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What’s Happening in Classics
Joanne Miceli

The study of ancient languages is alive and well at Blair Academy. This year, nearly 60 students are enrolled in Latin 1 through Advanced Placement (AP) Latin—with one senior tackling ancient Greek. Classics teachers Chris Sheppard and Kelsie Fralick could not be more enthusiastic about the subjects they are teaching, and students are learning that so-called “dead” languages are anything but. As Latin 4 student Summer Will ’19 put it, “Latin is entirely and exquisitely alive, thriving in all Romance languages across the world and hidden in nearly every crevice of history.”

Learning Latin

Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Fralick have designed a six-course succession of Latin study that not only teaches students the language but also brings ancient history and culture alive. “Acquiring a language provides keys to a culture that you wouldn’t otherwise possess,” Mr. Sheppard said. “As our students move from pure comprehension in their first years of study to analysis, synthesis and evaluation in Latin 4 and 5, they gain an understanding of not just what a text says but how and why, and connections to modern-day language and culture become apparent.”

Students begin their study of the language in Latin 1 and 2 with an introduction to grammar in culturally immersive readings; the reading of successively more complex texts is a key component of Latin courses all the way through AP. In Latin 3, students encounter “real Latin,” as Ms. Fralick describes it, as they translate extended, unadapted texts of Cicero and Catullus and delve into poetry and oratory. With the reading of Ovid, Virgil, Caesar and other ancient authors in Latin 4 and 5 (AP), advanced students deepen their knowledge of ancient Rome as they accurately translate the works and analyze them from a historical and cultural perspective. 

Cam Bentley ’20, a Latin 4 student, has been increasingly challenged as she has progressed in the language and increasingly rewarded, too. “Through our translations of Ovid this year, we have come to discover the complexity of Roman culture, religion and daily life,” she said. “We spend time discussing everything from the importance of myths to literary devices to ancient feminism. Although I sometimes find myself frustrated with the complexity of Ovid, Mr. Sheppard always does a great job of acknowledging my frustration and using it to pull me back in. I have really enjoyed working with Mr. Sheppard and can’t wait for another semester of Latin.”

Summer observed that even with all of the translation she and her classmates have done throughout their studies, translation itself is not the central aspect of Latin classes. “We Latin scholars (as Mr. Sheppard calls us) must go beyond the simple translation and discern precisely what the text implies,” she said. “We investigate questions such as: Why was this written? Why did the author portray this character the way he did? How does this relate to other authors of this time? With the tools to pick apart the language and the encouragement to delve into its meaning, exploring Latin has deeply expanded my ability to learn and think critically.”

Beyond the Books

To help their students engage even more deeply with Latin texts, Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Fralick have incorporated a number of hands-on projects into their classes, including the staging of a play, translation of English songs into Latin, creation of music videos and the translation of actual fragments of ancient papyrus. In the papyrus project, Latin 4 students head to the Chiang-Elghanayan Center computer lab where they use large-screen monitors to study digitized scrolls and papyri from Germany’s Berlin Papyrus Database. They create line-by-line translations of the Latin text and, essentially, do the work of classicists to unlock the ancient writings. 

Noting that classics is an inherently interdisciplinary field of study, Mr. Sheppard brought Blair’s Director of Vocal Music Ryan Manni into his Latin classes last year to highlight the ancient language’s musical roots. He would like to bring in theatre, math, English and science teachers in the future to help Latin students appreciate connections to those disciplines, as well.

Outside the classroom, Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Fralick traveled to Rome with Blair classics students in summer 2018, and they hope orchestrate similar trips every couple of years. “Classically themed travel helps our students see that this language and culture they have been studying is not as far away as they might think,” Ms. Fralick said. “Even though Latin was created and spoken thousands of years ago, the ability to experience the language amid the culture of modern-day Rome certainly helps students connect more deeply to it.”

Knowledge for Life

“Ms. Fralick makes it fun to go to class every day,” said Latin 1 student Timmy Xi ’22. “Her teaching has made my first experience learning a new language a lot more enjoyable than I was honestly expecting it to be. I've learned not only the basics of the Latin language but also about Roman culture and a bit of Greek, too. I'm excited for the next few years of Latin and maybe even more Greek!”

Cam will likely wrap up her study of Latin at the end of the year, but she believes she will carry the lessons she has learned with her forever. “I love how much the language has transitioned to my success in other classes, specifically the humanities,” she said, noting that she has strengthened her command of English grammar through her study of Latin. “Latin has taught me how to solve problems that initially seem really scary by breaking them down and asking why. Regardless of the challenges I face, I now have the tools to take them piece by piece, be flexible and build something beautiful.”

Having completed Blair’s entire Latin curriculum by the end of her junior year, Linda Tong ’19 is currently exploring ancient Greek, and she will likely continue her study of classics in college. “What I love most about studying classics at Blair is finding the intersections of the ancient and the modern and seeing how the texts I read impact my own worldview,” she said. “Because of the flexibility of being in a one-person tutorial, I actually took a week off this fall to read Ovid's Metamorphoses (in Latin) with Mr. Sheppard. We had an amazing discussion about how Ovid can be read as a commentary on current social issues. Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Fralick have also helped me explore my interest in the classics outside the classroom through Blair's Classics Club and other activities. I am incredibly inspired by Mr. Sheppard and Ms. Fralick's teaching. Studying the classics has been a very meaningful part of my Blair experience.”

Summer chimed in with praise of her classics experience at Blair. “Latin is my past, present, and future. It silently corrects my diction and syntax; it is a backseat driver in any form of communication I attempt,” she said. “I will be forever grateful for the knowledge and joy Latin has provided me.” 

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Blair Academy’s 172nd commencement ceremony was a tradition- and joy-filled celebration of the class of 2020, as well as the first graduation in School history to take place online. Families and friends from around the world came together virtually on May 21—appropriately a beautiful, sunny day in Blairstown—to listen to words of wisdom, honor the achievements of students and faculty members, and celebrate a truly outstanding senior class.

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