- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

A funny thing happened on the way to higher standards: Schools remembered Latin.
As educators work to improve student performance in basic subjects such as reading, math, history and science, a few are finding that Latin, long thought stuffy and irrelevant, can help.
Classes in Latin, which once attracted only college-bound students, are drawing youngsters from all backgrounds. Sales of Latin textbooks and materials are up, and even elementary schools are starting programs. The number of students taking Advanced Placement exams in Latin is nearly double what it was a decade ago.
"I think Latin always traditionally comes to the fore when people think about raising standards because it's a bedrock subject," says Marion Polsky, a Latin teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y., and author of a popular series of basic Latin textbooks.
Although Latin is no longer spoken, it once spread with the Roman Empire across Europe, Asia and northern Africa and is the root of modern Romance languages, including Spanish, Italian and French. Science uses Latin for everything from medical terminology to genus and species classification.
Teachers love the cross-pollination of Latin terms with English as well as science and history, says Frank Morris, an associate professor of classics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
"One of the things that makes Latin appealing to teachers is that it does multiple things for them," he says. "It has a very broad application."
Kyle Seton, a senior at Chancellor High School in Fredericksburg, agrees. "We learn a lot of English terminology in here. We go more in-depth than English [class] would," Kyle says.
The love affair with Latin is especially hot in Virginia, Texas and Massachusetts, three states pushing heavily for higher standards.
At Chancellor, Mark Keith teaches five Latin classes daily. Early one recent morning, he greeted students with a chipper, "Salvete, discipuli." ("Greetings, students.")
They responded, a bit sleepily, "Salve, magister." ("Greetings, teacher.")
The lesson began with a translation of the Spotsylvania County motto. Mr. Keith tapped on the chalkboard beneath the words "Patior ut potiar." ("I suffer in order that I may possess.")
Several students quickly offered slicker translations.
One raised his hand and said: "I work for a living."
Another: "No pain, no gain."
A third sang to himself, "I work hard for the money. "
Getting students to focus on speaking the language helps keep them interested, educators say.
"Instead of just drearily memorizing charts and not understanding how to apply the information, it's taught more as a natural language," Mr. Polsky says.
Forget verb conjugations. Latin students are talking, singing and translating love poems. A glass case outside Mr. Keith's room is stuffed with trophies from speaking competitions.
"I always tell students, 'We're here to communicate with the Romans,'" Mr. Keith says.
Even with the new focus, enrollments are nowhere near the level of 100 or even 50 years ago, when studying Latin often was required.
In 1895, about 44 percent of American students took Latin, driven in no small part by the fact that it was the language of the Catholic Church. By 1962, after the Vatican began letting churches use their native languages, less than 7 percent of students were studying Latin.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reports that in 1990, 163,923 public high school students or 1.5 percent were studying Latin. Ten years later, 177,477 public high school students or 1.3 percent were taking the language.
The College Board, which administers Advanced Placement exams, says the number of high school students taking Latin tests for college credit has risen 95 percent since 1993. Sales of Latin materials, including Mr. Polsky's books, have risen steadily since the mid-1990s, says Cathy Wilson of Pearson Prentice Hall.
Since Virginia began implementing its stringent Standards of Learning tests in the mid-1990s, Mr. Keith says, he has begun teaching not only college-bound students, but also teens who don't plan to attend college.
Younger students get a mouthful of Latin when they read the popular Harry Potter books. "Expelliarmus," for example, a recurring spell that disarms an opponent, is Latin for "disarm."
That fact isn't lost on Marie Davis, a full-time Latin teacher at Daniels Run Elementary School in Fairfax City. She refers to the books periodically.
Striding recently into a third-grade classroom wearing a stola, or long dress, and a hair cap made of braided wire, Miss Davis handed out folders.
"Ubi est Connor?" (Where is Connor?)
A tiny hand went up. "Hic sum." (Here I am.)
"Ubi est Diego?"
After handing out the folders, Miss Davis quickly guided the class through a counting lesson, "de uno ad triginta" (from one to 30), then moved on to a lesson on word roots.
It helps students learn vocabulary, "as opposed to just memorizing it," Miss Davis said afterward.
"Economics," for instance, comes from the same root as "ecosphere" "eco" or "oikos," originally a Greek term meaning "house."
"They know what an 'oikos' is in third grade," Miss Davis said proudly.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide