Susan Meyer at Culbreth Middle School Wins Top Teaching Award
If you dare to tell Susan Meyer’s Latin students that the language they’re studying is “dead,” be prepared to hear an energized defense of their favorite class at Culbreth Middle School, in addition to a list of reasons why Latin is relevant and dynamic. Magistra Meyer’s creative, unorthodox strategies for teaching Latin have not only produced a legion of devoted fans, but recently, the top national award in precollegiate Classics teaching. For people who accept the stereotype of Latin teachers as elderly and grammar-obsessed, Magistra Meyer defies the well-worn associations. Her students’ own comments provide the clearest picture: “always fun and engaging,” “the most fun and upbeat teacher I’ve had,” and “Magistra's positive and enthusiastic attitude was always infectious.”
Meyer flew out to San Diego the first week of January to accept her award and mingle with pre-eminent American classicists. The Society of Classical Studies celebrates Excellence in Precollegiate Teaching each year at their national conference. Criteria for the award include “success, size, and growth of the classics program, innovative and creative classroom activities, and student success in contests and competitions.” Check, check and check! Meyer’s nominator was Dr. William Johnson, professor and chair of Duke University’s Classical Studies department and parent of a former Latin student at Culbreth Middle School.
Johnson’s nominating letter began with an eye-popping superlative. “I am nominating Susan Meyer because she is a genius at what she does. If there were a MacArthur Award that accommodated Middle School teachers, I would nominate her for that.” He noted that Meyer began teaching at CMS in 2010 in a “repurposed closet,” with class sizes of two and nine students. Now her five classes (sixth grade Mythology to Latin II) routinely fill with 20 to 30 students. The features of Meyer’s daily instruction serve all kinds of learners: art projects, creative writing, video presentations, role playing games, solving murder mysteries, and good old-fashioned research and translations. Two favorite annual traditions are dressing in ancient garb to march in the Holiday Parade, and re-painting and decorating the classroom walls at the end of each school year. Meyer has also led eight successful trips to Greece and Italy with groups of current and former students.
Meyer rarely stops smiling, and her smile widens when she talks about her inspiration for studying Latin-- and eventually majoring in Latin and Italian at the University of North Carolina. She is a self-professed “Harry Potter nerd,” and she quickly recognized the many links and overlays between ancient languages and cultures and the ever-popular fantasy series by J.K. Rowling, who also studied classics as an undergraduate.
An innovation of Meyer’s that many students cite as a primary source of motivation and engagement is the use of a gens system, similar to the house system of Hogwarts (Gryffindor et al). New students in Meyer’s classes receive a random gens assignment as a Julian, Claudian, Cornelian or Flavian. Students remain in that “family” forever, in perpetuum. The system yields numerous benefits, but the most enduring is each student’s bond to a single gens, or group of Culbreth Latin students, past, future and present. All Claudians, for instance, share connections under their unifying identity. As Johnson noted in his letter, “A sixth grader has a natural and immediate link to seventh and eighth graders, and the system thus creates a vertically integrated support network. Students report that they use this network outside of Latin too – a student will reach out to a fellow Flavian for help in math as well as Latin.” What better time than middle school for students to access positive shared identities and supports across grade levels?
Meyer observed, “It's been such a joy to watch the community grow and evolve since I started the system. I get to see my treasured alumni interacting with brand new Latin students, encouraging them and offering help. (Last fall) I posted the new ‘family pictures’ from our Spirit Day, and my high schoolers were commenting to encourage their younger gens members. It's a beautiful thing to see such kindness and support grow each year.”
Johnson’s letter noted, “The gentes compete for points, called famae, which can be allotted for good deeds and behaviors, and taken away for bad deeds and behaviors (yes, this is explicitly inspired by the houses and point system in Harry Potter). The idea of the family goes past middle school as well – my junior-year daughter in Latin IV knows all the Flavians in her high school, and she still has opportunities to earn famae, and thereby contribute to raucous middle-school victories that she can only (happily) imagine.”
A current eighth grade Latin student said, “Everyone knows everyone, and everyone cares about one another. Ms. Meyer creates a community of students who have got each other's backs and help each other at school. Every day, I most look forward to Latin class. It keeps me going.”
Principal Monica Bintz said, “Ms. Meyer is an exceptional teacher who creates a classroom environment that welcomes and nurtures every student while challenging them academically and intellectually. Students find a home and a community in her classroom and stay with her throughout their middle school years (and many throughout high school as well!). Her classroom culture empowers students to take control of their own learning, to ask big questions, and to work together as a true community.”
For sixth grade students, Meyer offers a semester of Mythology, followed by Exploring Latin. Mythology is often the gateway to a passion for Latin, and many students end up in the second course without previously planning to choose the world language for their elective. In the exploration class, students learn how Latin connects to the world outside the classroom, covering units as disparate as gladiators, Roman food and Vesuvius. They also begin to study etymology. Meyer said one of her favorite books is “The Dictionary of Etymology,” and she encourages her students to use the resource constantly. “I tell them, here are these really cool, fancy words you can use to impress people, or confuse them! Middle schoolers love to confuse people.”
Meyer said students have described the pitches they delivered to skeptical parents, when asked why anyone should learn Latin now. “I’m always showing them how Latin is the key to open up so many doors.” One of the powerful aspects of Meyer’s instruction is her constant looping of current events and social justice themes into the ancient readings. A board in the classroom, "ROMA VIVIT" displays items that students submit from the contemporary world that have a connection to the ancient world. “It's a fun way for the students to be constantly on the lookout for new ways to apply their knowledge of the Classics,” Meyer said.
A former student said, “One of my favorite things about her class was that she was somehow able to take every historical element of the Roman world and relate them to our current world. I loved how she taught in such detail that after her class, even after I left the school, I still think on a regular basis about word origin and how language works. Magistra's class was not only a Latin class but a life class.”
Meyer pushes her students to expand the frame of their readings and ask, “So what was the slaves’ perspective here? And what about the women?” She said her classes talk often about slaves, because they were central to Roman society, but unlike more recent systems of slavery, they were not ethnically based, but instead based on conquest. “We talk about how people of color were a major part of Rome, but they weren’t specifically the slaves or underclasses.” Meyer has introduced her students to articles like “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture,” an extra-famae assignment that provoked powerful discussions. “People make assumptions about Rome who don’t know anything about Rome,” Meyer said. “I make students aware of how many white supremacist groups co-opt images from classical sculptures in their recruitment flyers, like Identity Europa.”
Meyer and her students already leave their mark on the wider CMS community in many ways, and last spring, she created a contest for her students to contribute a Latin motto for the school. “Students submitted possible mottos last year, worked on crafting and tweaking their Latin with one another, and voted this year for the winning entry,” Meyer said. “I'm currently working with the administration on a school-wide contest to draw a seal for our school that incorporates the motto so that we can paint it on our building. The winning motto was ‘A defectione, sapientia. A sapientiā, prosperitas.’ From failure, wisdom. From wisdom, success.”
Congratulations to Meyer, for winning such a prestigious teaching award, and for inspiring so many students toward success.