It might be easy as a grammar school teacher to assume that the repetition of “amo, amas, amat …” is not as important as teaching Caesar or Virgil, but such self-deprecation would be wrong.
Imagine a construction worker thinking that his role in laying the foundation is insignificant simply because no one will really see the foundation, only the rest of the building! In reality, a faulty foundation jeopardizes the entire security of a structure.
Although it is true that the ultimate end of a Latin program involves mastering the language so that translating the classics is possible, this will never be achieved without laying the foundation first. The mastery of vocabulary and grammar forms constitutes the proper foundation. Since it is imperative that you lay a strong and solid foundation to safeguard your young students’ subsequent success, how can this be effectively carried out in your classroom on a daily basis?
First, be prepared. Perhaps teaching Latin intimidates you. I understand. Six years ago when I first began teaching third grade at Highlands Latin School, I had no background in Latin. I have learned, however, that Latin is not an elite, esoteric subject. Anyone who can learn, can learn a modicum of Latin. Anyone who can teach, can teach Latin. Being thoroughly prepared each day provides the perfect remedy for any hesitation you might have. Mastering each lesson yourself ensures that you remain confident and comfortable in front of your young students. Initially, this requires more work on your part, but it is well worth it.
Second, be organized. Have all of your materials ready for use before class begins, as nothing breaks the classroom momentum among younger students more than when a teacher rummages about for something. Charts on the wall, copies made in advance, flashcards in order—all of these seemingly trivial details actually maintain the smooth flow of your lesson. Organization also allows you to keep your lesson well-paced, distributing your time wisely among the various components of the lesson.
Third, be intentional. Establish a consistent routine. Begin with a Latin greeting and prayer, a recitation of grammar forms, and a review of previously learned sayings and vocabulary. Never fear, your students will not grow bored with this regimen. Young children delight in familiarity; it is adults who grow weary and impatient with it. The veteran tempter Screwtape, in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, says, “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart ….” He goes on to write to his apprentice, Wormwood, that children will be entirely content with repetition until “we have taught them better,” to demand constant novelty and change.
Along with an established routine, designate time for discussion of derivatives and grammar concepts. Have your students keep a notebook for writing down any new information they learn. Insist on neatness and accuracy in their notebooks. Remember, however, that the main focus is always on vocabulary and grammar form retention. Teach them the value of flashcard practice as a study tool for attaining mastery.
Finally, be passionate. For a classical Christian teacher, passionate teaching is more than mere enthusiasm. It includes an element of reverence. Although passion is the crown of all teaching no matter the subject, Latin deserves an especial esteem. For language sits somewhere at the center of what it means to be human and made in the image of God. So delight in the teaching of this ancient and noble tongue. Let the words take on flesh and meaning as you teach them. If you love Latin, your young students certainly will. Like sponges, they will soak up not only your knowledge and wisdom, but also your wonder and joy.
What a unique privilege it is to introduce young children to their first experience of Latin! Lay the foundation properly—it holds the key to their continued success.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition