At Baltimore’s Dulaney High, the students I met could clearly articulate the benefits of the Latin program. Near the end of my visit with Dawn Mitchell, known lovingly by SALVI participants as Aurora, she left the room so that the students could answer any questions I had. She both trusted that what they would say wouldn’t reflect badly on her and also just wanted me to hear from the students themselves, regardless of what they might say. I asked them what worked and what perhaps needed some fine-tuning in their class. They commented on a number of features:
- Ms. Mitchell lets them confer with neighbors before responding to questions.
- She makes the class stories relevant to their lives.
- She guarantees that they will have all that they need to succeed.
- She provides enough repetition so that what they are learning is comprehensible.
- She gives them bucks. (see below)
Dawn uses humor, creativity, care, and hard work to create this environment for students. After many conversations with Dawn and the one conversation with the students, I feel I have a much better understanding of what it is that works so well. Dawn has put considerable time into creating an effective system, the cornerstones of which are a vademeculum (student notebook) and bucks.
In each class, the students begin the year with a blank composition book, and throughout the year, they create their own textbook. In this book, the students write what Dawn puts on the board; this includes vocabulary words, sentences illustrating a particular structure, and stories created primarily by Dawn but modified to reflect current students’ names, interests, and popular locations. Homework is to read what they have written, and each day there is a five-question quiz at the beginning of class, where students need to find the answers somewhere within their notebooks.
I imagine that I will not be able to do justice to the buck system, but I will try to highlight certain features. Basically, the students receive paper money (in the form of Roman currency) for participation. On each buck, the students also write in Latin what they did to receive the money. Each student has to turn in five bucks each week, and with any extra bucks, there will be an occasional store day when students can “purchase” stickers for their notebooks. These stickers will be helpful near the end of a term. One way to receive bucks is by performing tasks at the beginning of class. The students immediately engage in these activities and look forward to helping.
In addition to the vademecula and bucks, Dawn’s classroom is a Latin playground. Students can find a Latin graffiti board filled with interesting phrases, countless art projects collected over the years, a number of comprehensible books in Latin, books in English covering relevant culture and history, props, helpful question words, and reminders to think about how they are learning.
I also liked Dawn’s method of mixing up seating in the classroom. Each desk has a sticker with a particular color and animal, and as students enter, she can give them a corresponding color or animal and tell them to find their desk. This technique is used to create random groups.
Finally, in addition to all of the above, Dawn has helped to create a Roman town (Dulanium) filled with activities for the entire school community, a Harry Potter Certamen, and a Ientaculum (Latin Breakfast) for her school and surrounding schools to gather and speak Latin together. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Dawn’s enthusiasm and her students’ equally stimulating engagement with her and the language. The system she has developed, built on the principles of TPRS and CI, works incredibly well, as evidenced by the large number of students who take Latin at Dulaney High year in and year out. Dawn and her colleague Elyse Fiorito also work together closely (it helps that their rooms are adjacent) and share common goals.