Ryan Dooley: Latin Teacher
Education: UC San Diego, B.A., University of Edinburgh, M.S.
What are your thoughts about making an ancient language relevant for our students, and do you see Latin continuing to be taught in the future?
To approach teaching Latin from a utilitarian perspective is often not fruitful. Most people think, “Well, I don’t intend to teach Latin or become a Latin professor. It’s more sensible to take Spanish, French, or Chinese.” My pitch is this: as you learn Latin, you live history. Latin illuminates the present. Once you dive in, you see that the Romans are not that different than we are—politics, relationships, telling a good story—it’s all there. When you study Latin, you not only learn a language, you learn a great way of thinking that has inspired and challenged humanity for hundreds of years. Just today I told my students, “I didn’t learn Latin because I knew I wanted to be a Latin teacher. I learned it because I find it intellectually pleasurable. It is pure pleasure to learn Latin and ancient Greek, pick up a Tolkien book, and understand what he is referencing.”
What makes studying Latin at College Prep unique?
Latin has been taught at College Prep since 1960 when the school was founded, so I’m lucky I don’t have to justify my existence from scratch. With this deep tradition of teaching Latin, there’s a community of kids that arrives in ninth grade ready to geek out in the Latin room. It’s also pretty cool to be part of a faculty that treasures teaching things that aren’t only on the STAR test or the California Standards Test. On the other hand, there are some traditional things that we do in the classroom because we’re vertically aligned with the AP exam, and in a way this defines the curriculum from the start. Analysis of language, literal translation, and the ability to write about how culture and history connect with specific texts—like Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Vergil’s Aeneid—are the core of my curriculum. Latin at College Prep also lives large outside of the classroom through Latin Club.
Do you have to be a Latin student to be a part of Latin Club?
Latin Club’s only requirement is an interest in the ancient world. We meet on Wednesdays to play Certamen, a trivia match that means “a struggle” in Latin. The questions range from grammar, to Responde Latine questions (“answer in Latin”). For example: This 1989 comedy “Lepus, Minui Liberos!” would best be translated into English as ‘blank’ (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!”). Knowing some Latin definitely helps, especially for a question like this. There’s at least one Latin student on each team, but many of the questions are about Roman history, mythology, and daily life that don’t require knowing Latin. In addition to playing Certamen—the core of Latin Club—we do events such as re-enact Cicero’s death day, a day that shall live in infamy, December 7th. Our Ides of March celebration featured an assassination cake iced with a big 23 because, according to Suetonius, Caesar was stabbed 23 times. In observance of Saturnalia, where slaves trade roles with the masters in honor of Saturn, the students dress up in togas and enjoy a feast. On a more serious note, we participate in Latin competitions and our students do quite well. They like to win, but quietly; it’s more about having fun than winning.
Do you use technology in your classroom?
Just because the content is ancient—it’s from what some call a “dead” language—my pedagogy doesn’t have to be. My approach is to use the best tools we have for direct instruction. When we read works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses (famous stories like Daedalus and Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Baucis and Philemon) I project them on a SmartBoard. This way we can scan the lines and write long and short marks over the vowels in dactylic hexameter: a process known as metrical scansion. I also annotate what’s going on, subject-verb-object wise or bracket prepositional phrases, or write essential vocabulary words directly onto the SmartBoard. I then save and email these notes to the students. This may not appear to be radically out of the box, but for Latin it’s a dramatic shift from the chalkboard or simply looking at the book. I’ve also been experimenting with flipping the classroom by using elements of blended learning. Last semester, in my Latin I classes, I created a library of videos about basic and essential concepts. I produced those videos entirely by myself, which much to my surprise was a herculean effort. My students watched them as many times as they wanted, using them as a reference text. It’s great to work at a school where I can experiment.
Do you find studying Latin helps students to think differently or see things they might not have otherwise noticed?
The class gets excited about the connections between Latin and living languages. Many students come in already knowing, or having some exposure to, a Romance language and say, “Oh, that’s like French,” or Spanish, or Italian. What makes Latin a brain-expander is the attention to detail required to do what’s called “close reading.” You aren’t reading for the general idea of a passage. You are analyzing every single word and its specific placement in a sentence, a phrase, a clause. We go deep, spending two days taking apart something like Cicero’s standard periodic sentence. In Latin poetry, it can take forever to get through ten lines and we’re reading epics. We examine every single word, and then move back a little bit to look at construction or syntax. Then we move back just a little bit more to look at a theme, a symbol, simile, or metaphor from the poet’s perspective. This trains a student to examine any language deeply, particularly Western languages, including English. Prep’s Latin students have a leg up in terms of analysis of structure. The only downside is that they can get really prescriptive about what they think is right, but that comes when learning any language this way. We teach “these are the rules” and then, of course, languages break all of them. I do recommend that they shouldn’t be too tyrannical about grammar; it’s not very conducive to a thriving social life.
What do you enjoy most about teaching Latin at Prep?
It was tremendous and humbling to step into the shoes of Jeannie deVries who created a robust and thriving Latin program for 34 years. From my first day, the students were kind, flexible, and open to a new teacher with some new ideas about teaching Latin. Most of all, the kids love learning and the teachers love teaching.
You’re a young guy who chose to focus on very old languages. Why Latin and Greek?
It’s kind of funny that you should ask this, because my professors told me that in my cohort they’ve seen a resurgence in the study of Latin and Greek. Many credit the Harry Potter bump. This astounds me, in a good way. I took French and I studied abroad in Paris and in Aix-en-Provence and stayed with a French family. It was just fantastic. My French teacher was one of those charismatic leaders whose attitude was, “If you’re in French, then you’re fully in French. You don’t get to play around.” I fully appreciated that. I went into college declaring a double major in music and French. During my first quarter at UC San Diego, I discovered that I was not going to be a musician, so I started exploring. I was taking French linguistics, and I love codes, so I thought, “I should take Latin and Greek.” People think that studying Latin and Greek is just about games, codes, and following the rules. In fact, you have to be very flexible and open to breaking the rules in order to succeed in Latin and Greek because you have to be able to step back from the code and actually appreciate, analyze, study, and enjoy the text. I started Latin and Greek at the same time in my freshman year and was hooked. Now I can share the wonderful, sometimes painful, and ultimately blissful experience of Latin with my eager students.