0 To 70: Five Years of Latin Novellas

This September marks the fifth anniversary of the first two Latin novellas written with sheltered (i.e. limited) vocabulary for the language learner by co-authors Rachel Ash & Miriam Patrick, and Bob Patrick. There are now 70. That’s 0 to 70 in five years, and a whopping total figure of over 228,000 words of new Latin! What has the impact been? Let’s take a look…

Although I’ve limited my own Facebook use to just one Latin teaching group, friends and colleagues have kept me up to date on the current pulse of what’s being discussed in various other fora. Needless to say, discussions look a bit different than they did on the LatinTeach email back in 2015. For starters, no one’s really discussing how to explain indirect statement much anymore. That is, once teachers realized they could just ask students what they thought of something, and then restate the response (e.g. “discipulae, Jenn putat cibum esse…”), the idea of teaching that kind of grammar by explaining that kind of grammar became unnecessary. That’s remarkable.

This disruption to the grammar syllabus and all its obstacles has been influenced, in part, by the unsheltering (i.e. not limiting) of grammar in novellas. That is, teachers were hesitant at first to put an “ut” clause in front of their first year students. However, once they did, they realized that delaying “ut” until another year of Latin has no rationale. For teachers using novellas, then, the grammar syllabus has been exposed as artificial and unnecessary since it has no impact on comprehension when one is otherwise struggling to understand what words mean! The sheltering (i.e. limiting) of vocabulary in novellas provides high-frequency repetition so students struggle very little with what words mean.

Appropriate Reading Level
The first two novellas represented quite a range in reading ability. From sheer vocab alone, Pluto has 148 words, and Itinera Petri has 327, yet in 2015, those two novellas were among the most comprehensible Latin a student could read of any considerable length (i.e. much longer than the most comprehensible textbook passages). Even with the considerable vocabulary range between the two, they were both far, far below the typical Distinguished level Latin that students have been asked to deal with for quite some time. In other words, in 2015, those books were considered “easy Latin.” This is remarkable.

Bob Patrick wrote Itinera Petri for the Intermediate Low-Mid reader with third year Latin students in mind. In 2015, teachers considered Intermediate texts “easy,” yet what about the beginner? In the last five years, the concept of “easy” and “comprehensible” has been re-calibrated when considering “for whom” and “how.” At first, students didn’t have a choice of reading material, so the first novellas were read as a whole class with a lot of teacher support. Naturally, books can be a higher level when the teacher is there to make them more comprehensible.

Then came the advent of independent reading programs. For teachers whose schools came to support them, doling out a fraction of funding used for AP, etc., students now have up to 70+ titles to choose from. This is a very different kind of reading from whole-class, and one that Latin classrooms hadn’t seen before! With independent reading, the bar of what’s truly comprehensible has been dropping each year. In fact, a common trend for new authors has been writing easier and easier texts with each subsequent novella they publish. That was certainly my experience; the books originally intended to be read in the first year more likely can be read by students on their own in year two, and all but one book after my first were written at a significantly lower level.

Comprehensible Texts
With teacher-authors leading publishing, as opposed to academics, other teachers have been taking a cue, writing their own Latin in class for their students as a major part of class content. This is remarkable.

Even without reasonable funding, teachers have been creating more level-appropriate texts for their students that can be used to build an independent reading library. Not only is this absolutely free, but it can generate quite a bit of class content. The result has been a lot more students reading a lot more Latin that they can understand a lot more of. My first novellas included a reference as being written “to address the lack of understandable reading material for the beginner.” Five years later, we’ve been filling that void!

Purpose & Compelling Content
Now that students are able to read more Latin with more ease, the purpose for doing so has come more into focus. Whereas most of “the work” in a typical Latin class used to be translating Latin into English and analyzing literature, very little time was spent on the actual content of what was being translated. After all, a common exchange would be the teacher exclaiming something like “excellent translation, now what does the Latin mean?” followed by crickets. So, when the point was translating and analyzing Latin itself, and then learning about Roman culture in English, there wasn’t much room for students to have any say, or need for any interest in the Latin being translated! Latin class was mostly reduced to exercises in translation and analysis. However, with students choosing their own books in the kinds of independent reading programs that novellas have ushered in, choice has led to student opinions and reviews about the Latin they’re reading. This is also remarkable.

Since students more easily understand the content, there’s more of a need now to make that content interesting and relevant. Teachers are becoming curators of content, and students won’t hesitate to share what they do and don’t like! Even if novellas are supplemental, existing curricular content looks different to learners having been exposed to a new range of topics and narratives. In other words, certain “hits” of a typical Latin class are now becoming “misses.” When you look at it from this perspective, there’s no surprise that some teachers are experiencing disequilibrium, fearing a change to their curriculum. Still, novellas are here to stay. I wonder what the next five years will look like.

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