Friday, April 6, 2012

Authentic Latin: First Observations

I try to keep these short and sweet, so I apologize in advance for betraying you, dear reader, in this post.

In a previous post, I described my intention to "skip to the real stuff." I felt that my Latin II students, having gone through approximately 30 stages of the Cambridge Latin Course, were ready for some authentic Latin. I chose Catullus (specifically poem 5), both for his relative grammatical ease and for his inherent awesomeness. I wanted to get my students reading some real stuff, having real conversations about it, and learning grammar along the way. In my mind this set grammar in its proper place as a means and not an end. And now the end could be something beefy like Catullus over something artificial like Cambridge.

That paragraph was written in the past tense, but my goals have not changed. The first few days of reading Catullus with my Latin sophomores have given me affirmation to continue. It has not been a colossal failure. What follows are my observations from those initial days.

What we did (observations in italics)
Remember that document I made to help guide my students? We haven't used it yet. Instead, on the first day we read the poem through, focused on verbs from the first three and last three lines, and discussed what kind of poet we thought Catullus was going to be. Catullus 5 really lends itself to this, because after looking at the verbs, students will say brilliant things like "he is going to be an optimistic love poet." From here I say simply, "he did write a lot of love poetry," with the question "but do you think he was always so optimistic? Why?" They caught on easily: Love poets are optimistic sometimes and "depressed" other times.
  • I am very happy that I did not use that document with all of the notes on it on the first (or second) day. To do so would have been to skip the "inquiry" phase in which the students encounter the poem for the first time on their own terms with the smallest possible amount of guidance. At the end of this class, my students had a nice ownership of Catullus and reasonable expectations that they had formed on their own.
The next day I gave them a simple vocabulary list (there aren't enough real dictionaries for 20 students each to get one) and had them look at the first three lines. They got the meaning exactly, and we were able to talk about in-depth things like "who is the audience of this poem?" and "what sorts of things do you think these mean old men were saying? Why?" (Catullus is perhaps the most relevant Roman a high schooler could encounter. Dare I say more relevant than Quintus? He at least has the advantage of having existed!)
  • The main grammar feature the students need for these lines is person and number. The first person plural verbs (with a nos) must be understood as such. Students must also understand adjectives and direct objects. These are simple concepts more than prepared by the end of Latin II.
  • The vocative (mea Lesbia) need not be taught explicitly at this point; it is intuitive enough.
  • The genitive of value (unius assis) is hidden from them, glossed simply as "worth one cent." This gloss actually appears in some student editions of this poem and is a procedure familiar to the Cambridge Latin Course. I feel no scandal here.
  • Dissenters might object "But your students only understood 'We live and we love and we value.' They don't know the hortatory subjunctive! How can you possibly say they read the lines!?" More on this below.
What we will do
Again, my main goal for the rest of the year in Latin II is for students to encounter authentic Latin literature while learning grammar along the way. Catullus 5 provides an opportunity to learn both the present/hortatory subjunctive (from the verbs in lines 1-3) and ut vs. ne purpose clauses (from the examples of ne in last few lines). I do not plan on going over any of this grammar until we have read and discussed the poem as a whole. We'll see how that goes.

One more thing. I promised a response to those who might say my students shouldn't have read lines 1-3 without knowing the hortatory subjunctive. A question for such a dissenter: When you, the teacher, first read this poem as a student yourself, how well did you know the hortatory subjunctive? I can answer only for me: not too well, if at all. My key to this poem, as a student myself, was not the hortatory subjunctive, but the first person plural. In hindsight, the only way I could truly wrap my mind around "let us _____" was by thinking about examples I actually cared about, like the ones from Catullus 5. I only learned the hortatory subjunctive when I wanted to, when I was motivated by this neat poem. It had to go beyond Wheelock's for me, so I am trying to let it go beyond Cambridge for my students.

Aside from that, is it the end of the world if students understand "we live, and we love, and we value" instead of "let us live, and let us love, and let us value"? When you add mastery of the hortatory subjunctive, you add flavor surely, but you do not really alter the meaning of the poem at all. Students can still discuss and appreciate Catullus 5 without knowing the hortatory subjunctive, so why not let them? And then maybe they will be motivated to understand the poem in its entirety, thorny subjunctives and all.

Catullus 5 Text (.docx, 83KB)

Discuss this post on Google+

1 comment: