Hackley Latin Students teaching Latin to local elementary school students

“Hello, my name is…” : Service Learning in Latin

By Dr. Adrianne Pierce, Hackley School Classics Department Chair

Salve, mihi nomen est CJ.” A tiny, enthusiastic hand shot out to shake mine. I responded, “mihi nomen est Magistra Pierce. Quid agis?” We were standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Don Bosco Community Center in Port Chester, about to embark on a lesson combining Latin words and phrases, ancient myth, and a lot of fun. The Paideia Institute, a non-profit organization founded by the students of Father Reginald Foster, a former Papal secretary, runs trips for high school and college students to Greece, Rome, and elsewhere, and also teaches literacy through Latin via their Aequora Program. Aequora is designed to teach elementary and middle school children Latin through myth, derivatives, and even, for those who are bilingual, through Spanish.

Hackley has had several connections to Paideia — Mitchell Towne ’12 has worked for Paideia, leading trips and teaching classes since graduating with a Classics degree from Williams in 2016. Spencer Diaz ’18 worked on enhancing the Spanish part of the Aequora curriculum for his senior project last spring. And Josh Gluckman ’19 has spearheaded a Latin service learning element to our curriculum by introducing us to the Aequora program in Port Chester this year.

Several of my Upper School Classicists have been working with small groups of elementary school students once a week since September; this program is run by Felix Nussbaum, a sophomore at Rye High School, who inherited the program from his brother when he graduated last year. Latin students from other Westchester high schools also participate, a bonus for our students who have the opportunity to meet their counterparts. “Aequora gave us the amazing opportunity to take a subject we loved to both connect with other Classics students in the community and spark an interest in people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to interact with the language,” commented one Hackley senior.

Every class is different, so we always have to think on our feet. Felix lets us know the day before what the lesson will be — Midas and the Golden Touch with food vocabulary, Romulus and Remus with words about Rome, or Jason and the Golden Fleece and names of animals. Emphasis is on repetition and on the students telling the story back to us or acting out the vocabulary. We meet them in the late afternoon, after all of us have had a long day at school. Movement is essential, so we play “Simo dicit” (Simon Says) or Vinco (Bingo) a lot, encouraging the students in friendly competition, which they love. One of my favorite lessons was making catapults from gallon water jugs, a spoon, and tape, shooting mini marshmallows around the room until we all collapsed in laughter on the floor.

As a teacher, my favorite part is watching my own students become teachers, drawing on their experience in Latin, remembering the myths they loved early on, and coming up with new ideas and strategies on the fly; keeping up with these kids is no easy task, and they have a lot of questions. I love seeing my students fielding the questions, making up games, and generally trying to match the energy their 7–10 year old students have. It is fun to see how much the students retain from week to week — they always surprise us. They now have a number of phrases of conversational Latin which are reinforced at each session: “Hello, my name is…What is your name?” “How are you?” “What do you like to do/eat?” and “I know how to….” It is no easy feat to keep the relationships among the Greek gods straight — Juno is Jove’s sister and queen of the gods and her symbol is the peacock, Diana and Artemis are the same person, Hades is in the underworld and Poseidon, whom some of them recall from the Percy Jackson books, is lord of the sea and carries a trident. They not only love the stories about these characters, they want to be these characters. It seems that in every class one student will profess to be a god, announcing that she is Aphrodite, goddess of love, and strutting about the room “putting on airs” or that he is Jupiter, pretending to hurl his thunderbolt.

Our Hackley students have surprised themselves, I think, realizing how much they know and can draw on and enjoying the energy and excitement of teaching. They really have to think on the fly and be creative; it is so easy to lose the attention of their students, so they often have to switch gears midstream. But the looks on the children’s faces, and the shouts of “Will you be with my group today?” or “Pick me, pick me, I know!” and “I remember that from last time” keep them coming back each week. One Hackley sophomore commented, “Aequora is incredibly rewarding for me and doesn’t feel like work at all. The best feeling is when the kids see you and recognize you as you walk in the door.”

This summer, we plan to bring the Aequora program to Hackley as a part of the Hudson Scholars summer experience. After we test drive the curriculum in that setting, we hope to continue weekly lessons on our side of the county, working with the Scholars on a regular basis. I look forward to the day when service learning will be a standard part of the Classics Department’s curriculum at all levels; as the old saying goes, the best way to learn the material is to teach it to someone else. And if you can teach it to someone who is eager to learn and whose energy is contagious, so much the better.

For one Hackley freshman, “Aequora has been an extremely valuable learning experience, for both the wonderful (and adorable might I add) students and the teachers. Giving back to the community and spreading my love for Latin has never been more enjoyable, and I hope that others will be able to share and experience this excellent feeling.” Yesterday was our last lesson for the year, and we played a wild round of Latin Bingo. Students were asked what we should change for the future, and one girl shouted, “Teach us more things about Latin!”

Sounds like a good idea to me.