Helping Latin Live

Three College students worked with James Ker, Professor of Classical Studies, to research new approaches to teaching Latin.

Monday, October 17, 2022

By Susan Ahlborn

James Ker wants to find better ways to teach Latin. “With Latin and Greek, we’re dealing with fairly unique languages with a unique history of teaching methods that are necessarily antiquated,” says the professor of classical studies. “And I’m looking to update how we teach these languages at Penn.”

His work is part of a larger movement, as classical studies itself undergoes a reconsideration of what the field is and how its scholars should relate to its history, which Ker says has been quite problematic from a social justice standpoint. He sees this as an opportunity to hear from students and audiences who have traditionally been excluded from the field. “Classical studies has an opportunity to learn what it can be from listening and observing what parts of our material are of interest to others and what parts have been neglected.”

He’s also acting locally, trying to build opportunities for the department and its students to have contact with the region’s schools. His Classical Studies in Philadelphia Schools class worked extensively with the new Boys Latin school in West Philadelphia last year. Philadelphia, he says, has a long history with the American debates about classicism; Benjamin Franklin even opined on whether Latin should be taught at Penn. (He thought not.)

With those goals in mind, Ker recruited a team of three undergraduates through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring (PURM) program, which provides students the opportunity to conduct 10-week research projects with Penn faculty during the summer. He asked for students with at least one year of experience learning Latin to research local connections and new ways of teaching the language.

Ker offered a plethora of possibilities of study, from classical themes in the city’s Black literary societies in the 19th century to a pioneering Latin-language program in Philly elementary schools in the 1980s, but he worked with the individual students to find their interests and narrow down their topics. Each project, he says, was “one part historical description, one part field research, and one part manifesto.”

Dara Sanchez, C’25, from Brooklyn, took Latin in high school and is a prospective Classical Studies major. “Intermediate Latin focuses a lot on Africa—there’s Dido and Aeneas and translating Hannibal,” she says. She thought that one way to make the Latin curriculum more diverse was to spend more time on the African culture. For her summer project, she began by seeking out where Africa appears in the Latin curriculum in Philadelphia schools. She learned about Rudolph Masciantonio, who in the 1980s started a program for fourth through sixth graders to learn Latin and authored a textbook called Africa in Classical Antiquity.

“I was actually a little surprised by the Masciantono text because he had some progressive ideas, talking about U.S. imperialism and the Vietnam War and asking students to think about if war culture in ancient Rome was similar to war culture in the U.S.” when he was writing, says Sanchez. “Then there were some negative things where I think it was trying to be inclusive of perspectives but doing it in the wrong way.”

Sanchez also interviewed Latin teachers in the city and learned that, although their time is tight, they try to put in cultural notes and to be conscious about how they talk about culture.

Riley Needham, C’25, of Haddonfield, New Jersey, studied Latin in his Jesuit high school. He started by surveying Latin programs in Philadelphia Catholic schools and examining Jesuit pedagogical theory. “I found Latin is becoming less popular even in the Catholic schools, especially the diocesan schools because they lack funding, and it’s not seen as a useful language anymore,” he says. He learned that the Jesuits have preserved Latin throughout their history because they saw it as the best means of logical training, appreciated it aesthetically, and believed it helped to reinforce Christian values by showing that there were natural values in all humans.

Ker introduced Needham to Mary Brown, an adjunct professor at Saint Joseph’s University who has taught Latin in the Philadelphia area for about 40 years. They attended a Jesuit pedagogical workshop on methods teachers could employ in their classrooms. Needham’s final project included a review of how to apply Jesuit ideals and methods to making Latin a more engaging subject.

Catherine Sorrentino, C’25, knows about learning Latin in the city; she grew up in Northwest Philadelphia and attended Central High School, where she took it for four years. “I had great teachers who were very interested in Active Latin strategies, and it just captivated me,” she says. “We were speaking Latin in the classroom, which is unusual, but I didn’t learn that until later.” She liked that she wasn’t just learning a language. “I’m learning about history and culture and politics. It’s learning about a way of life, about the culture that’s not here anymore. I think it’s very fun, and very interesting.”

Sorrentino began by researching Black classicist Helen Chesnutt, a textbook writer and educator in the 1900s, while also interviewing Latin teachers in Philadelphia and researching Latin education at the Penn Museum. She discovered that Chesnutt used drama and theater to teach in her classes, and that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some modern teachers had done the same as a way to engage their students online. For her project, Sorrentino created Dramaturgy for Latin Language Immersion, lessons and activity modules based around using drama. She hopes to work with a teacher at Central High to try them out.

Ker wanted more than one intern for the communal experience it would provide. The four met weekly on Zoom to discuss progress and share suggestions and ideas. He even presented some of his own work, asking the students to “test drive” teaching material he’s thinking of using for classes.

“Even though we were working on separate projects, we would help each other out by answering questions or getting feedback,” says Sanchez. “I learned a lot of analytical skills. I spent a lot of time reading and writing notes, but I learned to piece things together and provide my own commentary.”

Sorrentino adds, “I think research when you’re not in a lab can be an echo chamber, and you’re not really sure sometimes if you’re on the right path. So those meetings were essential to staying on track.”

Needham says he learned critical research skills and how to design a project, but he most appreciated being able to connect with students and professors at a variety of local institutions who share a common passion for the classics. “Knowing there are people going to work to preserve this subject in schools locally is really important and inspiring to me.”