Greek and Latin have been the cornerstone of a classical liberal arts education since the very foundations of Western Civilization. For centuries, a sound education in the classics was the hallmark of a liberal arts education. But today’s students are growing up in a different world, one of rapid innovation that is constantly looking forward, not backward. So how do you teach today’s students about the importance of their past when they are always looking forward to the next big thing?
Latin teacher and Episcopal technology guru Steve Latuso’s goal for this school year was to make the Cambridge Latin course material accessible and exciting for his eighth grade Latin II students. He did this by issuing a challenge to students – build a digital model of the Roman baths found in Bath, England using the video game Minecraft: Education Edition. Gone were the days of recreating a structure with popsicle sticks and macaroni noodles. Students responded to this new technological challenge with tremendous enthusiasm. “The Minecraft project was something we had never done before because we had previously made drawings and sketches of buildings but never built them in 3D,” says Sam Messina. “I think this was the most engaging way to learn about the Roman Baths as we were able to recreate the baths using our creativity,” says Ayush Patel.
Before the virtual blocks ever began stacking, the class researched the bathhouses and their role in first century Roman culture. Using virtual reality glasses, students toured a Roman bath facility reconstructed by the British in Bath, England without having to make the long trek across the globe. It wasn’t long before they were discussing bathhouse components such as the apodyterium, caldarium, natatio and palaestra. In addition, this lesson in Latin bolstered their knowledge in subjects such as physics, engineering, environmental science and even coding. “We learned how Romans implemented arches in their buildings while researching the structure of the bath complex,” says Ayush Patel. “We learned how a hypocaust (heating system for the baths) system was built in Ancient Rome and recreated it using modern materials in Minecraft.”
Once students began creating their virtual bathhouses, Latuso says they let their imaginations run wild. Evidence of the enthusiasm can be seen in the images they created. One apodyterium features flickering torches and intricate details. There is a natatio that is open to the sky with lush greenery growing from the second floor. Using the book and quill feature in Minecraft, students even composed their own version of curse tablets that were found by archeologists who excavated the baths. These 21st century students have successfully brought the ancient world to life in a virtual world.
Energy, enthusiasm, focus and engagement. When it comes to project-based learning, these are the feelings a teacher hopes to elicit. The Latin Minecraft project accomplished all of this and more. “I think one of the reasons this project was fun was because it took a game that a lot of people like and play regularly and turned it into something educational that people still wanted to play,” says Messina. “It made the research more fun and the information stayed with me because I got to put it to use doing something fun.”
Latuso says the study of ancient languages and cultures has many benefits for students today. “While conventional wisdom acknowledges the usefulness of Latin in improving students’ communication and critical thinking skills, our class embraced a modern twist on an ancient subject in order to personalize the experience for Episcopal students,” says Latuso. By emphasizing 21st century project-based learning ideals, Latin students had an opportunity to transfer their knowledge of one subject to a variety of subjects through innovative problem solving. Clearly, this modern take on learning Latin resonates with today’s Middle School students. What a great example of the personalized and innovative nature of an Episcopal education.