Second-graders at Sts. Joan of Arc & Patrick School carefully made the sign of the cross last week and showed off what they learned in Latin class.
“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen,” the students said.
All over the St. Patrick campus, first- and second-graders were learning to say Catholic prayers in Latin.
Some had mastered the mealtime prayer.
Others knew only the simplest prayer, Oremus, which means “let us pray.”
Over at the St. Joan of Arc campus, third- to eighth-graders learned more complicated prayers like the Hail Mary and Our Father. The oldest students were even learning how to construct sentences and conjugate verbs.
The Catholic school added Latin to its curriculum this year — a move that received a mixed reception from parents and teachers alike.
For more than five years, the school’s curriculum committee had wanted to add a foreign language class. They explored their options, which included Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
When they finally settled on Latin last year, some people simply didn’t understand the choice, assistant principal Mandy Smith said.
“A lot of people think of it as a dead language,” she said.
But the school had very specific reasons for the choice, and they weren’t the ones you might expect from a Catholic school.
Principal Nick Kanable said that while teaching Latin will demonstrate the universality of the Catholic church, the church didn’t drive the school’s decision.
Studies conducted by the Educational Testing Service show Latin students consistently outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.
According to the data, Latin students averaged a 678 on that portion of the exam in 2010. That average was 501 for all students, 633 for French students and 561 for Spanish students.
Kanable cited other data that influenced the school’s decision.
He said sixth-grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their math problem-solving abilities. They advanced one year in reading, 13 months in language, five months in science and seven months in social studies.
Kanable said he will be tracking his students to see if those studies prove true for them, too.
He’s already noticed some improvements
“Our students, even at a very young age, are seeing the relationships between the Latin roots and our language,” he said. “Our language was built on Latin.”
Latin helps students understand the origin of English words, said Steve Krebs, the Latin teacher at Kokomo High School who travels to the St. Joan campus to teach seventh- and eighth-graders there.
When students see words like vision and vista, they will know it comes from visum, the Latin word for see, he said.
“They will have a sense of what words mean because they’ve had this Latin exposure,” Krebs said.
Having the Latin background should also provide a foundation for learning the Romance languages — French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Portuguese.
“If you learn Latin, it’s easier to learn other languages,” Smith said.
Many students said they were skeptical when they first heard they would be learning Latin this year.
“I thought, ‘Isn’t English hard enough?’” third-grader Cree Anders said.
Sixth-grader Seth DeCleene was nervous. He said he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle the lessons.
But in the months that followed, students started coming around — including DeCleene.
He said he’s come to enjoy the lessons.
“I like how we can learn the prayers and translate words when we go to Mass,” he said.
A group of third-graders in Kim Keogh’s class had ulterior motives.
They pointed out that no one speaks Latin anymore, so when they learn to use full sentences, it will be like talking in code.
Sixth-grade English and homeroom teacher Patrick Murphy said his students were absorbing the Latin lessons like sponges. They were moving so quickly through the textbook that he’s come up with other ways to teach them about the language.
Last week, students were working on a project called “Latin Is Alive.”
The children had to provide examples of scientific terminology that comes from Latin, everyday words that come from Latin, mottoes of states or universities that use Latin, inventions of ancient Romans that we use today and Latin abbreviations.
He also had students create their own lessons to teach third-graders to pray the rosary in Latin.
Some children developed songs to help the younger students commit prayers to memory. Others developed games on the computer that quizzed students on the prayers.
Developing those lessons helped the sixth-graders, too.
“I learned [the prayers] by going over it when I recreated this lesson,” Dominic Schultz said.
Murphy said he would be sending the lessons to third-grade teachers to help them plan their Latin lessons.
Keogh said she took Latin classes in college, but her third-graders are “schooling” her now. They know more than she does, she said.
And they love it, she said.
“They think it’s neat,” Keogh said. “It’s a great program. It’s such a beautiful language when you hear it.”