Latin lives on - virtually

16th February 2001 at 00:00
An online Latin course is proving a hit with pupils and helping to stem the virtual disappearance of the subject from school timetables, writes Eleanor Caldwell

First two periods on Wednesday morning and three S6 pupils at St Patrick's High in Coatbridge are busy translating Cornelia et Flavia sunt puellae quae in Italia habitant (Cornelia and Flavia are girls who live in Italy). Focused on chapter two of beginners' Latin book Ecce Romani, the pupils are reminded about word order and plural forms by their teacher Margot McKinnon.

However, the dead language has entered the virtual age because Mrs McKinnon is in front of the pupils on a computer screen, speaking from nearby Caldervale High in Airdrie. This is the pupils' first video conference lesson in any subject, and they are delighted their introduction to virtual learning is in Latin.

The online Latin course has been devised by Mrs McKinnon who taught Latin and French at Caldervale High and is now semi-retired. Conscious of Latin's virtual disappearance from timetables in many schools, she began writing the three-part course in 1995.

The course, which is targeted at S6 pupils aiming for university, is now in its third year. It centres on a website designed in co-operation with North Lanarkshire by Glasgow company Focus Blue, with sponsorship money from BT. The learning and teaching design has been overseen by adviser Ellen Doherty, who says that the aim was to create an attractive site with "a certain rigour", which would be easily navigated by pupils at all levels of ICT literacy.

Still in its final weeks of development, the site gives pupils the chance to select exercises and move on at their own pace. The content is based on the Ecce Romani book, but also offers additional help with grammar points such as subjectobject and verb tenses. Pupils progress through three units of work leading them, at the end of course three, to a Standard grade level of language.

Exercises are not yet fully interactive and pupils have to word process their work. The cost of a fully interactive site was prohibitive, so all materials are on paper too and pupils can choose to use this in addition or in preference to working from the computer.

At an introductory training session at Caldervale High's Education Business Partnership ICT centre, pupils familiarised themselves with the First Class email system, shortly to be introduced in all North Lanarkshire schools. They will use this to contact Mrs McKinnon for advice and send her their completed work for correction.

While pupils are encouraged to work from home if possible, Mrs McKinnon stresses that access to a computer at home is not essential. At St Patrick's pupils have timetabled accessto the school's conference room, where they also have their weekly video conference session.

The 40-minute lesson, despite its virtual delivery, follows familiar and traditional patterns of classroom Latin. Addressing the pupils individually, Mrs McKinnon asks each to translate sections from Ecce Romani. She combines insistence on detail with enthusiastic encouragement. From her vantage point in Airdrie, Mrs McKinnon reminds the two girls and one boy to speak louder and even to sit up straight. They are unphased when she tells them to keep their fingers on the text as they translate. "It's more like what you're told to do in primary school," says pupil Samantha Flannigan, "and it really helps when you're translating".

Pupils' questions at the end of the lesson are wide ranging. Having learned about the feminine "-a" ending to male names, Samantha asks if names such as her own have developed from the same linguistic tradition. Kerry Delaney wants to clarify the exact translation of quid faciunt (what are they doing?) and there is a general request for a cassette tape to help with pronunciation.

Explaining that Latin pronunciation is less important than understanding the written word, Mrs McKinnon is encouraged that her new pupils are so motivated. She concludes her lesson with explanations on the development of Italian, Spanish and French from their Latin base. While the pupils show interest, they enjoy the Latin more than French. Samantha Flannigan says:

"I like working so closely from the book. Mrs McKinnon's questions are really specific."

Damien Begbie, who passed Higher French, enjoyed the discipline of French grammar and likes the same approach in Latin.

The pupils have given up a double free period to embark on the course. Damien and Samantha hope to study medicine and veterinary science respectively and have identified the direct relevance of Latin to their subject areas. Kerry hopes to pursue a career in media and sees the Latin course as "a great challenge" and an unusually academic way of developing new confidence in ICT. All of them enjoy the "story-telling" aspect of Latin, in which they are picking up on an area of history previously touched on only in primary.

Margot McKinnon and Ellen Doherty are delighted with the pupils' response. Mrs Doherty says interest in the course is being generated in other areas of Scotland, as well as in England and Ireland. Students range from pupils at Caldervale High and Balfron High in Stirlingshire to a University of the Third Age group in Perth. Mrs McKinnon feels learners of all ages appreciate the Romans' clarity of thinking. "There are no shades of grey in Latin," she says.

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