Making the Grade: Latin teacher makes language leap from the page

Students who greet Robert Patrick in the halls of Parkview High are used to him replying in a language that hasn’t been spoken conversationally for centuries. The head of the Gwinnett school’s foreign language department is on a mission to move Latin out of the realm of dusty, written texts and back into the world of everyday speech.

“At Parkview, we teach Latin in Latin; we speak, read and write in Latin,” said Patrick, a 25-year language teacher. “We have conversations about all kinds of things because that’s how people learn.”

Patrick introduced Latin conversation as a way to strengthen the curriculum, which was already in place when he arrived at the Lilburn school 10 years ago.

“When I took over, Latin was very solid, with five classes being taught by one teacher,” he said. “We had about 130 students, but as usually happens with language programs, the students started out with a bang, but by the end of the second year, they just weren’t around. I wanted something better.”

Patrick introduced “comprehensible input” - delivering understandable messages in Latin. Along with the lessons, Patrick and two other Latin teachers lead class discussions in the language that often spills into conversations outside of class. That engagement piqued student interest; today, almost 500 students are part of the program. And they’re staying longer: Along with Latin I through 4, there is an Advanced Placement section as well.

“Our retention rate has gone from .2 to 62 percent, which means this year, 62 percent of our seniors started studying Latin as freshmen,” said Patrick.

One of those students is 18-year-old senior Gowan Moise, who considers himself functionally fluent.

“What initially drove me to Latin was hearing people converse in it,” said Moise. “The way Dr. Patrick teaches, it’s a spoken language. He’s even tracked down videos and songs in Latin. My freshman year, we had the choice of singing or recording a song or doing a skit in Latin.”

Moise also recognized the well-touted fact that a knowledge of Latin comes in handy with other languages, including English.

“Latin has practical uses, like improving my vocabulary for the SAT,” he said. “There have been times when I’ve been reading, and I have spotted the words with Latin roots. The connection is noticeable once you start studying it.”

A Latin foundation can come in handy for most students, said Patrick. “I don’t care what profession a student ends up in; they’re going to have a professional vocabulary in English, and it will without fail have a Latin root. It’s not just for doctors or lawyers.”

In June, The American Classical League honored Patrick’s teaching by giving him one of five national Meritus Awards. Patrick has also been named Parkview’s Teacher of the Year in 2008-09; the Foreign Language Association of Georgia Teacher of the Year in 2012; teacher of the year for the Southern Conference on Language Teaching in 2013; and one of five National Language Teacher of the Year finalists in 2013.

“What’s most important to me is that our students are having positive experiences, and they tell their friends,” he said. “They love Latin and are coming back for more. And as someone who is of Celtic, mostly Irish, origin, I take great pride knowing that majority of the people the Romans so oppressed are now in charge of their language.”

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