Latin: Alive and Well in the Classroom

Published in the January 2010 issue of Boston Parents Paper

Among the classes that kids take in public and private schools today, Latin isn't the first to come to mind. Many people might say it's unnecessary, a "dead language" that no longer applies to "real life."

Yet, more than 60 percent of our English vocabulary has Latin roots. And, while you may not know the origin of the words you speak, many of today's Massachusetts students do. Latin is alive and well in schools across the state. Long a cornerstone of classical education at many private schools, this ancient language now has fans in a wide range of academic settings from municipal to Montessori, charter to parochial, in grades as early as elementary.

For the past five years, Boston lawyer Gregg Bailey has voluntarily taught Latin to Dorchester tweens and teens attending rigorous area schools where the language is required. He does it through Project D.E.E.P., the Dorchester Educational Enrichment Program that tutors and prepares Dorchester youth for entry exams required by schools like Boston Latin and Roxbury Latin. D.E.E.P.’s been so successful getting kids into these institutions that five years ago it launched Learning Latin to support them in their schoolwork.

Bailey, who holds an undergraduate classics degree, stepped in to teach the program. Once a week he and a group of mostly 7th, 8th and 9th-graders study Latin vocabulary and tackle homework challenges. Enrollment doubled in the first three years and, according to D.E.E.P. assistant director Lauren Hughes, continues to climb.

“Latin,” says Hughes, “is paramount to a comprehensive education. It can expand a child’s knowledge of English as well as help in learning any other Romance language.”

Growing In Popularity

Recent Latin enrollment statewide has held steady or grown, with Latin’s value as a building block of English a key reason why.

Alice Lanckton, a Newton South High School teacher who’s seen Latin enrollment double to about 100 since 2002, says, “Students appreciate the importance of Latin in increasing their vocabularies, both for the SATs and for life. Kids who take Latin enjoy understanding words.”

Claire Planeta, Latin teacher at Easton’s Oliver Ames High School agrees. “People tell me they use Latin more than any subject because it helps them with vocabulary. Most of my students would tell you they learned English grammar in Latin class," she says.

Latin classes start in the 6th grade at many private schools. At Brookline’s Dexter and Southfield schools, for example, middle schoolers take three years of Latin, then decide whether to continue at the high school level. About 50 percent do. “We’ve always had a strong interest in Latin among our student body,” says Lisa Pyne, the schools’ classics department head. “Because they’re exposed early, our students are invested in their study of the language.”

Early exposure means parental investment, too. Lynn Sullivan-Galvin, a Boston mom whose son is a Dexter 8th-grader, says, “Sam’s in his third year of Latin; therefore, I’m in my third year of Latin.” Sullivan-Galvin’s seen Sam read novels without looking up words while his high school-age sister, who doesn’t take Latin, keeps a dictionary close. “I can’t believe how much Latin has helped Sam’s vocabulary. When reading, he can figure out words because of the Latin root, making the reading much more enjoyable. When writing, he’s able to use less common words because of Latin.”

Putting It To The Test

Currently, Latin is taught at about 20 percent of middle schools in Massachusetts' 220-odd public school districts and 62 percent of high schools, according to state education department data. A quarter of those high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) Latin, built around works of ancient Roman poet Vergil.

A trend toward diligent SAT preparation in recent years may help explain the old tongue’s 21st-century appeal: that Latin-takers outperform peers on the verbal (now Critical Reading) portion of the SAT is supported by 2007 Educational Testing Service data showing average scores of 678 for Latin-takers versus 502 for all students. For younger students, Latin may provide an MCAS edge: a study of midwestern 6th-graders shows those exposed daily to Latin surpass peers in reading, spelling, math, social studies and science.

Hingham High is one local school with a robust, multi-level Latin program. Teacher Ron Urbinati reports “a recent increase in enrollment,” with 160 students in Latin I through AP.

Gail Ryder, who teaches middle and high school Latin in the Dover-Sherborn system, has seen Latin explode beyond the one 8th-grade and one high school course offered when she arrived in 1986. “We’ve built an incredibly successful Latin program,” she says. “We now begin in 6th grade, and this year’s 6th grade class has over 40 students.” Dover-Sherborn has strong 7th and 8th grade enrollment and four high school offerings, including AP. “Many of our students wish to be admitted to top colleges and feel that taking Latin AP is a way to help with admission.” Ryder reports that “usually by the end of freshman year students are reading real Latin regularly: Cicero, Caesar, Pliny and all the poets.”

At St. Agnes, a K-8 Catholic school in Arlington, students start Spanish in kindergarten then, at the end of 6th grade, choose to continue or, as Latin teacher Christopher Bogdanski puts it, “come over to the dark side.” About 35% make the switch to Latin, and Bogdanski notes that some of his students continue in high school where, he says, “we’ve had several go on to earn perfect scores on the National Latin Exam.” The exam, offered at several study levels, had about 6,000 takers when first offered in 1977. About 140,000 turned out in 2009, with Massachusetts delivering 11,948 -- more than any state.

Making It Fun

Ed Foley teaches Latin at Arlington’s Ottoson Middle School, where enrollment’s risen and now holds steady at about 180. Foley thinks new teaching methods play a role in the renaissance. “The old image of Latin as a dull, difficult and dead language is no longer accurate,” he says.

Teachers such as Newton South’s Lanckton use games: I Piscatum (Go Fish) and bingo-like Id Habeo (“I’ve Got It!”). Hingham’s Urbinati uses hands-on projects related to Roman history and mythology. The vast reach and influence of the Roman empire, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial culture, allow teachers to wrap art, archaeology, architecture, politics and philosophy around the Latin language and literature core, furthering engaging and enriching today’s students.

Kids may take Latin to gain academic advantages then find their minds opened to its timeless cultural and societal legacies, topics worth exploring. “Non scholae sed vitae discimus.” (We do not learn for school, but for life. )