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Blog: Latin Novellas and the New Pedagogy

Text reads "Ego, Polyphemus, a Latin novella by Andrew Olimpi." A blue sky behind an upside-down image of a bald man with gray skin, wearing a black one-shoulder garment, with a single eye in the middle of his forehead.

The sudden rise of Latin novellas might come as a surprise to anyone outside of high-school classrooms. This genre, which didn’t exist seven years ago, now counts over a hundred published works. These novellas are largely written by and for those outside the world of higher ed, but they should be of interest to the larger scholarly community—not just because they will increasingly form the background and expectations of Latin students coming into college, but also because they are one part of a larger pedagogical movement that is in the midst of transforming the teaching of Latin.

Latin novellas are books written in easy Latin — easy enough that students can read pages and pages in a single sitting. They tend to be short: most are around two or three thousand words long in total, though some are as short as Abbi Holt’s Abecedarius Letifer, which is under 150 words, or as long as Rachel Beth Cunning’s Virgo Ardens, which is over 16,000. Most of the novellas take their stories from ancient myth and history, but there is an astounding variety of sub-genres and topics. Daniel Pettersson and Amelie Rosengren’s Pugio Bruti is a mystery novel, Arianne Belzer’s Fortuna Fortibus Favet is choose-your-own-adventure, Jocelyn Demuth’s Tres Fabulae Horrificae is a graphic novel, and Xinran Ma’s Hannah et Servilia is a tale of time-travel.

The novellas also exploit the creative possibilities of seeing Roman literature through different sets of eyes. Sometimes the result is thought-provoking, like in Eleanor Arnold’s Cloelia, which retells the early myth through the eyes of the young Cloelia herself. Other times it is lighthearted, like Lance Piantaggini’s series of novellas told from the perspective of a young wanna-be poet named Piso. Still other times it’s hilarious, like Andrew Olimpi’s Ego, Polyphemus and Emma Vanderpool’s Sacri Pulli — which is partly narrated by one of the sacred chickens who eventually get thrown overboard by Publius Claudius Pulcher.

The cover of Medusa: Femina Potens et Fortis by Emma Vanderpool. A dark-skinned woman wearing a white toga with thick dreadlocks.

Figure 1: The cover of Medusa: Femina Potens et Fortis by Emma Vanderpool.

Latin novellas arose, in part, to solve a problem that every Latin teacher will be familiar with: the student who can conjugate the pluperfect subjunctive flawlessly but sees the sentence “Puellam videt” and thinks it means “The girl sees.” In fact, that’s usually a problem faced by the best students in class. Others will trip up on conjugations and misunderstand basic sentences. Novellas have the potential to help both of these kinds of students.

The “Puellam videt” issue stems from the fact that students might have memorized the forms of the language, but they haven’t internalized its structure. English-speaking students have brains that are wired to process the first word of a sentence as the subject, so when they see “Puellam videt” it will register in their brains as “The girl sees” unless they stop to laboriously unpack the grammar — which is usually what we teach them to do. (“What case is puellam?” “And what does the accusative do?” “So can the girl be the subject?” “Then how should we translate it?”)

So, how do we rewire students’ brains? The simple answer is just to read Latin. It probably won’t shock you that the best way to improve your Latin is to read more Latin, but you might well be shocked at the scale of how much Latin really has to be read to internalize the structure of the language. Students shouldn’t be reading thirty lines of Latin per class, they should be reading more like thirty pages of Latin per class.

The cover of Agrippina Auriga by Lance Piantaggini. A white book cover with an illustration of a chariot racer riding three brown horses.

Figure 2: The cover of Agrippina Auriga by Lance Piantaggini.

It is unrealistic to ask students to sit down and read thirty pages of Cicero, which is practically the length of all four Catilinarians combined. Cicero’s Latin is just too hard. If a student is going to read enough Latin to internalize the language, the Latin has to be easy, really easy. This is where novellas come into the picture. They are easy enough to allow beginning students to read extensively enough to develop a natural sense of the language. (You can read more on the principles of extensive reading here; and Justin Slocum Bailey here describes his own experience with extensive reading as a learning tool for Latin.)

These novellas, of course, are not authentic Latin texts, but then neither are the exercises cooked up by folks like Keller and Russell. It’s true that the Latinity of the novellas varies, mostly because of the constraints of writing Latin that is easily comprehensible. Yet while most novellas don’t read like ancient Latin, they are still overwhelmingly written in grammatically correct Latin that will allow students to build the neural pathways that will better enable them to read ancient Latin.

The novellas are part of a pedagogical trend that treats Latin more like a language and less like a code to be deciphered. The goal (for most teachers) is still to read ancient Latin texts, but there has been a realization that the grammar-translation method alone is not a great way to approach that goal. Just think of those “German for Reading Knowledge” classes, which hardly leave one with a nuanced and well-honed Sprachgefühl. I would venture a guess that most of us only started to read Latin with any ease after reading extensively in a survey course (or the like) in grad school. What if we could get the volume of Latin from a graduate survey into an introductory Latin class?

The main intellectual impetus for this trend came from research on second-language acquisition, and in particular from the work of linguist Stephen Krashen. Krashen hypothesized that we pick up a language by developing a kind of mental map, which is acquired through encountering lots of understandable examples of that language — comprehensible input. (For those who want to know more about Krashen’s research and comprehensible input as it pertains to the teaching of Latin, Robert Patrick has a detailed overview here in the Journal of Classics Teaching, and he also runs a website on CI teaching methods, together with John Piazza and David Maust. Patrick, I should note, was among the first novella-writers, along with Rachel Ash and Miriam Patrick.)

This new pedagogical trend also tends to make use of spoken Latin. The idea is not that you’re ever going to meet an ancient Roman, but rather that hearing Latin spoken is an easy way to provide lots of comprehensible input — an argument laid out by Justin Slocum Bailey here for Eidolon, and by Tom Keeline here for Latinitium.

The cover of Romulus Rex: A Prehistoric Legend by Laura E.G. Berg. The cover depicts a zoomed-in dinosaur mouth with large teeth surrounded by green, scaly skin.

Figure 3: The cover of Romulus Rex: A Prehistoric Legend by Laura E.G. Berg.

Not everyone will find every piece of research on second-language acquisition convincing. For instance, there are studies that intriguingly (and alarmingly!) suggest that the explicit teaching of grammar is ineffective and counter-productive. Nevertheless, the question is controversial, to say the least, and there are also studies that show the explicit teaching of grammar to be quite effective, especially for highly inflected languages like Russian. In addition, within the field of second-language acquisition there is no consensus on Krashen and comprehensible input as the best or only way to learn — see, for instance, Shawn Loewen’s Introduction to Instructed Second Langauge Acquisition, which surveys a variety of theoretical and pedagogical perspectives.

All the same, it’s hard to doubt the fundamental insight about the need to develop an internal feel for the language and about the fact that such an internalization only comes from repeated exposure to understandable examples of that language. This is not a particularly new observation — it’s the same fundamental insight that spurred W. H. D. Rouse and R. B. Appleton (and others) to develop what they called the Direct Method of teaching Latin about a hundred years ago.

I should add that there is striking theoretical and methodological diversity among those whom we might class under this umbrella of the New Pedagogy. This diversity is partly the result of the fact that the New Pedagogy is developing in dialogue with second-language acquisition research, which has controversies and debates of its own. The two most notable characteristics of the New Pedagogy are extensive reading and spoken use of the language, although not all teachers combine both, or use them in the same ways or with the same goals. In fact, disagreements are so strong that there is no consensus even on what to call it — I use the term “New Pedagogy” here simply because I don’t know what else to say: objections have been raised to other possible names like “Active Latin,” “CI Method,” and “Natural Method.” (For those interested in exploring some of these different theoretical and methodological perspectives, see the recent issue of The Classical Outlook on Active Latin, and Mair Lloyd and Steven Hunt’s new book Communicative Approaches for Ancient Languages.)

There are a handful of ways that teachers can use novellas, some of which are outlined here by Lance Piantaggini, but one that I would particularly like to highlight is Free Voluntary Reading. Rather than assigning students a specific amount of text to read, give them an amount of time to read. Rather than assigning them all one specific work, give them a choice between a variety of works. Students will read more if they find the work compelling enough to make them want to turn the page.

In my own courses, I ask students do to an hour of free-reading per week. There is no real way to enforce the time-limit, since I don’t do the reading in class, though some teachers do. All the same, I try to keep the students honest by having them fill out a short Reading Journal entry in which they list 1) the dates and times that they read, 2) what work and what pages they read, 3) a brief one paragraph summary, 4) one question about the content of what they read, and 5) one grammar question about what they read. In addition, it’s my hope that they will be motivated to do the reading if the novella is one that interests them, which is another reason why I let them choose their own.

The cover of Clodia: Fabula Criminalis by Andrew Olimpi. The cover is pink with yellow text and includes an illustration of a green bottle of poison with a skull and crossbones on the label, as well as a dead sparrow lying on its back with legs in the air.

Figure 4: The cover of Clodia: Fabula Criminalis by Andrew Olimpi.

One major benefit I’ve noticed with Free Voluntary Reading is that it’s a great way to teach the whole class. Every class has a couple rock stars who could practically be teaching it, and every class has a couple students who, for one reason or another, seriously struggle and consistently fall behind. Free Voluntary Reading neatly solves this problem because it’s an activity with a high ceiling and a low floor. The advanced students don’t get held back and the struggling students don’t get left behind. Those who are more advanced can choose novellas of a higher difficulty level, those who are having more trouble can choose easier works, and everyone goes at their own pace.

I’m still agnostic on whether this approach will really solve the “Puellam videt” problem. I’ve only used novellas for a couple of years, and it’s hard for me to truly gauge the difference. All the same, I’m confident that the time is better spent in reading novellas than in reading more sentences from Wheelock, which is what we used to do with that time. At the very least, the students seem to enjoy it more. And if one of your course goals isn’t to foster a love of reading Latin, perhaps it should be.

For those who are interested, there is a complete and regularly updated list of Latin novellas on this page drawn up by Lance Piantaggini. There is also Dan Conway’s Latin Novella Database, which is a valuable resource, although it is not currently being kept up to date. Take note: the current crop of novellas is mostly geared to an audience of high school (and middle school) students. If you want a novella better fit for a college audience, you may want to write one yourself—and I hope that you do!

Header image: Text reads "Ego, Polyphemus, a Latin novella by Andrew Olimpi." A blue sky behind an upside-down image of a bald man with gray skin, wearing a black one-shoulder garment, with a single eye in the middle of his forehead.

Tom Hendrickson received his Ph.D. in Classics at UC Berkeley, followed by a Rome Prize at the American Academy and a post-doc at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Hendrickson has taught at a variety of institutions, including College Possible (through Americorps) and San Quentin State Prison (through the Prison University Project). He now teaches at Stanford Online High School. His book Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism won the Jozef IJsewijn Prize, and his most recent work is a student edition of the Passion of Perpetua (available here open access: https://pixeliapublishing.org/the-passion-of-perpetua/), which he co-edited with Mia Donato, Carolyn Engargiola, Eli Gendreau-Distler, Elizabeth Hasapis, Jacob Nguyen, Siddharth Pant, Shamika Podila, Anna Riordan, and Oliver Thompson.

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