Stepping Stones and Still Waters

The Founding of Aequora Oakland

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Aequora students with lupi and puellae and arbores.

“Mihi” is an eighth-grader in Oakland, California with a penchant for linguistic efficiency. When we, the teachers in the new Aequora Oakland program, asked her to choose a Latin name to use in classes, she chose “Mihi” (dative “I”) because that way, when introducing herself, instead of saying, for instance “Nomen mihi est Julia,” she could simply say “Nomen mihi est.” She saved a whole word and, thereby, a second or so of time that could be used for learning Latin instead of introducing herself! We all found this quite clever, particularly my friend and co-teacher “Ubi” (“where”) who chose her own Latin name so that the rest of us could say “Ubi est Ubi?” — also a good pun, though not a time-saving one.

Last summer, I was a student in the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in Rome high school program and spent three very fun weeks walking around Rome and surrounding areas reading Latin inscriptions, and learning about fascinating Roman facts, such as the existence of a crunchy mountain of amphora debris, now called Monte Testaccio, that the Romans created by discarding their unwanted pottery, which still stands today. While I was in Rome, a couple Aequora teachers and coordinators came to do a presentation about the Aequora program, the Paideia Institute’s outreach program for elementary- and middle-schoolers, using Latin to help enhance literacy. The program is especially useful for Spanish-speaking middle-schoolers who of course recognize lots of familiar roots and forms in Latin. Having grown up bilingual in English and a different Latinate language (French), I found the Aequora approach intriguing as a way to build reading and speaking skills. I remembered that when I first started studying Latin in high-school three years ago, I quickly discovered that the easiest way to learn vocabulary quickly was by recognizing French (and sometimes English) words I already knew, while the hardest words to learn were, as my brother called them, the annoying little words that have nothing to do with French or English. Recognizing the familiar in the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar in the familiar, might just be a good description of how learning always happens, or even a definition of what learning actually is. To recognize familiar roots in Latin, and then to recognize Latin roots in unfamiliar words of one’s own native language, seemed like an excellent application of that definition of learning. I came home eager to start an Aequora program at my high-school, the College Preparatory School.

Luckily, there was already a learning program for middle school students, called Partners, based at my school. Partners provides after-school mentoring for students in the Oakland public school system. Together with the directors of the Partners program, we decided that our Aequora program would be a semester-long opportunity for eighth-graders already enrolled in Partners. Several friends from my Latin class were interested in teaching as well, but we were only in our third year of Latin and had never actually taught the subject to anyone. We realized, though, that we have a wonderful supply of friendly neighborhood Latinists: Ph.D. students at nearby U.C. Berkeley, who not only have an advanced knowledge of Latin, but also have plenty of experience teaching the subject to Berkeley undergraduates. We asked if any of them would like to mentor us in mentoring our new Aequora Latinists and received an enthusiastic response.

We decided to arrange ourselves in rotating teaching teams of three: one U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. student as the head teacher and two College Prep high school Latin students as assistant teachers. In February 2019, we began teaching our first little class of four eighth-grade students from local public schools. Three teachers and four students per session — it ended up being an ideal scenario, with lots of warmth and energy right from the start. Also, the fact that two of the “teachers” in the room were actually high school students, not that much older than the Aequora students, and were themselves learning both Latin and how to teach, helped bridge the distance between the Aequora students who were brand new to Latin and the U.C. Berkeley Latinists.

When our students walked into class on the first day, they seemed nice but shy and a bit uncertain just what they were in for: what exactly was Latin and what would it be like to learn it? We started by introducing ourselves in Latin, and then asked them to do the same, but we told them not to get too comfortable with their real names, since they would soon be choosing Latin ones, and we asked them to think during the next week about what Latin names they would like to pick for themselves. Once we got underway, the students began asking lots of questions, particularly in relation to matters that were already familiar to them. For example, they especially loved an exercise in which we placed fragments of the modern world on an ancient map. They immediately saw how the English names of countries that they had heard of from geography class compared to their often quite similar names from many centuries ago in Latin. The Latin names were also sometimes identical to the countries’ names in other modern languages, so the students were able to make connections with both the distant past and the distant present. One student excitedly told me that her mother had thought about calling her “Italia,” which she later chose as her Latin name.

The following week came around quickly, and once again the students were a little shy at the beginning of class but opened up as soon as they were able to find familiar elements in the unfamiliar Latin world. This was the time when we started discussing mythology. They quickly drew connections to the Percy Jackson books and other young adult novels based on Greek myths. We made a bridge from Greek to Roman mythology and had them perform short scripted skits on the story of Romulus and Remus, a myth that originated with Rome, so they could see that the Greeks did not have a monopoly on myths.

During our second class, the students also chose their Latin names: Mihi became Mihi, Italia became Italia, and we also got a Titus and a Marciana. Now they had each attached something previously unfamiliar — these Latin words and names — to the most familiar thing of all, themselves!

The next week, the students happily went over Latin derivatives, forming their own words with the roots given to them in the textbook. A favorite root was “lup” (Latin lupus = “wolf”) leading to a heated debate about the best definition for the verb “to delupify”: should it refer to ridding an area of wolves, or to a werewolf’s transformation back into human form? The students also each chose a Latin root that we had learned and wrote it on a paper tree cutout, then scanned the dictionary for English derivatives of that root to fill in the branches of the tree. Most of the students chose about half their words as common words they already knew, and half as obscure good-for-Scrabble words.

Yet again, this day, the favorite part of the class was connecting something that they already knew to something they were learning, this time when we were going over the Roman god family tree. Each person had a card with a god on it, and we went around the room saying the god’s name and powers, with an associated gesture, as a kind of charades. While some students chose obvious gestures, such as drawing a bow for Diana or plucking a lyre for Apollo, others had fun picking more interpretive gestures. Titus, with a sly smile, offered a wave of his hand, a tricky and punning way to represent Neptune (“waves”). When we got around to Mars, one student raised her hand, confused, and asked “I thought Ares was the god of war?” This prompted a discussion of the difference between the Greek gods, which were more familiar to the students from the numerous children’s and young adult books about them, and the less familiar Roman gods. The students were fascinated with the parallel Greek and Roman god family trees, once again eagerly recalling names they had either read about or heard in class. Having found this pre-existing common interest in Greek deities among the students, we tried to spark it in the next few sessions. We connected various stories or words in the vocabulary to gods and characters in Greek mythology-inspired novels that we too had read when we were younger.

In this way, we Aequora teachers learned to use familiar elements — such as words, names, and mythological figures — as stepping stones toward less familiar terrain, allowing our students to travel ever deeper into the unknown linguistic territory of Latin. In the future, we hope, the Latin words and phrases they acquire will themselves become the stepping stones, allowing them to explore ever more complex language in English, and even leading outward from English to other modern languages.

As we explained to our students during the first class, “aequora” means “still waters” in Latin. The name comes from the Brooklyn after-school program Still Waters in a Storm where the first Aequora group met, but we can also understand it to signify calm reflection, and the way students can see familiar elements of their world reflected back at them in a changed way through the reflective medium of Latin. But I understand our Aequora program also using a related image: stepping stones of familiarity across the reflective still water of a pond, leading onward toward new territory and great adventures.

Thank you to my fellow Aequora Oakland teachers: Elizabeth Dale, Skyler Dale, Emma Janssen, Ruby Otavka, Johan Torrijos (College Prep); and Lynn Gallogly and Morgan King (UC Berkeley). Thank you also to Samuel Beltran (Director) and Shelby Margolin (Program Manager) of the Partners Program. Finally, to Magister Ryan Dooley (College Prep), gratias tibi ago.

[For more information about the Aequora program, watch the video below.]

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