Challenge of the Sphinx: An innovative course in latin prose composition

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Gellar-Goad

In a classroom where students battle away at mythological creatures and Latin grammar, Dr. Gellar-Goad has reinvigorated an out-dated course and brought new teaching methods with a twist of adventure.

In his first year as a Teacher-Scholar Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Classical Languages, Gellar-Goad has developed a unique and innovative method for teaching Latin Prose Composition, a class which is a major requirement for Latin majors. It is typically a course designed to be an intense review of Latin grammar and rigorous practice translating English sentences into Latin.

The original textbook used for the class contains material that is largely antiquated; the original publication of the book was in 1839. As Gellar-Goad pointed out, while not only is the subject matter very hard, the support in the text is not necessarily sufficient.

“This can lead to disengagement because the examples [in the textbook] don’t match the modern American experience of studying Latin,” said Gellar-Goad.

Last summer, he came upon a book called The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon, which has inspired him to reimagine the way Latin Prose Composition is taught.

In the style of a classic tabletop roleplaying game (RPG), each student selects a character from Greek or Roman mythology at the beginning of the semester. Students then assume the roles of these player-characters and use them in class and for homework the rest of the year. The assignments include scribe spell-scrolls, side quests, dungeon maps, and more — all of which require the use of the appropriate Latin grammar.

“A typical class will consist of about half the class going over nitty-gritty grammar details — more of a traditional class format. The second half will then be an exercise on that day’s lesson or review tied to some in-game element.”

Grading in the class is also non-traditional. Instead of beginning with an A and only having the opportunity to lower their grade, students improve their grade by gaining experience points through assignments, homework, and projects.

“There is the extrinsic value of getting to the next level — which is tied to their grade — and the intrinsic value of learning Latin,” said Gellar-Goad.

Though it is only his first semester teaching the course, so far Gellar-Goad has seen encouraging student response. He finds that given room for creativity, students are able to find things which make them happy within the class material, a feature some might say is unusual of the typical course.

“The students do work extremely hard, but I feel like they don’t see it as drudgery; the improvement I have seen is amazing,” he said.

“I think we were all a little shocked the first day when we told that our class would be modeled off of Word of Warcraft and that we would all have to choose characters to role-play for the rest of the semester,” sophomore Sarah Stewart said.

“Professor Geller-Goad’s class is an experiment in 21st century pedagogy; a synthesis between technology and ancient works that makes students capable of grasping the most poignant and powerful messages of what would be highly exclusive materials,” sophomore Lee Quinn, a classics major, said.

“He teaches the students to develop a personal connection to the information,” Quinn said.

Gellar-Goad also said he is fairly certain this is the first time the course has ever been taught this way.

“It’s teaching Latin Prose Composition as a semester long mythological adventure for fun and profit,” he said.

  • Sarah Yossarian

    This seems very cool! I’m in my second semester of Latin at Columbia University, working towards a Classics degree.

    I’ll be stealing this idea in about 6 years when I start to teach my own students!