Below is a short story that I wrote about Cassandra which may be of interest to you personally or perhaps to use with your students as part of a unit on mythology or the Trojan War. She has always been one of my favorite characters. Despite the fragmented literature that describe her as a selfish opportunist, I have always thought that she must have been a remarkably strong woman. What must it be like to live with the gift of prophesy while knowing that no one will believe you? The rest of the story is contained in the Omnia drive in the folder entitled, "This I Believe." Link is here
The Prophet’s Choice
I see it - just before dawn – the dark beast, stark against the bright beach. I hear the grunting and thrash of sand as it lurches forward. Once or twice, I feel the terrible rumbling of its belly as it rocks back and forth. I won’t watch. Instead, I slip out of the palace, and sit on the cool marble steps of my temple.
“There you are!”
I turn around. It is Maya, my youngest sister. “Mama said I would find you here. Why are you here all by yourself?
As she blinks up at me, I’m at loss at what to say. I notice the flowers clenched in her small fist.
“Maya,” I say. “Would you like me to braid those flowers in your hair?”
I pat the step of the temple below me. She smiles, skips up the stone steps and settles herself in front of me.
I tuck the flowers in her hair while she prattles on about the evening’s celebration. She’s very excited – lots of gestures and I have to remind her to stop bouncing so much so that I can properly braid her hair. I can’t hear what she’s saying because he is whispering in my ear again. His tone has lost its’ teasing quality and has become more urgent. “Come with me,” he breathes. I feel his fingers brush my cheek. I look up and he is gone.
There are a few things that remain universally true about teaching Latin regardless of the size of the school, age of the students and these are:
Now I know that I may be making some of you nervous because I can hear you saying, "But I have a textbook! I have to follow the order of the textbook. That is another huge fallacy. Here are some others:
Start with Gender Despite What Your Textbook Says
The best way to explain anything is to relate the new idea to something they already understand. In the complicated structure that is Latin grammar, case and declension are poor ways to start. English has neither. Nearly all textbooks begin either by listing cases or declensions.
The concept that everyone understands is gender. All humans are accustomed to making decisions about gender based upon certain easily visible characteristics. I tell students that we can make decisions about the gender of nouns the same way we make decisions about the gender of people - by looking at the characteristics. Here of course there are always jokes about how "Sometimes you can't tell" and "What about transsexuals, people who change gender" etc. I explain that similarly with Latin nouns, you can make errors about gender, but many times, you can tell immediately. Incidentally, this discussion can be a great segue into a productive conversation about tolerance.
The point is though to tell students that Latin nouns have three genders rather than two, a difference they will find interesting and that these genders can easily be identified by their ending. Here I teach them the nominative of first and second declension nouns - masculine, feminine and neuter. I usually begin with puella, servus and scutum. I never mention the word declension or nominative in this discussion. I tell them that feminine words end in a, masculine words end in us or r and neuter words end in um. In over 20 years of teaching, I have never met a student who did not immediately understand this concept.
If your textbook begins by listing all the case endings of the first declension, ignore it and use the exercises in the first chapter of your textbook. In general, the first chapter exercises in these books only use short sentences with the nominative case. You may need to write some auxiliary exercises with masculine and neuter nouns but since these sentences will be very simple, this shouldn't present too much of a problem.
If your textbook begins by explaining declension, read the stories anyway. Point out the masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. You may need to add a few neuter nouns in sentences. Several popular textbooks begins by explaining that there are three declensions that have two genders that can be identified by looking at the ending except when the can't - (a concept clear as mud to the beginning Latin student.) Ignoring this information initially will not be an issue because STUDENTS DON'T READ THE TEXTBOOK. Unless of course it is about mythology or gladiators - then they may read some.
But I'm using spoken Latin and we need to use many words that are not first and second declension to communicate!
Also doesn't matter - Students can and should speak and read many different phrases, clauses and sentences without being cognizant of the grammar. Understanding grammar is a piece of learning a language but it should not the sum total of the experience. Students can both hear and orally understand a great many words than they can grammatically parse.
For example, my middle schoolers are very big on "volo" and "nolo." They find the words hilarious and they have learned to say volo dormire, nolo sedere, and a few other phrases. They are volo-ing all over the place. They have no idea that volo, velle is an irregular verb or even that the "o" denotes a first person speaker. They will - but their incomplete understanding of the grammar has not hindered their willingness to speak phrases they understand.
Let's Make Nouns Plural
From here, it is natural to discuss how to make all three genders plural. Here I mean plural nominative but I haven't actually mentioned that word yet. Again, when discussing that neuter words become plural by changing the "um" to an "a," it is useful to relate this change to the idea of gender that they understand. I ask students, if Brian puts on a dress does he become a girl? Similarly, when a noun changes it's ending, it doesn't change it's gender.
Let's Talk About Adjectives
The next step is to explain that adjectives match the nouns which means that adjectives take the same ending as the nouns except in the case when a masculine noun ends in "r" because the masculine adjective will end in us. This again, will seem logical and interesting to nearly everyone. Here you may need to write some practice sentences or phrases so students can practice changing the ending of the noun to match masculine, feminine and neuter nouns singular and plural.
This whole process takes about two weeks. During this time students generally read the first chapter of their textbook and maybe the first chapter of some other textbook that I photocopied. The Latin Insults activity under "Beginning Activities is a useful and entertaining exercise to practice this concept. Most beginning chapters contain fairly simple paragraphs heavy on the verbs est and sunt and with few direct objects. Often there are some prepositional phrases, but that doesn't present a problem.
On to Accusative
The next natural step is to deal with direct objects of the accusative case. I also introduce the nominative - identify it as the endings that they already know and the subject of the sentence. Most textbooks introduce the accusative case first so it's not too hard to adapt. Again, if your text is only dealing with first declension nouns, write some sentences with masculine and neuter second declension subject and direct objects. Add first and second declension adjectives to the mix. I keep my sentences short and violent to reinforce the idea of accusative. I use a lot of white board activities and skits so that students can illustrate, "Ursus cuniculum pulsat." (See whiteboard activities and Latin Silent Movies for a more complete description of these activities.)
If your textbook has third declension nouns, just ignore any explanation about the endings. In the reading method, where frequently third declension nouns are explained early on, students can read a great deal more than they explicitly understand.
Tackle the Ablative Next
Again, this isn't too much different from the order of most textbooks but grammar based books only tend to teach ablative with feminine first declension words. This is ridiculous. Teach ablative with second declension masculine and neuter words. Teach the ablative only in the context with prepositional phrases. I find it's easier if they learn all the ablative prepositions at once. They can all be sung in a song (See Songs and Videos). Have them speak, write, draw ablative prepositional phrases. Have them bracket them in the text. If your text has accusative prepositional phrases, don't despair - have the students bracket those so they don't confuse the endings with the direct object. If an especially precocious student asks why the nouns in some of the prepositional phrases don't have ablative endings, you can tell him or her that this will be illuminated later in the course. Praise them for noticing of course, since that rarely happens. Latin Clue is another good activity to teach prepositional phrases in the context of accusative and nominative.
Take a Break and Go to Verbs.
At this point, all my students know about verbs is that they end in "t" when they are singular and "nt" when they are plural. Now it is time to break out the rest of verb endings. There is a song under the "Songs and Videos" tab to help students memorize this. It is useful to teach students how to form both ARE and ERE - first and second conjugation at the same time. The human brain is comparative. Students should learn that a verb has a stem, a linking vowel and a personal ending. Some have "a" as a linking vowel and some have "e." It amazes me how many textbooks only tackle first conjugation. Learning both at the same time is easier. I also explain the concept of infinitives here too. Save third and fourth conjugation for later. Again, students can read and speak verbs of all conjugations but introduce how to form first and second together first. Mendax - is a great activity to help students learn personal endings of verbs.
On To Genitive
At this point, the students will have enough familiarity with the nominative that they are less likely to confuse it with the genitive. Teach both possessive and partitive at once. It's easy to explain that the genitive is translated by putting "of the" in front of the word or 's, whichever makes the most sense. Teach them words like numerus and copia so they can see how partitive works. Don't bother to name these uses. It's not helpful.
Accusative with Prepositional Phrases
Teach them how to use accusative prepositional phrases. Have them form both - ablative and accusative prepositional phrases. Here by teaching a new concept, you are "circling" on an old one - what prepositional phrases are and how they are used in a sentence.
Back to Verbs: 3rd and 4th Conjugation
More circling - same concept- personal endings plus linking vowels but different linking vowels than first and second conjugation. See a nifty song under songs and videos for a way to get kids to remember which vowel goes with which conjugation.
Finally onto Dative:
The last case - Most textbooks teach the dative case poorly. You may need to find some supplemental stories to make sure students have enough practice with this case. As a review for all the cases, have everyone play Unus.
NOW Explain Declensions - Introduce Third Declension
Put all the endings on the board for masculine and feminine. Explain that they have already seen many of these words before but now we are going to learn how endings work. Declension is a tricky idea for students. I always explain it as a club. First declension is the cheerleading club. Most of the people wearing the cheerleading uniform are feminine but there are a few males on the team. I ask them, "If I told you that Alex is on the cheerleading team, what would you assume about Alex?" The 2nd declension group with endings of us in the nominative are mostly male. It's a bit like the football team. If I told you Alex is on the football team, what gender would you assume that Alex is now?" In both cases, there is a small chance that you might be wrong. I explain that third declension is like Student Council, which traditionally is a mixed gender club. When I ask the question about Alex regarding Student Council, students agree that they would have to ask a clarifying question to determine what gender Alex is. Like Student Council, the "uniform" or set of endings for third declension includes both masculine and feminine endings and so you just have to memorize the genders. they find this point discouraging but understandable. At this juncture, the learning of third declension endings is usually accomplished pretty quickly since students are now intimately familiar with the use of the cases.
Verb Tenses - Imperfect First
It's easy to form, it's regular - it uses the 2nd principle part. Thankfully most books see the logic of this. The imperfect tense is most often the first tense introduced. Now it is necessary to watch, the world's most bizarre and compelling Latin video. Thank you, Abbi Holt!
Onto the Future
So many texts introduce the future much, much later. Again, it's a little more challenging than the imperfect but it uses the second principle part and the imperfect and the future are easy to use in stories together. I wrote two stories that uses both imperfect and future tense together. One is based on the Ecce Romani series. The other is a medieval fable. They are both in the drive linked to this page.
Now Tackle the Perfect System.
Again, your students can be reading perfect tense verbs in context long before they understand how to use them. For example, my students know that "Dixit" means he said and "dicit" means he says long before they know any principle parts.
From here, there are many different directions that you can go. Order is most important to the beginning student and less important, the more advanced students become. Third declension adjectives, imperatives, i-stem nouns, participles, ablative absolutes. I find depending on what you reading drives the understanding
Resources to Supplement Your Text:
Students need to read, read, and read. Most texts especially those grammar based series such as Jenny's and Wheelock don't include nearly enough reading material. Ecce Romani and Cambridge have more reading material but students who only read one text become too reliant on the style of that text and easily flummoxed when given something different. Older textbooks have wonderful, politically incorrect stories to broaden students reading interest and ability. Find them on internet book stores, in the back of your book room, at tag sales sponsored by the various Latin organizations. Here are some of my favorites.
Our Latin Heritage - Many, many stories in this series from mythology, Livy and from the imagination of the authors. The first book is the most useful
Using Latin - Another great text similar to Our Latin Heritage. The first book also has many stories.
Latin Via Ovid - I love this book. The author has done an excellent job of adapting Ovid's self-aware style of narration. The first time the narrator addresses the reader, the students will be confused but they will get the hang of it. This series gets fairly complex fairly soon. It is a great bridge for students who need a bit more practice with subjunctive, participles and some other mid-level concepts.
38 Stories: Wheelock Supplement: This little volume is still in print. It has mostly myths in increasing levels of difficulty. It references the grammar used before each story and lists vocabulary.
Lively Latin: This small, out of print book has great stories that I have never seen anywhere else. There is a whole series about a romance during World War II that makes great use of participles and ablative absolutes.
You're a new teacher and you're excited but you feel unprepared. (Everyone does in the beginning). However, you will make up in energy what you lack in experience. You will work very hard and care very much. That's an excellent short term plan; one that will get you through your first year- maybe. It was my plan as well. The problem with this plan is that it's unsustainable. I know - blasphemous, since giving 110% is supposed to be the norm in education. The fact is that if you operate this way, you will burn out quickly and leave education regretful that you just couldn't hack it.
As much as you strive to be, you cannot be the sole generator of enthusiasm, energy, and entertainment in your class at least not for very long. Teaching, as no one tells you in teacher training, must be an energy continuum to be truly effective. You give out energy and enthusiasm. Your class radiates that back to you which then in turn you give back to them and so on. This is how the momentum of the class is carried forward.
I understand how ridiculous this sounds. I know you face a sea of sullen faced, drowsy, disinterested teenagers trying to steal glances at their phones when they think you aren't looking.
Here's the thing - no one has explained this concept to them either. Mostly, what teenagers understand about school is that if they remain as motionless and passive as possible, they are more likely to stay out of trouble and less likely to be embarrassed in front of their peers.
So how can you create this energy that propels the class forward?
Give students permission to be appreciative
You know that little lift you feel when someone compliments you? We know our students need praise. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about the power of praise in the classroom. But teachers need to hear it too. And I know, most likely, you haven't heard much, especially from students. Gratitude is a forgotten skill in the classroom. Teach it.
Introduce the concept in practical, concrete terms. Say:
It is important that if we do something in this class that you particularly enjoy or you found particularly helpful, that you tell me. Often times, I try a new game, a new approach and with no feedback from you, I wonder if it was worth it. Often times, I only know what worked in my class long after the class is over or when someone complains, "Why don't we do such- and-such anymore?' If you tell me what like and what worked right after we did it, it makes it much more likely that we will do it again. Besides, I'm human - I worked hard to make this activity fly and like everyone else, I need a compliment now and then as well.
Sometimes, I find the opening to have this conversation when I hear another student talk about a different teacher. Here's a short replay of a conversation I had several years ago with an eighth grade class.
Student 1 (to another student entering the room): You know, I think this is the first year that I understand math. Ms. Casey really explains things.
Me: Did you tell Ms. Casey that?
Student I: No.
Me: It's important that you tell Ms Casey that. She's an excellent teacher, I know - but you would be surprised how little she hears about what she's doing right. I bet if you told her that, it would make her day.
Student: Yeah, it probably would. Some kids are real jerks in that class.
Me: (I then launch into above speech)
Give students permission to monitor their peers' behavior
Conversely, you cannot be the sole voice for law and order in the classroom. While it may seem at times that you are the sole supporter of learning, in reality - that is not the case. Most students want to learn. Most are irritated with those that interfere with that goal. However, they have been taught that the teacher is the only advocate for learning. You need to change that. Give them permission to stand up for the class. Say:
I cannot be the only person in this room standing for this class. If you are interested in learning and someone is interfering with that, I give you permission to call them on that. Tell them, "Shh" Or say, "You know, I really want to hear this!" Your voice is more powerful than mine. I am the teacher - that means I am always saying stuff like sit down, stop chatting etc. But when a student speaks up, that's powerful. This does not mean that you have permission to yell "Shut up" or call people names but there are ways to let your classmates know that you don't appreciate their interruptions.
Nota bene: You are going to need to have these conversations more than once. That's okay - it takes time to shift the flow of energy from teacher to student to a circular flow.
Plan not to be the Center of Attention
Consider the overall energy required from you as you plan your day. When I plan a lesson, I always ask, Who is doing all the work here?" if the answer is me - then I look for ways in which the students can participate more or that they can do most of the work in the following lesson.
So much of this flies in the face of what is conventionally understood about what makes a great teacher. Our iconic teaching movies, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Dead Poet's Society focus on the charisma and wit of the individual teacher standing up in front of an often hostile class. This is an unsustainable fantasy. Even in the movie, Mr. Escalante, the calculus teacher in Stand and Deliver was hospitalized before he finished his first year. Ms Louanne Johnson, the inspiration for Dangerous Minds only taught high school for five years before moving onto college. And Dead Poet's Society? Seriously. Can you be Robin Williams for five shows a day?
This does not mean that you should not stand up and command the attention of the class. You should - just not every day, every period. Stand in front of the class to explain instruction, stand in the back to allow students to absorb it. More time will be needed in the back than the front.
The majority of your class should be spent with students doing something to practice, absorb, learn the concept you have taught. And this is good for two reasons. First of all, in order to survive a teaching career, you need time "off stage" to recharge your energy and students need to put forth energy to learn.
Learn to vary your instruction - because it's good practice but also because it will save your sanity. Examine your day - do you have five periods of "Stand and Deliver?" If you do, reassess, create more student-centered activities for half your classes. Get yourself off stage or your final shows will be ragged and cranky.
I know teachers are supposed to have unlimited energy and enthusiasm but let's be honest. No one does. While every teacher training program talks about the importance of varying your lessons to maximize your student's learning, it's also important for your own health and longevity in this career. The pool of available and interested Latin teachers is small. Myself and other veterans need new teachers to whom we can pass the torch. We are rooting for you: burn bright but not out!
Before I begin, I feel obligated to warn you that you probably shouldn't read this blog. According to all the recent developments in education, I am about to impart some very bad advice. If you too have been schooled in differentiated instruction, student centered learning, and data driven decisions, then you know that if a teacher is standing in front of the class and the students are not collaborating, manipulating objects or generating data of some kind, that this is very bad practice indeed.
And so by the new metrics of education, storytelling must be very bad pedagogy. It is teacher centered and technology deficient. There are no essays to be written or details to be analyzed. The procedure is for the teacher to stand in front of the room and tell the story. The students, despite the lack of media, accountability or formative assessments, listen. And by listen, I don’t mean do other homework, sleep, write notes or stare into space. They actively listen, eyes open, body forward and pencils down. It’s a rare sight.
Sometimes they even refuse to leave the class. One day, when I timed an episodes of the Trojan War exactly right, I reached the part where Zeus saw young Paris on the slopes of Mt. Ida and declared that he should judge the beauty contest. Before I could tell them about the judgment of Paris, the bell rang. Despite the fact that it the lunch period was next, no one moved. “But what did he do?” they asked.
I replied dramatically, “And then the class went to lunch.” They didn't bite.
“We can stay,” someone said. I looked around and 18 seventh graders stared back at me, still in their seats. “We want to know!” yelled a voice from the back. Although inwardly dazzled, I told them that we would continue next week and so groaning, they shuffled out. This was unprecedented. Were students really volunteering to miss lunch to stay in class?
I came to storytelling by accident. I used to teach mythology the correct way. I gave everyone a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and I devised a series of thoughtful reading questions for students to complete as they read the stories. At the end, everyone wrote a paper in which they analyzed the themes of hubris and heroism in three myths of their choice. They hated it. “This is the dullest book I've ever read!” they said. “These stories make no sense!” Of course there were a few that loved it but the majority despised it. I tried to vary the projects – posters, presentations, and Power Points instead of papers. It didn't matter. The projects got better reviews, but the consensus remained that the book was terrible. Still I soldiered on. Comprehension and analysis were more important than enjoyment of the story, weren't they?
One day, on a Friday when a test was completed earlier than I had anticipated, I was left with fifteen minutes and no plan. Every beginning teacher knows that fifteen unplanned minutes in a classroom is roughly equivalent to quarter of a century in real time. I ran through my options. It didn't seem wise to start a new unit before the weekend and reviewing the old material had been done to death so I told the the story of Perseus and the Medusa instead. They loved it. “Can we do this every Friday?” they asked. I thought, why not? Thus began a Friday tradition. Since I wound up telling the majority of stories contained in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, I stopped teaching it. The books collected dust on the shelves. Sometimes, a student, hungry for more monsters and heroes, would take one home.
The reaction of students to storytelling is different depending on the age. Middle school students simply listen, their boundless energy contained for the moment in their delight of the story. High school students relax and smile. They've heard this before. It was a movie or a cartoon they vaguely remember. They make sarcastic comments about the plot and the hero as I tell it and we laugh together. The youngest students though are confused. Inevitably one of them raises their hand. “Is this true?” They ask.
“No,” I say. “It’s a story.” This answer makes them uncomfortable. If a teacher is standing in front of the room and speaking authoritatively, it is because she is giving a factual lecture which requires a worksheet or a homework assignment. They know that stories are the domain of picture books. They look at me suspiciously. They ask why I am telling a story. I reply, “Because stories are good to know. This puzzles them some more. “Just listen,” I say and they do.
For a while, I felt guilty that I was not holding students accountable for their learning. I didn't scaffold my instruction, nor was I accommodating different learning styles. Twenty years of professional development whispered in my ear that I was kidding myself. Children do not learn by listening passively. There needs to be a project or a paper or at least a review sheet for students to retain knowledge. So one mid-week morning, after a long weekend, I asked my youngest students questions about the 12 gods I had described in stories the previous week. Every student in the class raised their hand, waving it wildly as young students do when they really want to be called on. As I called on them, I heard my words repeated. I saw my gestures recounted and even heard the cadence of my voice captured from a student who had only recently learned to speak English. They remembered literally every word I said. I stopped worrying.
For many years, I wondered why my storytelling had been so successful. Even though I have told these myths many times, I still forget important details and have to back-track in the telling. Names of minor characters constantly escape me and send me running to my notes for a quick check. I am not a professional storyteller. Consequently, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that the sole reason for my success is because my material is so good. Mythology has captured the imagination for 1000 years. The written tales are disjointed, lacking description. Many begin strangely and end badly. But when they are spoken aloud, magic happens. When I discovered this, I felt as if I had dug up some buried bejeweled relic that has been for lost for decades, covered by the dirt of modern pedagogy.
With the advent of the Common Core, this jewel has become an even rarer relic. The new emphasis on “informational texts” in the English curriculum has forced out many long standing units on mythology in middle and elementary school. Five years ago, I began my stories with the understanding that my audience had at least a passing familiarity with the Greek pantheon. Now, more often than not, I am the students’ first introduction to classical mythology. The birth of Athena, the abduction of Persephone always makes my youngest students crow with delight. “How do you know all these stories?” they ask in amazement. I pity the poor ELA teachers who had to give up such gems, but selfishly, their loss has been my gain.
I feel obligated however to add a note of caution to this tale, should storytelling ever make its way back into the mainstream of scholastic pedagogy. When educational theorists discover a good idea, the pattern is, to label it with an acronym, then to over apply it until the technique has lost its usefulness and the very mention of the acronym makes teachers roll their eyes and shudder. ST (or storytelling) works better than anything I’ve tried in 20 years to create interest and enthusiasm in mythology. This technique cannot be applied to teaching Latin grammar. No class has ever volunteered to stay past lunch to listen to me lecture them about the sequence of tenses or construction of ablative absolutes.
Nevertheless, if the older me could go back in time and give the younger struggling Latin teacher some advice about how to connect with her students, how to keep students from wondering if they should have taken a language with less case endings and a more familiar word order, I would say: Magistra, this Friday, put down the text book and leave that cultural video in the cabinet. Turn off all electronic media, look your class in the eye and tell them the story. You won’t be disappointed.
How to Tell a Story: A Short Primer
1) Start with good material. To use a cooking analogy, most of us do much better with quality ingredients. A master chef can make a four star meal out of spam. The rest of us must have the best ingredients in order to create a memorable meal.
2) Classical myths are great material, the filet mignon of stories. Livy’s stories of early Rome are also good material – a juicy hamburger – if perhaps, a little bloody.
3) Keep it short – 10 minutes to start, 20 minutes at the longest.
4) The purpose of an oral story is to learn “WHAT” happened. Written stories answer the “HOW” much better. Lengthy descriptions, repetitive actions and elaborate metaphors enhance a written story but drag down an oral one.
5) Relax – don’t memorize your material. This will make the story stilted.
6) Vary your voice and your rhythm as you speak to build tension, increase interest
7) Add humor or modern comparisons when appropriate. Don’t shy away from metaphors or similes that draw comparisons to modern life. Remember, classical storytellers used them as well. Now they are called “epic similes.” Then, they were simply comparisons the audience could visualize and understand.