When high school teacher Sarah Roach takes attendance, she routinely notices that she has more students in her classroom than the number who are technically enrolled in Latin courses she teaches. They're not lost or sneaking into her classroom to visit friends. The extra half-dozen students are coming for the Latin.
Roach, 54, has taught Latin at Highland School in Warrenton, Va., for 25 years and has seen interest in the ancient language grow steadily throughout her tenure. When she first began, Roach taught a few students in a single class. Now she teaches 80 students, in classes geared toward a range of skill levels.
Though it is often considered a dead language, Latin is alive and flourishing in high school classrooms across the country. In the past 10 years, the number of students taking the National Latin Exam has risen by 30,000 to about 135,000, while the number of students taking the Advanced Placement Latin exams has nearly doubled. Some say the resurgence is linked to increased interest in SAT preparation and Latin's ability to help students succeed on the test's verbal section, while others believe young adults' obsession with Harry Potter and his Latin spells are driving the trend. But popular Latin teachers like Roach suggest that dynamic, enthusiastic educators might actually be the key to the language's surging popularity.
American Classical League President Sherwin Little says the allure of understanding the English language better may spark an SAT-conscious student's interest in Latin, but it is the teachers who implement modern, engaging teaching styles that keep students hooked. Little says the focus of Latin teaching methods is no longer boring, torturous translations but rather the language in terms of its application to archeology, mythology, and literature. "The reason we know about the Greeks and the Romans and the reason we can talk about the significance of the literary works is because of the language," he points out. "Language and culture are inseparable."
At the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, enrollment in Latin classes is larger than enrollment in the school's French or Spanish programs, says Director of College Counseling Joanna Schultz, who attributes the ancient language's popularity to the excellence of the school's main Latin teacher, Victoria Jordan. Ellis's Latin program is not only popular, but its success is measurable as well. In 2006, all 19 of Jordan's AP Latin students took the exam and all 19 got 5's, the highest mark, Schultz says, adding that Jordan is as engaging and dedicated as she is tough.
"One day a year or two ago, I was patrolling the halls during a power outage and I happened to walk by the Latin room," Schultz says. "On a winter day, with no power and very little light, I saw the AP Latin students sitting on the classroom's windowsill doing their work. These students were determined to have class. Power, or no power."
Though Little applauds the work of Latin teachers around the country, he says teachers who retire or switch professions can cause a program with soaring enrollment and high student interest to crumble due to a national shortage of Latin teachers. Schools that lose their Latin teacher and cannot find a replacement are sometimes forced to discontinue the program, he says.
To combat the shortage and raise awareness among Latin students that they can become teachers of the language, the American Classical League holds an annual Latin Teacher Recruitment Week. Jordan says four or five of her former students are majoring in Latin in college, and that makes her hopeful the teacher shortage can be remedied before it starts drastically affecting what is now a growing interest in the ancient language. "One of my former students just graduated from Yale and will probably go on to medical school—she fulfilled all her pre-med requirements—but do you know what she's doing right now? She's teaching middle school Latin."