Breathing New Life into a Dead Language: Teaching Latin Online
After eighteen years of teaching in a traditional classroom, I found the idea of teaching Latin over the Internet to be frightening yet appealing. I knew that my knowledge of Latin would be sufficient, but I was unsure of my technology skills. Although I had been enrolled for a year in the University of Central Floridas Masters program of Educational Technology, I did not then, nor do I now, consider myself to be a real techie. I liked using technology and had been integrating it into my class for the last three years. After much thought, I decided to make the change and, in August 1999, I joined the staff of The Florida High School (FHS), a public online high school, which serves students all over Florida.
Having taken an online class and participated in an online inservice, I was not totally unfamiliar with distance education. I really enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of being able to decide when and how long I would work. However, eighteen years in the classroom had taught me that most high school and middle school students needed regular prodding to be successful and I was not sure how I could handle this online. Fortunately, I was able to benefit from the experience of other teachers at FHS.
During the preceding year, the staff had discovered that frequent phone contact helped to keep students involved and on task. Also, experience had dictated that students needed to be given a specific drop date after which they would be considered withdrawn with a failing grade. Therefore FHS students may drop any class during the first twenty-eight days without penalty. However, if they drop after twenty-eight days, they are given a failing grade. This option gives the students a chance to determine if a class is going to meet their needs and gives teachers a chance to counsel students and help them determine if online learning is for them. Also, having a drop date d'es require students to make a commitment to complete the course. At the beginning of each course, students sign an academic contract for each class. This contract indicates that the student is aware of the requirements for remaining active in the class.
The philosophy of The Florida High School is Any time, any place, any path, any pace. During a welcome call at the beginning of the class, the instructor asks the student to select a pace at which he/she plans to complete the course. A student may select to complete the course at an accelerated pace or an extended pace. The accelerated pace allows the student to finish a yearlong course in less than two semesters, while the extended pace allows the student to complete a two semester course in one calendar year. Of course, the student may select the traditional two semester pace. In order to help students stay on schedule, some teachers have set up a time schedule of assignments for each pace. Other teachers require a minimum number of assignments to be submitted per week.
Being a newcomer and having never taught the Latin I course, I did not do this. I recommended that my students complete one entire lesson per week in order to complete the course at the traditional pace. Of course, one learns by her mistakes. I realized very quickly that students want more structure. Every week I received student e-mails asking me where they should be. Also, many of The Florida High School students travel with their families or are involved in activities such as professional sports or musical performances, which conflict with more traditional classes. Providing them with a week by week assignment schedule will help these students to schedule schoolwork around these activities. Students are supposed to make weekly contact with the teacher. However, just as in the regular classroom, some students do need occasional prodding or encouragement. Phone contact and e-mail are used to encourage these students to catch up and stay on pace. Another incentive for staying on schedule is monthly progress reports. Since progress grades depend not only on quality of work but also quantity of work, activity in the CourseRoom, the area in which students post their assignments, increases considerably during the week of progress reports.
How Different IS Teaching Online?
Before I accepted the position at FHS, I worried about being isolated from students. I wondered if I would be content not to have face-to-face contact with my students. I realized within the first week of teaching that my contact with these students would be very satisfying. Just as in the classroom, students are anxious to communicate. I was really surprised by how much a teacher can learn about her students through their e-mail. Of course, instead of the dog ate my homework, the excuse that I get most is my computer crashed. Remember that technical problems do happen. However, just as in the traditional classroom, adjustments may have to be made to make allowances for those unexpected interruptions.
Since I would be working mostly from my home office, I also worried about being isolated from other teachers and staff. However, the FHS staff is great. Communication through e-mail and phone calls keeps me in touch. Monthly staff meetings and training sessions also help to make everyone feel like a part of the school. If I have a technical problem or a question about how to do something, the answer is usually only an e-mail away. This kind of communication is essential to developing a great distance education program.
Teaching online requires different skills than teaching in a traditional classroom. Unlike many other distance education programs, Florida High School classes are not taught as a supplement to textbooks. Almost all materials are online, and many lessons are taught using Web sites. For example, the curriculum for the Latin course uses translations from a Latin textbook, but the instructor develops most of the exercises and lessons. Lessons are designed to help students discover answers for themselves. For instance, rather than give students a chart of the Olympic gods and their domains to memorize, students are given a list of mythology Web sites and asked to create their own chart. In my Latin class, most of my actual teaching is done as I review students work before it is submitted for a final grade. I try to make comments, ask questions and give hints, which will lead students to discover the correct answers. In some cases, if a student is having a problem with a particular point of grammar or translation, I will talk them through it over the telephone. Whether over the phone or in writing, distance education requires that teachers be able to communicate their ideas very clearly.
Students are also encouraged to communicate with each other through an online discussion area. To illustrate, I am in the process of forming a cyber chapter of the National Junior Classical League. During the semester, students will be campaigning for office using the Discussion Area of the CourseRoom. We will be holding club meetings online. Students will also be given the chance to go to regional and state competitions in the spring. As part of the Latin course, they are creating historical or cultural projects, which they may enter in these contests. Starting in January, pictures of these projects and short abstracts of their research will be posted online, to share with their classmates.
Distance learning is not a magic bullet for education. Online classes are not for every student. However, distance learning can provide an important alternative to students who, for whatever reason, are not enrolled in traditional school programs or want to take this form of classes. Distance education classes can also benefit students in small public or private schools that do not have the resources or students to offer advanced classes. For example, because there is a shortage of Latin teachers, many high schools do not offer Latin. However, through The Florida High School and distance learning, all students in Florida may now enjoy the benefits of taking Latin.
The Florida High School can be found at http://www.fhs.net/FHSWeb.nsf/Home?Open.
Sue Shelton has been teaching Latin for 19 years. She received her BA from Baylor University. She has done post graduate work through the University of Florida and University of South Florida. She will receive her Masters in Educational Technology from the University of Central Florida in August 2000. She has been teaching online for Florida High School since August 1999.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.