The Time I Tried to Make Latin Fun… and Failed

The Internet told me that I needed to play more games in class. The Internet was wrong.

Teaching Rule One: Don’t catastrophize (it’s a psychiatry term: look it up!). (source)

Teaching can evoke a wide range of emotions. For most of my career, I had managed to avoid the extremes, but after a Latin I class in early 2017, I ended up in crisis mode. On a scale of “Someone should make a documentary about you” to “Find a new profession,” I was off the charts at a “You are going to bring about the downfall of secondary Latin.”

Nothing catastrophic had happened that day (the catastrophe was yet to come), but my students were obviously bored to death. I had recently read an essay by Nicholson Baker called “Fortress of Tedium,” and had become preoccupied with making sure my Latin classroom did not become a case study for his next article. One line in particular stuck out: “ All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull.”

I had made interesting things dull that day and was one brick closer to completing my own personal Fortress of Tedium. The more I reflected and thought about it, the more dismal the situation became. I wasn’t just one brick closer. With that lesson, I had erected entire walls and turrets. Maybe even a dungeon. Heck, my classroom was the dungeon that day. I catastrophized until I was sure all of the students would drop the class, create scathing, viral posts about Latin on social media, and convince teenagers worldwide to steer clear of dead languages.

An extreme problem demanded an extreme solution: I needed to transform my entire approach to teaching. But how? Like most people in need of advice, I turned to the Internet for help. Its message was clear: I had to create a fun game, or face the reality that I had no business in the classroom. This wasn’t exactly a total makeover, but it was a start.

I quickly got to work. After all, this was urgent. The best I could come up with was Simon Says. We were learning imperatives, so it would definitely have educational value. I gave it a clever name: Sextus Says. Sextus is the annoying character in Ecce Romani everyone loves to hate. A group of students had already killed him off the previous week in their composition group using every bit of their Week 2 knowledge: Ubi est Sextus? Estne pes? Quid facit lupus? Dismembered Sextus would be back from the dead, and he would leading a super-fun game that would engage students and help me take my teaching to the next level!

As soon as I started planning, I sensed it would be a total flop. I attributed this premonition to negative self-talk and my children, who told me that my idea was stupid. I ignored them and the loud voice screaming in my head, “Stop while you can! This is awful!” The Internet was clear. This needed to happen. While I was sulking, the Internet also gave me 322 ideas for magical bulletin boards, but that project would have to wait. I was on a mission.

I did a visualization technique that my college swim coach made us do before practice every day. I closed my eyes and pictured success. All of my students were so enthralled with the game that they majored in Classics and came back to teach in my thriving Latin program, which had grown so large it became its own department and required 25 teachers. We had a dedicated wing of the building and a responsibly sourced antiquities collection. In our reading room, there was an oil painting of the 2017 Spring Latin I students participating in Sextus Says, the moment that started it all. I finished preparing.

Game Day arrived and I was super-pleased I’d devised something so fun and so game-y. When I walked into my classroom as the tardy bell rung, I refrained from my usual “It’s Latin time!” and instead let out a subtle “ahem.” One student tentatively mumbled, “It’s Latin time?” I didn’t respond right away. I had to send the message today would be different, so I let them sit in silence a bit as the suspense built. Then I said, “Guys, we’re doing something super-fun today!” I continued talking a bit, using the word “fun” at least seven times in three sentences. This was going to be great. I could feel it.

Meanwhile, based on the number of times I said “fun” and my overall enthusiasm, the students were convinced that something this fun could only mean that Drake was showing up to perform a brand new song with a Michael Bay-esque pyrotechnic display and dancing Transformers in the background. As I explained the concept of Sextus Says — the actual “fun” — I realized I might have oversold it. Indeed, things fell apart pretty quickly. One student immediately asked, “Is this game optional?” Who would opt out of fun? Another student said, “Wait. Is this a joke?” To boost my credibility I said, “The Internet told me games are fun.” This was early 2017, when the Internet was still considered trustworthy. They were still skeptical.

It went from bad to worse. The group of students who had killed off Sextus the previous week asked if they could continue their story and just use the imperative in their dialogue. Another asked if I had something in Latin he could read instead. Several who absolutely hated book work asked if they could just do the exercises in Ecce Romani. Only three out of two dozen students agreed to play. And it was clearly out of pity. While four of us played the game, the others looked on and occasionally heckled us.

Two years later, students from that class still joke about that time I tried to do a fun game in Latin. They even troll me by having current Latin I students request a “fun game.” But when we talk about that course, they also reminisce about performing haruspicy with an oversized stuffed dinosaur and a container of beef livers. And, they express regret that we had to cancel our sacred chicken demonstration because the science teacher’s chicks never hatched. It turns out I did not need games to keep my class from becoming a Fortress of Tedium.

Sometimes I even hear from students I had early in my career when my teaching style was best described as “sit still while I tell you about grammar and go over these exercises from Jenney’s First Year Latin.” One recently emailed me in Latin with an update about his life. Nearly twenty years later, he still had fond memories of the class. And, more importantly, he was still using and enjoying Latin.

Since the Great Sextus Says Debacle of 2017, I have actually gotten many good ideas from the Internet. The best ideas, though, have come directly from my students. From listening to their experiences, I’ve realized that there are many ways to teach Latin and that there are as many reasons to enjoy Latin as there are people who have studied it.

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online,has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.