Last year, I was lucky enough to teach Latin to a group of African-American and Latino juniors and seniors at a charter high school in Washington. The school had just, for the first time, made “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But it had barely passed, and we knew we still had a long way to go. Many experts may believe that AYP is a poor measure of quality, but in this case it was an accurate indicator of a problem: Many of our students could not read well.
The school, and the literacy consultants it hired, had tried everything to bring students to understanding and independence through texts—and to help them pass the District of Columbia’s annual Comprehensive Assessment System, or CAS, test. On a schoolwide level, we were doing many things right, but the reading problem remained vast. So last year, after working as a literacy coach and a mentor teacher, I was able to try an elective in Latin, which I had taught before in other settings.
Because of budgetary constraints, I was only able to teach the course for one year, and I know I did not do it perfectly. Yet the experience convinced me that there may be compelling reasons to think that Latin might play a role in eliminating the achievement gap between disadvantaged and affluent students. It holds the power, I found, to bridge a subtle but perhaps more insidious prestige gap.
Latin fell out of general favor in K-12 education along with the de-emphasis of rote memorization, which was thought to dampen the creative spirits of students. But my students began each class by chanting the declensions and conjugations of our paradigmatic words and the school values (which we’d translated into Latin). Every day, two students would stand up, say “favorite part of the day,” and give each other five—at first with some sarcasm, but later on sincerely. Having all memorized in nonschool hours the lyrics of highly complex hip-hop songs, my students were easily able to acquire the Latin grammatical forms, once we started chanting them.
They did not mind memorizing—but they did not, as a rule, like to read or write.
Latin taught them a variety of strategies for dealing with text in way that pays high dividends in content and social capital. When they learned Latin, they were not only learning literacy and thinking strategies, but also a rich and prestigious language whose literature and cultural roots have been foundational for our own.
Most obviously, the students learned word roots that increased their vocabularies and can help them succeed on the SAT and other standardized tests. Beyond memorizing specific words, the students learned to examine the words for meaning—they learned to think. Likewise, Latin taught them grammar and provided names for the functions that language allows.
Latin carries an aura of privilege or prestige. The further out of favor it falls in public schools, the more elitist it becomes, available only to the few students at expensive academies who take it. My students realized this.
Through the study of Latin, my students were able to see language as a game with rules that could help them think. Latin grammar also helped my students understand the dynamics of the code-switching they perform as they pass between standard English and vernacular, and they came to understand themselves better.
Translation (with a grammatical explanation) is the best way to ensure that students are thinking. Latin translation does not let students get by solely with memorization; it forces them to think. But it does so in short, intense, sentence-length bursts.
During a given class period, I could walk around the room and watch my students, curled up and bent over their papers, humming, chewing on their pencils, clawing through their lexica—I could see them thinking.
Then, one by one, the students would raise a hand and call me over to look at their translations. When these were not correct, it was almost always because the student had failed to follow the right steps and ask the right questions of the sentence. So I could use these same questions with each (What is my verb? What person is it? What is my nominative, and so forth) to make them understand the error and help them learn from their incomprehension in a quick and concrete way.
Latin carries an aura of privilege or prestige. Indeed, the elitism of the subject is one reason that progressive educators turned away from it in the last century. And the further out of favor Latin falls in public school classrooms, the more elitist it becomes, available only to the few students at expensive academies who take it. My students realized this, especially after reading an article in The Washington Post about the Latin quiz game Certamen. One of the students asked why all the kids mentioned in the article were from private schools. “And white,” added another. The discovery of this seam of elitism in the study of Latin did not turn my students off. Instead, it persuaded many of them to include Latin mottos at the top of their college résumés.
Perhaps we can eliminate the most persistent of our achievement gaps by introducing Latin into failing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students. It can help these students with vocabulary-building, decoding, grammatical understanding, active reading, and metacognitive thinking. And an education in Latin would improve these urban students’ real-world chances of being accepted into good colleges.
The introduction and systematic instruction of Latin could thus go a long way in lessening education’s achievement gaps, while also taking aim at society’s power and prestige gaps.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week