The smell of Fruit Loops fills the classroom. Plastic knives smeared with vanilla frosting dot the tables, and all across the room, children ask for permission to eat their masterpieces. They’re making edible mosaics, and soon they’ll dress in togas and have a Roman banquet before saying, “Valete!”
These children are attending Roman Explorers, a half-day workshop conducted by Ascanius: The Youth Classics Institute. Ascanius, an American nonprofit educational organization, is devoted to promoting the study of the Greco-Roman world on the elementary and middle-school levels. For ten years, it has been a pioneer in integrating Latin and Classics into children’s education in the United States. The organization is comprised of a board of educators who believe that an acquaintance with Latin can help students to better understand their own language world. After all, we are indebted to the Greeks and Romans in so many aspects of our lives: art, architecture, literature, and politics. In support of its mission, Ascanius has conducted programs for both students and teachers for ten years.
The centerpiece of Ascanius’ programs is LatinSummer, a two-week enrichment program for students in grades one through seven. The program began in 2000 in Augusta County, Virginia; since then, nine additional LatinSummer programs have been held across the United States, from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Amherst, Massachusetts, and many places in between. During LatinSummer, elementary students participate in classes such as Conversational Latin, Mythology, Roman Culture, and Greek, which are taught by a team of top high school and college Latin students from across the nation. The curriculum includes hands-on lessons, such as building Roman roads out of candy, acting out myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, learning Latin and Greek words and phrases, and even building a model of Pompeii before witnessing its destruction at the hands of an erupting Vesuvius cake! One faculty member, Lena Barsky, commented on her LatinSummer teaching experience, saying, “Being a LatinSummer faculty member was amazing…To see the kids at the end say, ‘I learned so much! I love Classics! I want to take Latin when I get to middle school!’ – That was so rewarding.” Currently, Ascanius is making plans for two upcoming 2011 programs: LatinSummer Williamsburg, Virginia, and LatinSummer Charleston, South Carolina.
In addition to the two-week LatinSummer program, Ascanius provides numerous other opportunities for students throughout the year. The shorter one-day and half-day workshop, Roman Explorers, is a fun introduction to the Roman world and is often offered free of charge for schools in rural and urban areas. Later this year, students all over the world will be able to participate in these same sorts of exciting Ascanius activities from home by tuning in to eToga Trek, an innovative webcast series. For high school students, Ascanius offers the Classical Promise Scholarship, which has assisted high school students in creating elementary Latin programs in their own hometowns, introducing hundreds of children to the joys of the Classics. Finally, this year Ascanius instituted a writing contest for students at all levels of Latin study. The SCRIBO International Latin Composition Contest aims to spur interest and excitement in using Latin for creative writing, while also honoring top student work. Winners will receive certificates and medals, and top entries will be published as a collection of Latin short stories, comics, and poems for classroom use.
Ascanius also supports teachers, endeavoring to provide them with quality training and resources for incorporating Latin into the elementary and middle curricula. Staff members frequently conduct workshops or inservices for school districts and also present at conferences. Video clips from workshops, as well as presentation handouts, are made available on the group’s website so that teachers all over the world may access them. In addition to the free materials, Ascanius also publishes collections of lessons and activities and makes them available for purchase via its website. While the activities can be useful for any educator, from the high school Latin teacher to the elementary art teacher, they have been particularly helpful to educators who teach Latin to young children on a daily basis. Elise Anschel, an elementary Latin teacher, reports, “I cannot tell you how much time the Activitates Liberis CD has saved me. I use it almost every week, and even when I don’t use it, the lessons inspire me to invent my own similar ones.”
As the Ascanius team prepares for this summer’s programs, the directors can’t help looking back at the ten-year journey the organization has made. What began as a two-week summer program has become a national model, and the organization itself has taken on unexpected dimensions: scholarships, writing contests, workshops, and more. But as they make their summer materials lists, filled with items like pillowcase tunics and 10’ x 13’ maps of the Roman Empire, their mission remains the same. As Matthew Webb, Director of LatinSummer, explains, “By teaching students about the past, we can help them to understand the present. When students study Latin, they learn far more than a language and culture. They learn to appreciate humanity.” The students, for now, give a simpler, yet still gratifying explanation. In the words of one LatinSummer student, “LatinSummer is a great program. You learn a lot, the kids are just like you, and it’s FUN!”