Latin and Ancient Greek are incorrectly assumed to be dead languages, but they’re very much alive and well at MICDS. Latin offerings compose a robust six-year program culminating in AP Latin, and MICDS is one of only about 130 schools in the country that offer Ancient Greek as a foreign language. “It’s a vibrant program. We have full classes in the Middle School and new students in the Upper School consistently show interest,” said Latin Teacher Natalie Griffin.
There are many reasons why students choose to study Latin and Greek. The study of Latin greatly enhances one’s grasp of the English language. Since many English words are derived from Latin, an understanding of these roots increases the range and depth of a student’s vocabulary. Mastering the subtleties and nuances of Latin grammar also aids in the comprehension of complex English sentences. And, to be a bit more pragmatic, students who study Latin typically perform much better on standardized tests.
Quin Moore ’20 used Latin as a springboard to Greek. He switched over this year, stating, “I am very interested in studying the classics and I wanted to continue my learning of the ancient languages. Studying Greek teaches you how to problem solve when translating very difficult sentences.”
Dr. Gabe Grabarek, who teaches Greek, is happy that MICDS has brought back the language this year. “Greek is the language of Plato, Aristotle and the New Testament. To be able to read these texts in their original language opens up a wonderful and unique glimpse into the genius of Western civilization,” he said.
Chloe Ferris ’11 got her first taste of Latin in a Middle School language flex program. She knew her parents had learned the language and was curious. She dove in and ended up taking two years of Middle School Latin, four years of Upper School Latin, and earned a minor in classical languages along with her Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins.
She now studies medicine at Chapel Hill, where she finds her Latin background to be an edge over her fellow classmates. She said, “The roots of words that come into play in science are helpful. For example, in my anatomy class we learned about abduction and adduction. Some people have to memorize that, but having Latin as a basis, I knew which one was which. It was just ingrained.”
Ms. Griffin’s excitement about what Latin offers is evident, and it’s clear she considers the language relevant today. “It allows for a deeper appreciation for art and literature, for the liberal arts in general, and even for our government that is based on a classical model. Literature has so many allusions to Latin and Greek. Latin is very current but it’s also looking to the best of what’s in the past.” With packed classes and a waiting list in the Upper School, students obviously share her passion.
New and interesting language pedagogy opens up the subject in unexpected ways. At an admission event focused on curriculum with current parents, Kat Kosup ’19 shared her surprise at being able to learn a new language when she had struggled previously. She said, “My teachers, Ms. Griffin and Dr. Grabarek, replaced memorization with pattern recognition and practice. Finally, I began to grasp the seemingly impossible grammar and so much more. I learned mythology and art history and how Rome impacted everything from the layout of this auditorium to roughly 60 percent of the words in this presentation.”
To satisfy student drive, Ms. Griffin established a Latin Club that competes against other local schools in a Jeopardy-like contest called Certamen, which means “match” or “contest” in Latin. Ferris commented on Ms. Griffin’s enthusiasm: “Ms. Griffin is so passionate about Latin that she makes it enjoyable to learn. Her passion makes you want to go on a Saturday to the Certamen quiz bowl and answer questions about Roman antiquities!”
Learning Latin and Greek is about much more than mastering a foreign language. Patrick Huewe, World Languages Department Chair said, “We are focused on introducing students to the heritage of language and the connections to romance languages, English language, culture and history. These components are intertwined in the program. It gives a lot of background on the development of our society as a Western civilization, how it evolved and where we come from.”
Ferris shared that translating Catullus helped her realize that despite the passage of time, the human condition never really changes. “We were translating works by Catullus, a romantic poet, when I had my first boyfriend in high school. It was interesting to realize an author from so long ago felt the same things we feel today. People shape history and things change, but people are still people. Their thoughts from back then are still universal.”
Nick Jones ’18 is studying classical languages at Yale, along with majoring in ethics, politics and economics. He agreed with Ferris that Latin provides a window into the unchanging human spirit. “It is a really good way to study the human condition, the way people think. This language informs how people think both then and now.” He began studying Latin in 7th grade at MICDS and was surprised that the class was so much more than learning a new language. “Seventh grade Latin is as much a class on mythology, art and history as it is on the language and logic,” he said.
Dr. Grabarek, like Ms. Griffin, works hard to bring an ancient language to life through creative classroom experiences. “It is so exciting to watch the students begin to recognize, pronounce, translate and make sense of a language that, to many of them, looked like chicken scratches just a few months ago.”
MICDS extends engagement even further by organizing student trips to Italy, and Grabarek and Griffin are working on an expedition to Greece for summer 2020. Last year’s trip with 16 students included stops in Rome, Florence, Venice and Ravenna, with many visits to smaller towns and villages along the way. “Every corner we turned had another slice of history, culture and ambiance for us to absorb,” said Dr. Grabarek.
Mr. Moore was on the trip and recommends it to other students. He said, “I got to explore the Italian culture and visit many famous monuments.” He went beyond the typical tourist experience, as he and his roommates visited a local barber in Rome for haircuts.
The new program is structured to offer a trip every other year, alternating between Italy and Greece, to give students a chance to get a much more well-rounded picture of the ancient world. Dr. Grabarek is excited to add Greece as a destination. “There is nothing quite like climbing up the Acropolis in Athens, seeing the marvelous Parthenon with your own eyes, and then turning around and seeing the sea in the distance,” he said. Until then, MICDS students will dive into the antiquities with teachers as guides, exploring Latin, Greek and the consistency of humanity.