Rethinking Culture

roman house

This coming year I’m rethinking how I teach Roman culture.  Next year I’m planning to  teach middle school Latin (a one semester class) with no “cultural” units.  I’m also planning on teaching first semester Latin I (maybe much of the second semester as well) with no explicit cultural/historical component.

My thinking may change on this before August rolls around, but for now I’m resolved.

I never took Latin in high school, nor as an undergrad.   My first exposure to the Classics was a Koine Greek class I took my senior year.  When I started teaching Latin, I was also working on a Master’s degree in Latin, after having mostly learned Latin on my own.

Talking with the other Latin teachers in the program, I realized I was missing something. Culture.  What does a typical Roman domus look like? What are the rooms in a Roman bath? Who were the seven kings of Rome? What is the name of that thing that a slave used in the thermae to scrape the oil off a nobleman’s back? I knew Latin, could read it, understand it a bit, write as much as I need to.  I had the grammar down, and could parse with the best of them.  But what was up with all this trivia?  All the other Latin teachers seemed to know it.

I quickly realized that culture didn’t really lead to a better understanding of Latin, but was it’s own separate thing.  It’s a separate section on the National Latin Exam (you know, distinct from the part where you actually have to know some Latin), It’s also generally crammed into textbooks in the form of short passages (in English) sandwiched between often unrelated passages in Latin.

Now that my classroom is centered around communication, I have a hard time figuring out what to do with the trivia.  When are my students going to learn the difference between a triclinium and an atrium? What if my students leave my class without rattling off the names of the kings?

This year, I started to figure it out.  The trivia doesn’t matter.  It’s student interest and communication that matters.  The students need to interact with comprehensible (and comprehended) messages in a communicative context. That’s what really drives acquisition.  Anything that does not drive acquisition can be let go. A lot of these “cultural” topics are a relic from more traditional, academic methods and were originally a “break” from Latin.  Something else to do.  Sure some textbook integrate cultural topics better than others, but it’s still meant to be something separate.

What is more important to than cultural topics? In Latin I, it’s classroom community.  Building trust.  Learning to listen, interact, and contribute.  Learning the flow of the class.  Getting lots and lots of (comprehended) messages.  Getting lots of repeated yet novel exposure to familiar language.  It takes time for the students to see the power of communication in building proficiency.  I discovered this year that I could actually ignore that nagging voice in the back of the head that said: “teach them the Latin names of the Olympian gods!” Did we ever learn them? Some of them.  In context.  When there was a reason.

Does this mean that students go through Latin I not knowing anything about history of the language or the people that spoke it?  No, but all of that has it’s place.  Mythology and Fables? They are inherently interesting to many, so that’s great fodder for StoryListening and reading.  Roman art and architecture? That could make a good PictureTalk/MapTalk/MovieTalk, if the discussion is driven by the students and not by me trying to cover a syllabus.  Roman daily life? There are Magister Craft videos for that!

The bottom line: If the culture helps serve and enliven classroom communication, then it’s in.  If it’s a list of things that students are expected to know because that’s what Latin students do, then it’s out.  There’s no time for trivia.


One thought on “Rethinking Culture

  1. I agree that the culture “requirement” with so much focus on trivia, can be really frustrating to those of us whose passion is not Roman history. I am happy to see new, comprehensible, materials, which deal with cultural topics IN LATIN. I am thinking in particular of Jessie Craft’s videos and scripts. Also, anytime a Roman monument, idea, or myth comes up in any of the novellas (yours included!), that is an opportunity to weave in some cultural information, not as disconnected facts, but as a way to deepen the discussion, in Latin or in English.


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