Learning Latin

Randolph students volunteer to keep local program from being cut

Six Randolph College students are making sure Latin stays alive and relevant for elementary school students enrolled in the Gifted Opportunities (GO) Center at R.S. Payne Elementary School in Lynchburg.

School officials originally thought they were going to have to eliminate the language from the curriculum after the school’s Latin teacher position was cut due to budget tightening. The Randolph students volunteered to fill the gap and spent each Friday afternoon this fall teaching Latin to third through fifth graders. The partnership will continue at least through the remainder of the school year. The six students involved are Leanne Hanson ’11, Rhiannon Knol ’11, Leah Campbell ’12, Gage Stuntz ’13, Tierney Dickinson ’14, and James Potter, a high school student taking Randolph’s Latin class.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” said Leanne Hanson ’11, a biology major who has studied Latin for eight years. “I want the kids to love it when they come out of this.” Hanson quickly learned that she was benefiting just as much as the 25 children in her class. “I love it,” she said, grinning. “I’m on cloud nine when I leave there. I am so full of energy.”

That is not to say the experience has been easy. Hanson and the other Randolph students are from a variety of disciplines, and very few had experience working with young children. With the help of their classics professors, Susan Stevens and Amy Cohen, they are learning to follow lesson plans while keeping full classrooms of bright, young students engaged.

“They really have a commitment to this, and that’s wonderful,” Stevens said. “It gives them a flavor of what teaching might be like. That’s what I want them to get out of it. Even if they don’t want to become a Latin teacher, having the experience of teaching is exciting.” The students are using Minimus, a Latin course designed for small children that follows the adventures of Minimus the mouse and a family who lived in Vindolanda in A.D. 100.

The book has been fun for Rhiannon Knol ’11, a classics major. In August, she visited Vindolanda when she studied in England at Oxford’s Greek Paleography summer school. She was able to see some of the places mentioned in Minimus firsthand. “For some people, Latin can be kind of remote and a dead language,” Knol stated. But in this story, these are real people who spoke Latin, and you can see what they might have said.”

Teachers at the GO Center are pleased the partnership has allowed them to continue exposing their students to Latin. “We believe that this is a good introduction to understanding the meaning of English words and is also very helpful with vocabulary development,” said Lori Smith, a third grade teacher. “We feel it is so important at this age that our students be introduced to a foreign language. Language acquisition is much easier at an early age, and we believe the earlier the better.”

The elementary school students bring what they have learned to their other classes. “We love it when our students will point out the things that they have learned in Latin during other subjects that we teach,” Smith said. “Students will tell us, ‘Oh, that is from a Latin word,’ or ‘Hey, we talked about that in Latin!’ It is nice to see them make that connection.”

Knol and the other Randolph students have been impressed by their students. “I don’t think third graders are given enough credit,” Knol said. “They are smart and can pick things up quickly. I think it’s great that no one is saying these kids aren’t smart enough to learn Latin. Clearly they are.

“Studying languages is one of the most important things you can do,” she added. “It’s the closest thing to studying abroad at home. It makes you think, and it makes you realize so many things about your own language.”

One of the most difficult aspects for the Randolph students was trying to teach at a level the younger students could understand. “Getting into the mind of a third grader has been hard. I’m used to talking to college kids,” said Gage Stuntz ’13, a classics major. “But they pick it up quickly. I really love the puzzle that Latin is, and it’s nice to be able to share that with them.”

Cohen and Stevens saw the Randolph students gain confidence and grow during their first semester of teaching. “It’s a different way of learning for our students,” Stevens said. “They are learning about themselves, their field, and how they come across. They learn presentation skills and Latin skills. There is nothing like explaining things to someone else.”

The partnership between Randolph and R.S. Payne Elementary School has been important to both organizations, said Cohen, who has two children at the GO Center.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Randolph and our classics department to be good citizens of the city,” Cohen said. “We all know the tough economy has meant that people are having to do with less. This is one area where our students could fulfill a need in the community. It benefits both sides.”