photo of Sally R. Davis

Latin in the big picture

Sally R. Davis '60 was recognized nationally when the American Philological Association (APA) presented her its Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Pre-Collegiate Level in April. The APA, the principal learned society of classicists in North America, gives the award annually to the best teachers of classics at the elementary and secondary levels.

Davis has taught Latin for 28 years in the public schools of Arlington VA. Additionally, she teaches pedagogy at the Universities of Virginia and Maryland and at the Catholic University, where she did her graduate work. "I've spent a long time learning how to do this," says Davis, "and producing materials on how to do it, and now I'm sharing them, and it's very satisfying."

Nominators wrote of her infectious enthusiasm, the extra time she devotes to individual students outside of the classroom, and her high energy and standards. One parent praised her ability to "transform a middle school child obsessed with popularity and clothing into a two-time National Latin Exam gold medal winner," calling Davis a "priceless oasis in ... an era where too few view intellectual accomplishment as the primary goal and 'relevance' has become the ubiquitous benchmark."

Although Davis says she learned Latin from "the three best professors of the century—Agnes Michels, T.R.S. Broughton, and Berthe Marti"—her teaching methods differ greatly from theirs. In the past, Latin classes, especially in high schools, emphasized grammar, with little or no discussion of the language's human context, history or culture. "It was taught as kind of a crossword puzzle that you put together and came up with what you hoped it meant."

But after widespread education reform in the '60s, new programs enhanced the teaching of the Latin language with a strong infusion of the daily life of the Romans. Modern programs now include some mythology, history, geography-in fact, a "big picture" of the entire ancient world.

That pleases Davis, who finds the Roman culture fascinating. "America is very much like the Romans," she says. "You learn the whole history of the last 2,300 years through Latin."

Davis encourages the study of Latin for ancillary reasons, too. First, studying Latin improves SAT scores and English grammar, vocabulary and writing skills. Plus, "it's a wonderful basis for learning the Romance languages, and even other inflected languages such as German and Russian."

Davis's students read Latin from around the year 200 B.C.E., and from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modern sources. Davis is a proponent of reading aloud, performing skits, drawing, oral competitions and certamina with other schools. "We do a lot to keep the kids interested and working with each other," she says.

These activities are Davis's antidote to the old stereotypical belief that Latin is too hard. ("It's not!") But Latin is, after all, an elective, and requires a big effort to get students to sign up. Her Latin classes compete for students' interest in other courses such as computer science, psychology and art history. "Kids like the idea of new courses that are challenging. The American high school in general has a schedule that's just too restricting. Six courses a day-kids just can't fit in their Latin, their music, all these things."

Another challenge is recruiting new teachers. "Programs are dying," Davis says. "Latin is strong in the high schools, but we just don't know what's going to happen when this generation retires."

Her advice to new Latin teachers just beginning their careers is to "read some new Latin every single day. Don't stagnate in your subject." And concerning today's students: "A lot of young teachers think that kids would basically rather get by and not work hard, but that isn't true. The more you challenge them, the more you ask of them, the more you'll get. Kids really want that; they just won't tell you they do."

Davis's proudest moment as a teacher is "when I leave my class, and it's been a good class. I really enjoy kids."

Davis's publications include an edition of Cicero's Somnium Scipionis with Gilbert Lawall, her Review and Test Preparation Guide for the intermediate Latin student, her Vergil Reference CD, and an appearance as the Cumaean Sybil and Nero's professional venefica in the "Forum Romanum" video series. She has served on major committees of the APA and the American Classical League, as president of the Washington Classical Society and Classical Association of Virginia, and helped write the National Standards for Latin. She was an original founder of the National Latin Exam. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Rockefeller Foundation and an ovatio from the Classical Association of the Middle West and South.

Anassa kata!

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