Xavier Magazine

Dead Tongues Speaking

John Gruber-Miller just wanted to bring classical languages to life in the 21st century—and keep his students engaged. Is that really too much to ask?

In some ways, it was. The books he was using were boring, and that made for challenging classes. So Gruber-Miller took matters into his own hands. The result was When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin, a book aimed at beginning students and those who teach them.

“This book is doing a couple of things no other book has tried to do yet,” he says.

For example, it’s the first book that actively integrates the national standards for classical language learning. And the first half of the book focuses on learners and their different learning styles, including a section for people who have problems with learning. One chapter addresses doing group work in class while another focuses on feminist pedagogies. There are also sections on the languages, with chapters on reading, conversation and writing. And each chapter combines theory with practical activities.

A professor of classics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, the 1979 graduate works under the school’s one-course-at-a-time calendar, in which students take a single class, three or four hours a day for four months, then move on to another.

“Students don’t want you to keep doing the same thing for three or four straight hours—and I don’t want to do that, either,” he says. “So I was looking at the way I teach. I organized a panel for a conference, and the idea for the book emerged from that. Then I called in other contributors. I was really trying to make it accessible to beginning students, covering topics that other texts haven’t covered at all.” Is that really too much to ask?

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