Archived — Illustrating the lesson
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Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute
It only takes a visitor to Pat Bell's Latin classroom a few minutes to recognize that she does not just teach Latin; she completely immerses students in the study of Roman history, culture and language. The room, where she has taught Latin for half of her 30-year career, is overflowing with murals, dioramas, mosaics, architectural structures, reproductions of clothing, jewellery and depictions of Roman mythology, all created by students. A sign on her classroom wall reads "Latin is more than a language." All this activity has its origins in an illustrative teaching method she calls the Pictogram Approach.
In addition to her classroom activity, Ms. Bell contributes towards the teaching of Latin across North America. She was a member of the Ministry of Education writing team for the Ontario Latin curriculum guidelines, has written two Latin literature textbooks, and teaches pedagogy to Latin teachers during the summer. She is a founding member and Publications Officer of the North American Cambridge Classics Project.
I never had any doubt about my vocation. When I was five, I had all the neighbourhood children lined up on the curb, while I was teacher. I love being a teacher!
Centennial is a public collegiate vocational high school. Our school population ranges from 1300 to 1400 students. Since Latin is an optional subject and an intimidating one, I walk the tightrope of maintaining academic rigour while enticing students to choose the Latin option.
I teach to instil in my students a joy of learning and a habit of curiosity. This not only ensures they will succeed in their current studies but also creates a lifelong love of learning. I direct all my teaching practices to this end. I want my students to come eagerly to class, asking, "What are we doing today?" Latin just happens to be the vehicle I use.
I think Latin is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject. Since much of the English language derives from Latin, the study of Latin touches language arts, everything from vocabulary and grammar to literary style. It is also the study of our history, shaped as it is by Roman history. Geography, textiles, clothing styles, medicine, science, law, civil engineering, military history and many more subjects are easily drawn into a interdisciplinary study of Latin.
Pedagogical research stresses that variety in teaching strategy is crucial to accommodate all learning styles. On a more immediate level, since Latin is an optional subject, my classes attract students of all academic abilities. I teach in long (73 minutes) periods. To meet these pedagogical and practical demands, I have created a lot of variety in my program.
The Pictogram Approach is one of the many techniques I use to bring variety to the class. I have developed this approach over the years and refined it with the help of my students. It is an illustrated approach to reading, a way to focus on language comprehension, rather than word-for-word translation. It serves as a means to enhance the written and aural/oral with the visual.
An early pictogram lesson introduces the students to simple Latin text, and shows them how to begin translating and comprehending it. The lesson also shows the students that the study of Latin is going to be much more than simply translating words.
I start with three short sentences in Latin on an overhead acetate. For this first lesson, the sentences stand alone. Later the students learn that they are the beginning of a story. The sentences express three simple ideas: A friend comes to the house. The friend is visiting Caecilius. He is a merchant.
The students and I do not translate these sentences word for word. Rather I elicit from the class, by using the English derivatives of the Latin words, first what the sentences mean and then, from the context clues, the scene they describe. They usually figure out quite quickly that "mercator" means merchant, so I ask them, What status is the merchant, slave or free? From the status of the merchant, we figure out what he would be wearing.
In a similar way, I help the students figure out the details of the setting. What does the street look like? How do pedestrians cross the muddy streets? Where was a Roman garden? As they answer each question I add details to the picture on the acetate and gradually fill in the background around the merchant. (No artistic talent is necessary. I am a "stick figure artist." My drawings do not inhibit my students, but encourage them to surpass me.) The virtue of the overhead projector is that all eyes focus on the same item at the same time, mistakes erase easily, and coloured pens make the drawing visually interesting. All of the information, everything that makes these sentences come alive for the students, is there in the contextual clues.
I draw everything the class can suggest on this first picture to show them the detail of illustration and therefore the level of comprehension and accuracy of detail and research I expect. Then I give them the rest of the story that goes with the initial three sentences. They read the rest of the story and draw four more frames to illustrate it. As they read the story, they find that the men enter the atrium, the study, the dining room and finally the kitchen. In the five scenes from this Latin story, the students construct in detail the Roman house as well as the plot and interaction of the characters.
After the initial demonstration, I use the Pictogram Approach in a variety of ways. Sometimes, I have the pictures already drawn on a worksheet. The students have to read the Latin story in their textbook and rearrange my drawings in the right order to show the progress of the story. Other times, I just give them captions, and they have to draw pictures to match. Alternatively, they may draw large murals in groups. They develop a comfort and familiarity with the language in its cultural context as they go along. With other stories we will use a more traditional translation approach. The Pictogram Approach is not a replacement for careful word-for-word translation; it is an adjunct to it for variety in teaching strategies.
I try to maintain diversity even in the contexts in which I use the pictograms. Sometimes I include it in a teacher-directed class, sometimes in a student-directed situation. I use the approach for consolidation and review, for summarizing a lengthy story, or illustrating a complicated sequence of events. In the third and final course of high school Latin, the students teach seminars on Latin poetry. Many of them choose pictograms to illustrate the poetic devices in the poems. The possibilities are as vast as the imaginative creativity of the students.
My colleagues tell me that my Latin students have introduced pictograms in other courses to illustrate and explain a variety of concepts. French, German or Spanish teachers could use the Pictogram Approach exactly as I describe it. English literature teachers could use the method as part of an in-depth study of a period or particular author. Environmental studies, social studies and ecology instructors, who need to take a wide range of related factors into account when teaching a concept or scientific principle, could make use of the method to illustrate and explain these interrelated factors in a fresh and interesting way.
With an approach like this, the students are engaged in effective multidisciplinary learning. They are working with so many aspects of study at once that this method teaches them flexibility of thought. On a pedagogical level it works extremely well, mostly because the students have a lot of fun with it. In my Latin course, when students explore culture as well as language by hearing, seeing and doing, they learn more than the bare mechanics of the language. They gain a love for the subject and for learning.
This conference is held annually on a university campus the second weekend in May.
The competitions, which are part of the conference and in which more than 600 Ontario Latin students take part, have three elements. The athletic component includes foot and chariot racing, swimming and slinging. The academic section tests students' knowledge of Latin vocabulary, derivatives, Roman and Greek history, mythology, Roman life and translation. The creative section features an archaeological dig, fashion show, school display, projects and a stage play.
Our school's Latin Club, the Dead Poets' Society, sends 35 to 45 members to the competition every year. Preparation begins in September: teams design and build a new chariot each year in accordance with the year's theme, make authentic ancient costumes, and write a narrative script or write and rehearse a stage play. Some students write computer programs and build models.
Other teams research and create appropriate artifacts for an assigned archaeological dig site.
When they arrive at the conference, the students "plant" their artifacts in a simulated site. The next day, they excavate another school's site, and attempt to identify the site's "location" by the artifacts they find.
The entire group works on assembling the year's club scrapbook, planning the school's display and, of course, studying for the academic contests.
The conference venue changes every two years. Recently we have been to Queen's University in Kingston and Brock University in St. Catharines, and next year we will gather at the University of Guelph. Besides supervising the students in their preparations, many Latin teachers from around the province meet regularly on Saturdays to prepare the contests, organize the events and the judging, assign rooming and take care of a myriad of other details.
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