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Latin Lovers [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, March-April 2004

Why should your children learn Latin? Pull up a chair and watch Marie Davis in action. Not only will she give you all the reasons you’ll need, she’ll teach you something in the process.

Marie Davis is in her glory. It’s a Tuesday morning in February, around 10:30 a.m., and Davis is moving from classroom to classroom at Daniels Run Elementary sharing her love for Latin with students. She seems to enjoy her job as much as the kids who are learning the language from her.

After watching Davis in action, it isn’t hard to see why. “What’s the word for hands?” Davis asks Jane Dull’s third grade class. “Manus,” the kids shout back, waving their hands. “Optime,” Davis grins.

Then, pointing to her shoulder blade she instructs: “Now say, Hoc est dorsum.”

The class does as instructed.

“So if you had a dorsal fin, where would it be?”

“On our back,” the third graders respond.

“Bene, your back is your dorsum,” explains Davis, moving right along. “Now say latus (pointing to one side of her body), et latera (pointing to both sides at once).” She pauses as they reply. “And where would your lateral fins be?

“On our sides!”

“Right,” says Davis. “And if you were a football player and made a lateral throw, where would the ball go?”

“To the side,” say the kids, giggling now.

“Bene, bene,” says Davis with a big grin. For the next 15 minutes, she takes students through a drill that includes counting in Latin to 100 by 10s and answering a variety of math problems. Then, she has them respond to commands that instruct them to stand up, sit down, and clap their hands.

The 8-year-olds can’t get enough.

Classroom teachers, such as Jane Dull, can’t either. However, before Davis began teaching Latin to her third grade class, Dull admits she was slightly apprehensive about the amount of classroom time she’d have to give up to make room for Davis’ Latin lessons.

“Since this is 3rd grade, an SOL year, I can’t afford to have any distractions,” notes Dull. “But then I saw Marie work her magic. Every one of her lessons reinforces what the kids need to know for the SOLs, including vocabulary and math, social studies and science.

The kids are learning, having a great time, and I am thrilled to have her assistance.” Ditto for Dana Muscaro, the teacher of the fifth grade class where Davis heads next.

“Marie works incredibly well with the students and the teachers, too,” Muscaro believes.

“She comes to our weekly teacher planning meetings and makes sure that her lessons dovetail with what we’re teaching. She is able to reinforce those lessons, and that really helps the kids make connections. Having her come into the classroom to teach is a giant benefit for my students, and for me as well.”

Today’s lesson is a case in point, for Davis has brought in cerae tablets for the students to try. “These wax tablets were widely used because in ancient Greece and Rome papyrus was expensive, but cerae were erasable and reusable,” Davis explains to the class of 5th graders.

For the purpose of today’s lesson, Davis has made cerae with a slight twist. She’s taken blue plastic plates and covered them with a layer of soft clay, and students are practicing the Greek alphabet on them.

“Having the students use a cera rather than paper to practice the alphabet introduces them to an aspect of ancient Mediterranean culture they wouldn’t experience otherwise,” Davis confides.

Fifth grader Colleen Duda seems thrilled to have the opportunity.

“I love knowing the Greek alphabet because it helps me figure out prefixes, and then I can figure out the meaning of words that I’ve never heard of before,” Duda says. “It’s really cool.”

Miguel Ardon agrees that learning Latin is “pretty fun.”

“I really like it when Ms. Davis tells us the Greek myths, and learning the Latin words is kind of easy because it is a lot like Spanish,” he says. “I also like learning math in Latin. This is one of my favorite subjects.”


Davis says she couldn’t be more pleased that students and teachers alike welcome her Latin lessons. Not that she ever had any doubts.

“Learning Latin and Greek is not just about giving students access to ancient languages,” Davis explains. “It’s about giving them a cultural perspective and control over language — a tool they need to understand the words they use.”

Plus, she says, Latin helps them understand what it might have been like to live in another culture. Although Davis is focused on the fact that her job is to reinforce concepts and vocabulary learned in other areas of the curriculum, she knows that to engage students, it’s the fun stuff she needs to concentrate on.

“That’s why I make the lessons very oral, interactive, and playful,” she says. “The emphasis is on language acquisition rather than memorization. I work on fostering verbal and linguistic skills that will make students successful not only in state-tested content areas of language arts, math, science, social studies but also in learning other foreign languages.”


Davis is no novice when it comes to helping students develops a love for Latin and Greek. A native of South Bend, Indiana, her roots are in academia. Literally.

“I was conceived at Dartmouth, born at Notre Dame, and I grew up at the University of Chicago,” Davis jokes. “That’s because my dad was a medievalist and Chaucer scholar who taught at Dartmouth, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin-Madison.”

Her mom was a teacher, too, and taught English at the University of Indiana, then at a local high school until the needs of her nine children demanded she stay home.

“That didn’t keep her from her passion for research, though,” Davis confides. “At the time of her death, my mom was still working on a new edition of American historian Francis Parkman’s Book of Roses.”

What was life like around the dinner table at Davis’ house? “Oh it was great fun,” says the fourth born in the family. “We played games like mental math and had to guess word meanings. My parents told us interesting stories and taught us some French, German and Old English.”

Davis went on to study the Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA, and minors in history and philosophy. Davis then was accepted to Princeton University’s Classics program, where she received her master’s degree and won several fellowships including the Stinnecke Fellowship, the Lawler Fellowship that sent her to Athens to study for the summer at the American School of Classical Studies, and a fellowship to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC.
After grad school, she embarked on a teaching career working first at Catholic University in DC. There, she taught elementary Latin, classical mythology, Roman and Greek history, medical terminology (to nurses and pre-med students) and a graduate seminar in patristics (the study of church fathers and their writings).

She then went to work for George Mason University where she taught Latin language and ancient literature (Ovid, Virgil, and Greek comedy were some of her favorites) to all levels of students. So how did Davis find her way back to elementary school?

Well, she says, that’s a good question.

“While teaching college students, I realized that if they had been exposed to Latin at a younger age, they would have had a much better chance to integrate it into their education,” she says. “As it is now, students often expect to be instantly literate after they have a two-year brush with Latin. But language acquisition doesn’t work like that. The earlier you are exposed to learning different languages, the more it can benefit you in other areas of your studies.”

So while working at GMU, she took a part-time job at DC’s School Without Walls where she taught Latin. She also filled in as a substitute Latin teacher at Fairfax High, and found it so challenging and satisfying that she left GMU and began working full-time at FHS.


Still, Davis felt she could be more effective if she could teach Latin to students at an even younger age. So in 2000, she helped spearhead the effort to teach Latin to third graders in the City of Fairfax Schools, and joined the staff of Daniels Run Elementary.

Thus far, Daniels Run and Providence Elementary are the only Fairfax County schools — and two of only a handful around the country — that have mandatory Latin class for students, starting in third grade.

“Elementary students are at an ideal age for fearless learning, and they will acquire the language by using it, not by memorizing it,” Davis says. “That’s why we teach them to understand simple oral Latin phrases, have them follow Latin commands and repeat Latin words and phrases back in class. Then, as their familiarity with Greek and Latin words and word components increases, they practice new words and concepts that they are also learning in other classes.”

What makes the City of Fairfax Schools Latin program at Daniels Run and Providence Elementary unique, Davis offers, is that they are neither extracurricular nor a language arts enrichment class.

“Our Latin classes are co-curricular, a modified form of a FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School), designed to support and integrate the SOL material rather than adding unconnected foreign language study to an overcrowded curriculum,” Davis explains.

In addition, Davis says she and Providence Elementary’s Latin teacher Danielle Rinella constantly encourage students to make comparisons to their own world.
“Our students aren’t just learning about Latin,” Davis concludes. “They are learning about life.”


Since this year’s sixth graders at Providence and Daniels Run have been taking Latin since third grade, a new Latin program is being instituted at Lanier Middle School so students can continue their Latin studies.

“We want students to have the opportunity to continue learning the language they’ve come to love in elementary school,” says Lanier’s Principal Peter Noonan, explaining that in the 2004-2005 school year, Latin will be integrated into science, math, social studies and English classes.

“I’m really excited about the program because I feel that knowing Latin will help students excel on the SOLs and the SATs,” Noonan says. “The sheer quantity of root words on those tests that come from Latin is astounding. Having the opportunity to continue their Latin education in middle school will also give them a leg up in high school. All around, it’s going to be a great program.”


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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.