LATIN LIVES Teacher exposes myth and has young students hooked on classics


Latin, the language some people like to say is dead, is alive and well in Donna Speer's classroom.

At the pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade school of Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, Speer has sixth-graders reciting Latin verb endings in a rap-like rhythm. Then she gets them standing and pumping their arms like cheerleaders as they chant the qualities of Latin nouns.

Speer, 39, generates the same enthusiasm in her Greek classes, where she teaches the alphabet and sections of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. She was giving the names of Greek gods and goddesses to her fourth-graders the other day and, when it came time to designate someone in honor of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, the girls waved their hands and pleaded with Speer as if she were handing out a free ticket to a New Kids on the Block concert.

"A sixth-grade boy came up to me not long ago and said, 'I love Latin!' " says school headmaster Roger Marks. "It's unusual for someone that young to be so interested in something like Latin. He could have gotten that from only one source, and that's the teacher."

It's also unusual for Greek and Latin students to be as young as Speer's. A handful of public middle schools in the city and Baltimore County offer Latin classes, but in the seventh and eighth grades. Speer teaches the rudiments of Latin and Greek language and mythology to students as young as second-graders.

The lessons include trips to the nearby Walters Art Gallery, where Speer tells the tales of ancient Greece and Rome beneath artworks representing those long-gone times.

When the students reach the fourth, fifth and sixth grades at Grace and St. Peter's, they are introduced to more complex vocabulary and grammar.

"Teaching this stuff to grade school kids is really where it's at," says Speer, who has been on the faculty at Grace and St. Peter's for three years. She also teaches Latin to eighth-graders at Roland Park Country School.

"These young kids haven't yet heard the lie that Latin is a horrible thing to take, like castor oil, or that it belongs only to the elite," she says. "It doesn't. It belongs to these kids, too."

Tomorrow at Hereford Middle School, several Baltimore County schools will participate in a competition known as the Latin Bowl. Also taking part will be the four students from Speer's sixth-grade Latin class. They will go up against seventh- and eighth-graders and even high school students.

"They can handle it," she says confidently of her sixth-graders.

Speer grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Jewish school where the subjects were taught in Yiddish. She majored in ancient Greek and minored in Latin at Swarthmore College. After graduating, she landed a job teaching the two classic languages at a Chester City, Pa., high school.

"While I was at that school, I was approached by a fifth-grade teacher who was doing a unit on ancient Greece," Speer recalls. "She wanted me to teach them something about Greek. I was much younger then, kind of a snob about it. I thought, 'Fifth-graders? Me? Please!'

"But I went and did it, and it was the greatest thing. I found that younger children are so imitative and open to learning. With languages, it's good to get them at that stage, before they get into high school and begin closing up."

She readily admits that her instruction is designed not to make the students fluent in the languages, but to teach myths -- or, as she prefers to call them, "stories" -- to young minds while they are receptive.

"I'm trying to bring on a love of the stories," Speer says. "Learning the mechanics of the languages is fine, but that's not enough. When the students speak these words, I want them to speak from the heart. That's where the stories come in. The stories add the human element. They're why we bother learning the languages in the first place. The stories are everything."

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