Baltimore County’s new curriculum model and the new Common Core standards place particular emphasis on making interdisciplinary connections and moving students towards global understanding. While this may seem like a challenge, Latin readily opens itself up to this kind of meaningful, contextualized learning.
The first unit of the new Latin 4 curriculum for BCPS introduces students to the wide corpus of Latin literature. Having spent three years addressing the three modes of communication (Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational), the class now looks at what many people put forth as the primary goal for studying Latin: to read the authors. Specifically students are asked to explore different types of literature (poetry, letter writing, oratory, etc.) as well as some of the major authors of the classical period. However, we can also look at Latin in its historical context, as the lingua franca of scholarship.
In this unit we recently read a story broadcast on Nuntii Latini, a Latin language news program based in Finland: Novum mammiferum repertum. This story describes a new type of mammal found in the mountain forests of Ecuador and Colombia. There is an audio file of the entire news program for this week, which I edited down for use in class. Here, in the Latin language students experience:
- a story about current events
- Latin work by a European author
- Latin delivered with a European pronunciation (we use the restored classical in class)
- a science topic
- news from Latin America
This story is short, easily digestible, with some good grammar review, and a brief description of the new animal (called an “olinguito”) and its habits. It also includes the animal’s scientific name. More importantly, it shows students Latin reaching beyond the scope of the Romans.
From here, we briefly discussed the work of Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th Century botanist, physician, and zoologist most well-known for the invention of binomial nomenclature, still used in the scientific community. A look at the title page of Systema Naturae, promises a discussion of the natural world with characteristics, differences, similarities, and places (cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis), a direct correlation to the modern article that students just read. An important point to be made here is the persistence of Latin throughout history. Students may wonder if this book is a translation into Latin; emphasize that Latin was the language in which authors actually wrote.
Finally, we move to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. In the context of classical literature, Pliny’s work comes after the death of Augustus, his death of course coinciding with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. His work sits between Vergil and Ovid, and Suetonius. All of these authors tie in nicely with the AP Latin curriculum, Vergil for obvious reasons, Ovid for his place in and counter to the Augustan reforms, and Suetonius for his biographies of the Caesars.
As an individual Pliny was both a prolific writer and an experienced traveler. His nephew Pliny the younger writes of him to Tacitus:
Equidem beatos puto, quibus deorum munere datum est aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda, beatissimos vero quibus utrumque. Horum in numero avunculus meus et suis libris et tuis erit.
“Indeed, I consider those people blessed, to whom has been given the divine gift/duty, either to do things which must be written of, or to write things which must be read – most blessed are those to whom are given both. My uncle will be counted in this number, on account of his own books, and of yours.”
Among other things, Pliny would write about exotic places, peoples, and animals. In many ways, this was the Discovery Channel or the Travel channel of his time.
Book 8 of Naturalis Historia begins with a discussion of elephants and their customs. Compare Pliny’s fantastical (to us) description of pachyderms with the scientific description given by modern, Latin-writing journalists. Remember that some people might have seen exotic animals in the Colosseum, but this is likely the only account they would have of the animals in their actual habitat. At first glance the passage seems tangled and wordy, but when you tear it apart, it becomes astoundingly manageable, and is in fact a rock solid grammatical exercise. At this point it is not necessary for students to read extensively, just to see some classical Latin, and be able to make comparisons. There is a tight list structure in this selection, with repetition of grammatical elements.
In this era of educational reforms teachers are often asked to justify their content’s relevance. This is often, mistakenly taken to mean “applicable.” Latin, or any language for that matter, is not a content area in and of itself. Instead it is the way we access all content – science, math, history, philosophy, etc. What makes Latin unique is its historical reach. The ability to use Latin allows us to access an author’s original thoughts, no matter the time period.