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Dealing with Vergil – A New Hero?

In my last post “The Inclusivity of Latin? Part II”, I discussed a few different authors I had looked at in a new way, considering the question of inclusivity. Today I’d like to look at Vergil. I want to start by saying that I am not disparaging the traditional way of looking at any of these authors, but rather, considering the ways we can use what we have to create a more inclusive classroom. One way we can (or rather should) do that, is by not furthering the white supremacist system of whitewashing Roman history, literature, etc. In this and subsequent posts, I’d like to provide a starting place for teachers who would like to consider these classics/classical stories from another perspective.

Vergil’s Aeneid  – The Story of Dido

  • The Story – Consider what part of the story you are going to use. Consider providing background information as well. For my Latin I’s, we read the backstory of Dido including her husband’s death to set the stage for the type of queen she’d be. Often, when Vergil is read, this is glossed over or discussed in a lecture. If we discuss it as part of her story and as equally important as her relationship with Aeneas, we give her depth and make her – as a woman and as a woman of colour – equally important to Aeneas.
  • Qualities/character – This is a great opportunity to bring in the ideas of virtus and pietas. These questions are great for discussion and help give a clear image of Roman vs. non Roman. Bearing in mind proto-racism, the discussion of Dido can take a turn that is compelling, comprehensible, and caring for students. When we consider Dido as her own person, rather than as a stopping place or “character building” experience for Aeneas, it is clear how rich and deep her own tale is. My students connected with her and were moved by her story. Yes, Aeneas will very likely come off as arrogant and as a not great guy. This is okay. They can learn plenty about his heroism in AP. You may consider, however, whether he truly shows virtus and pietas, especially when Dido is considered as her own person.
  • Images – When considering what images you will use to show Dido, I strongly recommend using ones that are true or closer to what she might have looked like. Dido’s background may have some debate or discussion with it, but she would not have been a white or western European woman. You may need to look outside the typically accepted canon of images (i.e. outside of statues, renaissance paintings, etc.). Look for amateur artwork that protrays her as a woman of colour. There is a fair amount of modern artwork or digital artwork that one could use for this. Avoid images where she is wearing typical Roman garb if you can.

I will say a few final words on how this unit continues to play a role in my class.

  1. Students considered Dido’s character from a strong female perspective. We considered her story and her decisions free from Aeneas, although we did discuss Venus and Iuno’s role.
  2. Anna was part of her story as well (as she should be). Later (as will be discussed in my next post), Anna came up again in Hannibal’s story – also as an independent female character who took on Iuno and demanded things from her.
  3. We have continued our discussion of qualities, including virtus and pietas. Dido’s story is brought up frequently when we discuss these and others.

I’d love to hear your questions about this type of unit! How have you made Latin, in itself, more inclusive in your choices of literature, images, and discussion?

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The Inclusivity of Latin? II

The question was posed on my last post about where one might begin to find resources, and I think this is a good place to start when considering whether or not this language and culture we so love is, in its nature, inclusive. In my opinion, we must expand our view of what is part of our accepted Latin canon in order to discuss this, however. Allow me to start by saying that I am not saying we should ignore the typically accepted list of authors that students, and we, should read. I do ask that we consider what use these authors have in our rooms, or the selections we choose, if they only promote a part of Roman culture. To that end, I’d like to share a few examples of what I’ve done in my own classroom.

  1. Vergil – The Aeneid – Typically, one reads this in 4th/5th year from the AP syllabus. Last year, Latin I students read an adapted selection from Book IV regarding Dido’s death. We read this considering Dido, rather than Aeneas, and the idea of virtus.
  2. Livy – Typically, this author is considered when regarding certain aspects of history, including the Punic Wars. Students, this year in Latin II, had already decided they wanted to read about Hannibal. Rather than reading from Livy, however, we read from Cornelius Nepos and Silius Italicus. We also focused on Hannibal and Carthage, rather than Rome.
  3. Caesar – De Bello Gallico – Typically, one reads excerpts of this early on, and follows up with AP syllabus selections in 4th/5th year. Last year, Latin I students read a teacher created story about Caesar and his wives/loves. Then, students used this work, indirectly, to discuss geography and virtus.
  4. Pliny the Elder – Naturalis Historia – Not typically considered part of the general canon, my students have read quite a few selections from this author. I have a personal interest in that my Master’s thesis relied heavily on work with Pliny. We used this text to discuss proto-racism, geography, and history. We also used this to connect to medieval and modern history, art, and science.

These are just the authors we have encountered in part this and last year. Next year, I intend to include more. In my next posts, I will expand on each author, one at a time, and discuss how I handled this in class and used the resources I’ve found to make my classroom, and my content more inclusive, and to take advantage of the inclusivity present in Latin literature.

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The Inclusivity of Latin?

White statues, medieval paintings of white Europeans in Roman garb, portraying the gods and famous men, modern “documentaries” with white Hannibals, golden haired women, and the absence of Africa, except in passing: is this what Latin is? Is this what is left of the Classics?

If this first statement/question angered you: good. If it made you question our resources: good. If it made you want to fire off an email or comment to me sparking debate: good. I’m glad. I had trouble writing it, and yet, as a student of Latin in my teenage and young adult years, rarely did I question it.

As a teacher, the diversity in my classroom and discussions with modern teachers opened my eyes. One of the ways modern language teachers reach out to the diversity in their rooms is to point out that France isn’t the only country speaking French. There are many countries in Africa; there is Haiti; who can forget New Orleans, that all speak French. Spanish isn’t solely spoken in Mexico or Spain. South America is filled with many countries, filled with people of hundreds, no thousands, of origins. So… what about Latin?

Over my next few posts, I want to discuss this. I want to talk about the reasons why we should question our canon; why we should use a variety of artwork (classical or not); why we should question our resources. I want to talk about the effect these changes have on my students and I want to talk about the effect these changes have had on me.

So, I’d like to pose these questions to you:

  • What do you notice about the diversity in your room?
  • How often do you (intentionally or not)…
    – only use statues of figures?
    – only use historical or medieval art? (and to what extent do these paintings show only white Europeans)?
    – show the gods/goddesses as white?
    – mention the ethnicity of figures who are not native to Rome? (Hannibal, Dido, etc.)
  • What effect do you think it has on students if they do not see anyone in Roman history who looks like them, especially considering:
    – how often Rome is spoken highly of?
    – how long the Roman empire lasted?
    – the influence Roman culture/history/language has had on us today?
  • How often do you show movies/shows/documentaries that only include white actors?

You can comment on them or not, but I think this is a starting place for these discussions. They may make us uncomfortable, but change comes from a place of discomfort, especially in such important work.


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Teaching to the Eyes

In my last post, I talked about not knowing what students walk in the room with. This was reiterated in the comments on the post and I believe an important discussion was started and is continuing in our blog posts.

This post, as a continuation of my last and the discussion that followed, is to give some concrete, practical ways that one can teach to the eyes. Not all of these may work for your classroom, or for every students. Rather, they can be a guide of options that you can mold to fit the culture of each school, class, and student.

  1. Daily Engagement Assessment (DEA) – I’ve been using some form of the DEA for years in my classroom. It has changed and evolved over the years, but its ultimate use stays the same: using the DEA I can quickly assess whether students are “with me” in class or are not. This includes everything from focus to comprehension. When I can see their eyes, I can tell if there is an issue in class the vast majority of the time. From this point on, in this list, if something is included explicitly in my DEA, I’ll mark it with the phrase DEA.
  2. Be present, be on time (DEA) – Every teacher wants this. But, this is key in helping students succeed in class. If a student has excessive absences, it would behoove us all to look further into it. Many times what many teachers thought was laziness or a lack of care actually was…. a job to help support the family, having to be home to care for younger siblings, sleeping too late because their work made them stay late (the laws regarding child work are not as tight as we might think!)
  3. Eye Contact (DEA) – This has evolved over the years. Rather than eye contact, it means more along the lines of…. “give your attention to the speaker”. This is coupled with another item: sitting up and square shoulders. I must admit I am more a stickler for the sitting up and square shoulders than specifically “eye contact”. Nota Bene: not all students are comfortable with sustained eye contact. This may be misconstrued as not knowing a response or rudeness when in reality it can be a host of other things (I would refer you to the great conversation in my last post’s comments). This is why it is more important that I see their eyes, not that they necessarily see mine. In these scenarios, I have always been willing to make exceptions or alterations to this.
  4. Hand Signals (DEA) – I am going to start by saying that I am VERY careful about hand signals. As language teachers, we are all aware of the danger of certain hand signals that are innocent to us but not others. We should also be aware of any appropriation we might make of sign languages. Any hand signals in my room are ASL and are used in a communicative manner. I use hand signals to support students who do not make eye contact regularly, do not wish to speak up all the time, or for other special circumstances. We have signals to indicate – understanding, questions, and immediate needs.
  5. Good Will Attitude (DEA) – This may be the most important thing in my room. I am known as a stickler for it, even giving “fair warnings” when I myself am having an off day. This allows for conversation to happen on a personal level if there’s ever an issue.

Some Exceptions:

We all have students who need change and for a variety of reasons. Here are some things I’ve done to make change that works for my classes and students:

  • provide a student who speaks out of turn a notebook to record thoughts and questions. Read them every day and respond in kind.
  • provide stuffed animals to students who fidget or who have anxiety. Turns out… they love them.
  • allow students to draw or trace figures.
  • allow students who are tired to stretch, stand, or sit in closer proximity to you (even on the floor)
  • provide special hand signals for specific students to signal when something is needed.

Lastly, here is what I tell my students each semester and as needed: We all walk in the room with something and our classes should be a place where we can leave those things at the door to pick up later. I don’t mind if you just want to leave it there. It will be there when you are ready for it again. 

If we work to include all students, no matter what they walk in the room with, we will all be successful.

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I Need to See Your Eyes

We don’t know what our kids walk in the door with. We don’t and there is no way of knowing… unless…

  • we make our classrooms safe places.
  • we ask our students if they are okay.
  • we allow our students to feel successful and enjoy our time and space.
  • we teach to the eyes.

The fact is, there are many divisive and marginalising things that happen in our schools and classrooms every day, whether we realise it or not, whether we mean it or not. It is the truth. We cannot control it all, but we can control it in our rooms and in our teaching. Comprehensible Input is key to making this happen.

As teachers, we must make our rooms safe places, and I don’t mean that as a joke. So many times over my years of teaching I’ve heard stories from students asking for advice or help when a teacher allows bullying in a room, or is a bully themselves. We must be the deciding factor when it comes to the treatment of other in our room and we must make sure that the treatment is fair and inclusive to all.

The content of our lessons must be inclusive to our students. The context of our lessons must be inclusive to our students. Our classroom rules, whatever form they come in, must be inclusive to our students.

I plan to discuss some specific strategies for the day to day in a later post, but the key in my room is this: I teach to the eyes. The eyes of a student can tell us so much about what they are understanding, and going through. While teaching to the eyes, we can make quick changes to include more students as well as see just how effective the things we do are. Is a student whose head is down really just tired? Is he giving up because he can’t understand? Is he giving up because he feels he doesn’t have a place in our rooms? It is not his job to make himself feel included in the class and by the teacher. It is our job.