Comprehensible Input In Latin Classrooms: Is it Silly or Serious?

Several times in my life I have been told that I am too serious.  I know a few (okay, a LOT) of other Latin teachers (okay and other language teachers) who fit that charge as well.  It’s easy to be serious when you are a Latin teacher.  Our textbooks are all some version of a grammar, and grammar is always serious business.  When we chose to study Latin, we had to endure any number of inquiries (which felt like inquisitions) about WHY we chose Latin and what in the world we were “going to do with that!” The questions alone have the power to turn us deadly serious as we try to defend our choices to those who don’t appreciate them.  And then, there are the classics programs we have gone through.  While we all have found wonderful friends and mentors in and through our programs, the programs themselves don’t pretend to be anything but . . . serious. Add to that the reality that Latin faces the real possibility of disappearing from the educational and intellectual landscape in the not too distant future, and it’s enough to turn and keep any of us . . . serious.

You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have some interest in or already established practice of the philosophy of teaching knowing as Comprehensible Input.  As I often like to remind myself: in a Comprehensible Input framework, three things must always be in play: comprehensible material in Latin; compelling material in Latin; and a caring atmosphere in the classroom. Those three items create a framework around what we do in the classroom. That’s why I call it a philosophy.  It frames and informs what we do, but does not dictate what we do. Teaching within the framework of CI is a game changer.  Whatever Latin material I work with, I have to make sure that every single word is understandable to every single student in the room.  Every day. (That’s still very serious). I also have to find ways to make sure that whatever material I bring into the room is intensely interesting to the students in the room. In addition to that, I need to insure that however I bring whatever material I bring to the room is done in a way that students experience as caring and supportive.

Those last two of the three necessary items hold the real possibility of moving away from serious and toward silly. Most of us are working with children and teenagers.  Even if we are working with adults, the truth is that what we find most interesting will always have the qualities of story in them, and as human beings, we like to laugh. While tragoedia is a long standing genre in our literary tradition, comoedia is as well, and it’s not a newcomer to the literary scene. If we look at our own comedic literary traditions, they are not only some of our oldest works, but they are always attempting to deal with the serious in life through laughter.  Situations that feel the most supportive to us always include smiles and laughter especially around the most serious of situations.  We cannot do serious all the time and pull off smiling and laughter.  Work that is truly compelling to our students and which is done in a way that is caring and supportive will at times include silliness.

Our work helping students acquire Latin while teaching within the CI framework can go off the rail in two different directions: with too much serious or too much silly. This is really not a choice of whether our work will be serious or silly, though at times I am sad to hear it cast that way.  If someone is teaching within a CI framework and all that they are doing every day, all year, in every level is just silly, then they are missing real opportunities to connect the fun and light hearted things of life with the richness of our Latin literary tradition. On the other hand, if all that we do every day, all year in ever level is about following a textbook, section by section, plodding through a grammar syllabus and never using any Latin with students that connects with their daily lives, we are likely being too serious.  In that case, we miss the opportunity to help students experience Latin as a language for communication that might be relevant to who they are and what they do. What if I told you that I have used a story about a monster who went to Starbucks to get a cookie but Starbucks was out of cookies?  The monster then had to go from one Starbucks to another but they were all out of cookies.  Is that too silly?  You might think so at face value.  What if I told you that in the use of that story all of the students in the room (who, btw, thought the story was outrageously funny) acquired all the vocabulary they needed to read a Roman myth about the creation of the world completely in Latin.  Not so silly now, is it?  The follow up conversations with students about the myth were how sky (Uranus) and earth (Gaia) really are sort of the parents of all that is on earth, and that was a pretty serious conversation.

It’s always okay for things to go a little silly in this work for two reasons.  1) Silly can be a vehicle both to compelling material and a caring atmosphere, and 2) you are the language and literature expert in the room.  You have the capacity to take what they create and re-embed it into the Latin literary, cultural and historical tradition. Most often, when we do that, students want to know more about that tradition, and that’s why we are helping them learn Latin in the first place.

I’ve watched us as a Latin teaching community go through our growing pains as increasingly we embrace Comprehensible Input as a framework for helping all kinds of learners acquire ability in Latin.  At first, the great reaction was “you don’t teach grammar!”  That’s simply not true.  What is true is that in a CI framework, we teach grammar very differently than before, and it is no longer the engine that pulls the train.  More recently, I’m hearing: “CI work is just too silly to be taken seriously.” The truth is, using a CI framework allows us to take our students and their lived contexts seriously, and it allows us to be a little more light-hearted about this vast literary, cultural and historical tradition within which we work.  Too serious, too much of the time is going to kill this language tradition in our schools.  We might just ponder this.  Within our own literary tradition there is written this tension between too serious and too silly.  Catullus came along and offered what was derided as “light verse.”  Ovid appeared and not only did us the very serious favor of preserving the only copy of Greco-Roman myths in one huge collection, but he did it by making a little fun out of almost all of them–his own unique signature, most often at Vergil’s expense.  Plautus, one of our oldest literary giants, does this almost mundane, predictable physical humor with the same 4 or 5 characters even as he deals with issues of love, rejection, slavery, poverty and power.  Pretty serious stuff for comedy.  Silly and serious.  As a literary tradition, that is exactly what we do–holding these things together.

Bob Patrick