Monday, May 05, 2008

Beginning Latin Poetry Reader

The recent cancellation of the Advanced Placement Latin Literature course and examination came as a great shock to many Latin teachers. Citing declining enrollment and a lack of funding, the Latin literature exam will be eliminated --along with three other undersubscribed courses -- after the 2008-09 academic year. The College Board will continue to offer the Advanced Placement Vergil test.

There are some very real worries that the elimination of the Latin Literature exam will have a negative impact on enrollment in Latin in the United States. A large number of high school students who persevere past the second year of a foreign language do so with the intention of taking the A.P. exams and obtaining college credit. Many schools offer the Latin Literature and Vergil courses in alternating years so that Latin students can have the opportunity to take two tests. Therefore, a Latin student who completes four years of Latin at a school that offers both the Latin Literature and Vergil exam has the opportunity to enter college with credit for two semesters of a foreign language. With the skyrocketing cost of higher education and the competitive admissions process, who can blame students for wanting to get a head start? Many Latin teachers are concerned that students will choose another language simply for the reason that they will have the opportunity to take 2 exams.

The concern remains that students taking the AP Vergil course may never have an opportunity to experience reading a wide range of authentic literature by other Roman authors and poets. Of course, there are also teachers who will be happy to have the chance to write their own courses, freed from the constraints of the AP Latin Literature syllabus. It may be necessary for teachers to ensure that their students get the chance to read more genuine literature in the first two years of high school Latin. Of course, first and second year students will need some ancillary support in order to successfully tackle authentic readings.

I recently came across Gavin Betts' and Daniel Franklin's Beginning Latin Poetry Reader at a local bookstore. Designed for students who have learned to conjugate verbs, decline nouns and adjectives and who possess a working vocabulary of about 750 words, the poems in this volume have ample footnotes providing grammatical and contextual notes. In the table of contents, each poem is assigned a level of difficulty so that the reader may choose to progress gradually. Easy poems receive one star; somewhat difficult poems, two; rather difficult pieces get three. A brief, informative introduction, timelines and maps help students put the poems into their historical perspective. Authors represented in this anthology include, but are not limited to, Plautus and Terence, Lucretius, Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, as well as a range of writers from the Silver Age. (A word of warning: one selection from Propertius, Elegies 4.8.27-36,47-66, might be of concern for high school teachers, so you may want to examine the book before selecting it for a course.) The appendix includes a full glossary of all words included in the poems as well as a very well written and understandable grammar and syntax. There is also a section explaining the scansion of Latin verse along with examples of the different types of meter that occur within the book. Some teachers may be concerned that literal translations of all selections are included in the appendix. Students can and often will seek such translations out on the Internet anyway, so teachers shouldn't be too concerned. The inclusion of the translations will certainly appeal to the independent learner who would like to have them available to check comprehension.

Throughout the text there are occasional sidebars with interesting observations or reflections relating to the poem or author. I found these to be clever and conversational, the sort of thing a college professor might mention in passing while the class reads and discusses a selection. The poems themselves cover a wide range of topics, which are sure to lead to some interesting classroom discussions.

So, if you are interested in incorporating more authentic Latin selections into your classes, I recommend that you consider Gavin Betts' and Daniel Franklin's Beginning Latin Poetry Reader. It would be a shame if students never had the opportunity to read more than just a very few Latin authors.