There are many skills to be polished in an advanced Latin classroom: vocabulary, syntactical and rhetorical terminology, reading comprehension, and precise translation. In addition, students should have a historical and cultural framework for the texts they read. Finally, students should be able to see connections between the ancient world and their own. One way to develop all three at once is to create projects that take the students from translation to analysis and synthesis of primary and secondary source material. From there it is a small step to build a bridge from the stories and values of the ancients to their own lives and therefore the world outside their classroom.
From my experience in college classrooms and a college prep high school, I have found that there is not an enormous difference between advanced high school and traditional college students. They are going through many of the same issues, if with somewhat different levels of freedoms and choices available. The unit which I will describe in my paper and illustrate with a handout and video clips was developed from the standard college term paper assignment, which high school students can undertake at a very sophisticated level if given appropriate guidance.
This project begins with a close reading of Iliad 10 and 23 in order to set the stage; they also read secondary literature to deepen their understanding of Greek epic and Homeric cultural norms. Then the students read the Latin of Caesar’s de Bello Gallico 5.44, the story of Veranus and Pullo, again with additional secondary resources. Finally the students read the Latin of the footrace in Aeneid 5 and, after a discussion of their perceptions of the fairness of Nisus’ actions and the outcome of the scene, the students read the Latin of Aeneid 9.176-502 where the young friends die. These are three very different selections, despite their thematic similarities, requiring the students to differentiate between Greek and Roman culture and literary style, between epic narrative and historical commentary, and between ancient mores and their own. The students have been translating and discussing Vergil for three to four months by the time we start this project, and it serves as a nice pause and readjustment of their focus on the Aeneid.
At each stage of the unit the students have been journaling so that they have notes and ideas for the paper that they must write incorporating all three authors and at least three secondary resources for Homer and Caesar and five for Vergil. The students have access to Jstor and a fair selection of textbooks and other resources through the school library and my own in order to supplement the articles and chapters provided as a starting point for discussion. While I am editing their first full draft, we turn to an exploration of modern representations of some of the themes of this unit: friendship, peer leadership, athletic competition, and warfare. Scenes from The Return of the King, Harry Potter, Dodgeball, and Saving Private Ryan are my standard contributions to the viewings and discussion. The students then have an assignment to bring in their own clips to illustrate the themes that they see in the ancient literature. In our viewing and discussion, rooted as it is in the texts we are exploring, the students usually find a greater understanding of the points they were trying to make in their papers. They are able to complete their finals drafts, therefore, with more refinement and confidence because they better understand the continuity of mankind’s exploration of these themes.
Many of the elements to which the students react the most strongly relate to their conceptions fair play; their opinion of Nisus and Euryalus is very different after Book Five than it is after Book 9. The youth of the pair also elicits strong reaction; they relate much more viscerally to Vergil’s pair than either Homer or Caesar, even though Caesar’s story was (theoretically) real. The realities of war and the loss of human life for Vergil are also much more tangible after this unit. In the end, these young adults begin to ask: how do they react when faced with danger or difficult decisions in the presence of their friends and those they admire? This project sounds daunting to the students when I first describe it, but, because it is accomplished in stages, they learn how to approach serious academic writing and how research can enrich their understanding of the text they are so close to as they translate day by day. They make deep and lasting connections to Vergil, his world becomes much more real to them, and they return to daily translation with renewed interest and openness. They see, at last, the forest and the trees.