[Guest Post] Something Old, Something New: Flipping the Latin Classroom

by Dr. Valentina DeNardis, Director of Graduate Classical Studies

In the Classical Studies Program, students are not flipping out—we’re flipping the classroom instead.

The traditional model for a Latin literature class consists of students taking turns translating a work like Vergil’s Aeneid from Latin to English, with pauses to discuss difficulties in the language, context, significance, analysis, etc.  I remember speaking with a friend near retirement age about his experience as a student in such an undergraduate class many years ago.  He told me that his professor did not even allow the students to look at the Latin text.  One student stood and read the Latin aloud from the book, and another stood and translated what he heard into English.  The tension which might build in such a stressful class format is not terribly conducive to getting the most out of examining a beautiful work of literature.  I have discovered that a great deal more learning can take place in the format of a flipped classroom.

In my upper level Latin literature course this semester, we are reading selections from the Roman poet Ovid’s mythological epic, the Metamorphoses.  Instead of following the traditional model for this type of course, where students struggle alone to make sense of a challenging Latin text, I have the students do prep work outside of class and then work together in class to decipher the text.  After spending some time at the start of the semester reviewing important Latin grammar and introducing the author and his work, I assign a portion of text to the students to prepare.  Most of Latin and Greek literature is available online for free, so I cut and paste the selections into a word document and post it on Blackboard for the students to download and rearrange in a format that works for them (such as adding spaces between lines or on the side for notes).  The students can either print out the text to bring to class, or bring it in on a laptop, or tablet, or even a smart phone.  Students are expected to have looked up vocabulary and forms they do not know, so they have those tools ready to work with in class.  They also do some additional preparatory work, such as reading other portions of the work in English, reading relevant scholarly articles, or researching representations of the myth in other works of literature, art and even post-classical art and culture.

A typical seventy-five minute class will begin with the students getting into small groups to work out a translation together for about half an hour, using the tools and prep work they have prepared before class.  I circulate among the groups, helping if they have a question and noting their progress.  What I have found is that different students have different strengths (e.g., one student may be good at identifying noun-adjective phrases, while another is good at figuring out verbal constructions) and in working together, they make progress, learn from each other, and even have a good time since the pressure to translate alone in the spotlight is off.  While I check in on the various groups, I note any particular difficulties with forms or grammar and can quickly pull up a mini-review on my laptop.  The second half hour of the class can consist of me briefly presenting that mini-review, and then the students taking turns to bring the translation they have worked out to the whole group so that we can discuss it and the text together.  I project the text on the screen in the classroom, and use a graphic tablet and stylus to edit and mark up the text as we discuss it.  After class I can post this annotated text we have come up with together on Blackboard for the students to consult, use as a study guide, etc.  During the last 15 minutes of the class, one student will share a powerpoint highlighting his or her research on one particular myth in the text, showing where else the myth is depicted, from different versions by other ancient authors to uses of the myth in pop culture.

Junior Julie Kurtz describes the experience of the flipped format:  “When we work in groups to translate text, rather than speaking out to the whole class, we are more comfortable. It is okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to take some time and try the sentence a few different ways. There is much less pressure on each of us, and I definitely think it makes it more likely for each person in the class to participate and be engaged.”

Instead of inducing students to hide and hope they are not put on the spot to tackle a tricky translation alone, this new flipped classroom format is resulting in a much more productive and enjoyable class, and a class in which students spend more of their time participating, collaborating, and learning.

Roman school sculptural relief (180-185 CE)

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