PORTLAND — For many of us, our knowledge of Latin is limited to “E pluribus unum,” “semper fidelis” and possibly “et tu, Brute?”
But at Portland High School, Latin is cool. Or frigus, to be exact.
“This is my least stressful class,” said freshman and first-year Latin student Annette Denekas. “It’s definitely a comfortable atmosphere in here.”
Denekas takes Latin with Michelle Tucci, who has worked at the school for 15 years. She teaches Latin and Greek to some of the school’s hundreds of foreign-language scholars.
“The classes are brain-based,” Tucci said. “It’s a theory of flow, like in sports, when you’re in the zone – except you’re in the Latin zone.”
Tucci believes that students’ cognitive powers increase when they connect emotionally with their teachers. Her class is laid back. Her students call her “Mama Tucci.”
While some may see that as coddling the students, Tucci gets results.
This school year, 82 percent of the PHS students who took the Medusa Mythology Exam, a Latin test, earned national awards and 48 percent of students who took the National Latin Exam earned national awards. All of the students who took the National Greek Exam earned national awards.
But for Tucci and the other Latin teachers, it’s not all about the awards. More than 90 percent of students who take Latin return to the program the following year.
Next year 277 students have signed up for Latin, 66 for Greek. That’s more than Spanish and French. As a result, Tucci has asked the School Board to hire another Latin teacher. If her request is denied, she said she would have to cut the Greek program.
Tucci realizes that to engage what she calls the “millennial kids,” she needs to utilize modern technology. Her Latin 1 textbook is an e-book, which includes interactive games, video and a fictional story the students can follow that helps them learn about the social aspects of Roman life.
To save money, Tucci uses an online Latin/English dictionary rather than ordering traditional textbooks.
She is also creative with the ways she engages kids. The students created a “Trivial Pursuit” game with Latin questions in a variety of categories. She also plays “trash ball,” a “Jeopardy”-like game, and Utz, another quiz-show style game.
“It gets them out of their seats, which is good,” she said. “(The class is) rigorous, but if you give kids a ball, they’ll do anything.”
And Tucci’s students like the way they’re perceived by the public and college admissions offices when they say they’re taking Latin.
“People are really impressed,” said Meghan Kelly, a sophomore who has been studying at her own pace and finished her Latin 2 program ahead of schedule.
Zach Glanville, a freshman who just finished Latin 1, said he wanted to study a language other than French or Spanish, after having a bad experience in languages in middle school.
Several others students said they liked the idea of starting over with a fresh language after struggling with middle school classes.
“For me, middle school French wasn’t very productive,” Denekas said.
Tucci said students often students come to Latin, and later Greek, because it will help them with English exams, such as the SATs, or to help them learn other languages.
“I have friends who speak other languages,” junior Isaac Atterberry said. “It helps me learn their language.”
Tucci hopes the School Board will grant her request and the program can continue to grow.
In the meantime, as the year winds down, some students play Latin games, others translate Caesar.
“This is not your mama’s Latin class,” Tucci said.
Latin teacher Michelle Tucci, center, plays a student-designed Latin trivia game with Portland High School freshmen Ben Allen, Annette Denekas and Justin Zukowski, and sophomore Megan Kelly. The Latin and Greek programs at the school are popular and growing.