in Maspeth’s classical curriculum. An overwhelming majority seems to enjoy their study of the Latin language and to stand behind the school’s mission, a trend we hope to further not only for incoming freshmen but also for future classes. With the support of the entire school and the integration of classics into all subjects, knowledge of Latin and the classical world is spread throughout the students’ days, and their interaction with it outside the Latin classroom enables them to work with classics in ways that can be interesting to each individual student.
In a diverse, urban area such as New York City—and the borough of Queens is said to be among the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world—we have found it helpful to make the lessons diverse as well in order to appeal to the wide range of cultural backgrounds in the classroom. There are many ways to make students feel connected to a language that is usually foreign to their cultural and educational experience prior to high school, and I have often invoked a celebrity relationship or popular song to help teach grammar. In discussing Roman marriage and funerary rituals, I have also asked students to compare and contrast their heritages with that of the Romans. Finally, New York provides an ideal laboratory for getting students to think about their own urban lives in relation to daily life in ancient Rome: How different were their lives from our own? What about their food, languages, education, entertainment, and chances for social mobility?
III. Continuing Classics at Maspeth
We are only beginning, and it is hard to say what the future will hold, but our program has already yielded positive results. Students won silver medals and [End Page 270] many certificates on the National Latin Exam, and we will aim next year to include more NLE questions on our Interim Assessments to prepare students throughout the year for the exam. As it stands, Maspeth’s program is intended to grow to host at least seven Latin teachers and one for ancient Greek. Indeed, it is our hope that we may serve as a model for schools looking not only to start or strengthen Latin programs, but also to incorporate classical education as a whole across the curriculum. At the very least, our students will receive four years of Latin, with Interim Assessments consisting of questions taken from the NLE and former NYS Regents Examinations and delivered at four intervals throughout the year to map student progress. We will continue to offer the NLE itself over all four years as an incentive for each student to excel at the highest level possible, and we look forward eventually to offering the AP course in Vergil and Caesar so that MHS students can work for college credit. [End Page 271]
*. I would like to thank Matthew McGowan and the excellent speakers on the panel he put together, as well as my stalwart colleague at MHS, Jessica K. Anderson, for helping me introduce our school to CW’s readers.
2. A. Keller and S. Russell, Learn to Read Latin. 2 Volumes: Textbook and Workbook (New Haven 2004).
3. M. Minkova and T. Tunberg, Latin for the New Millennium: Student Text, Level 1 (Wauconda, Ill. 2008).
* On behalf of the NYCC, its members, and my fellow contributors I would like to thank former CW Editor, Matthew Santirocco, and current co-editors, Robin Mitchell-Boyask and Lee Pearcy, for publishing the findings from our May 2012 conference.
1. This included a reporter from Gotham Schools, an independent news source about NYC’s public schools that published an article on the event, “Educators describe renewal of Latin instruction in city schools,” which can be read here: gothamschools.org/2012/05/07/.
2. Durkin’s comment is related to Cicero’s de facto defense of the humanities from the speech he gave in defense of his old tutor, the poet Archias, where he points out the close relationship among the arts, Arch. 2: etenim omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent, habent quoddam commune vinculum, et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur (“In truth, all the arts that concern humanity [sc. the humanities] have a certain bond in common and are linked as if in close relation to one another”). Cicero’s sentiments here and elsewhere directly influenced Renaissance humanists, who applied his concept of humanitas more broadly to the goal of education, where knowledge became a vehicle for excellence and the scholar the pursuer of virtue. It is worth considering whether the return to Latin in NYC public education relates to the goal of education as conceived by Renaissance humanists.