Success in Latin at OPRF shown in numbers: quod erat demonstrandum

• Three students get perfect score in national test as enrollments in the language grow.

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It's 8 o'clock on Friday morning and Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher James Chochola is reading a "Dick-and-Jane" Latin story to his second-year class. They repeat each sentence or part of a sentence before he continues. Just about everyone in the class contributes.

Then Chochola (pronounced cha-CO-la) stops and questions the class in Latin. How many Romans are we talking about? "Totum populum," someone answers correctly.

The phrase "dead language" is a dirty word to Chochola. Latin is not only alive, it's growing he says, at OPRF and throughout the country.

When the 28-year-old OPRF grad returned to his alma mater to teach three years ago, roughly 100 students were taking Latin. That number grew to 119 the next year, necessitating a part-time second Latin teacher (former full-time teacher and Chochola's predecessor Mary Vogel), and to 129 this year.

By comparison, OPRF's web site lists 10 full-time and two part-time Spanish teachers to teach the 1,201 students enrolled in that language this year.

Three OPRF students got perfect scores on this year's National Latin Exam, Stephanie Reist, Matthew Campuzano, and Matthew Puccetti. They scored in the top one percent of the 135,000 students who took the exam internationally. Another 45 OPRF students placed in the first, second, or third place categories.

Chochola says Latin programs are growing across the country, according to responses from fellow Latin teachers he communicates with on the Internet.

Why the growth now when the only functional place to speak Latin is at the Vatican?

Some students said they wanted to take Latin because they heard Chochola was a good teacher. Then again, he was in the room when the straw poll was conducted.

"The program has grown because of Jim," said Claudia Sahagun, world languages division chair. "He has innovative ideas, brings life into the classroom and sparks interest in the students."

Other students said they chose Latin because they want to become doctors or lawyers and believe studying Latin will help. Others say knowing Latin will improve their scores on college entrance exams.

Chochola says although Latin students do outperform their peers on standardized tests, neither of those reasons should motivate students to take Latin. Use of Latin in any profession is minimal, and vocabulary expansion and understanding of language can be accomplished by paying attention in English classes, he said.

The big picture answer to the growth in Latin's popularity is how it's being taught and people appreciating the language for what it is, Chochola said outside the classroom.

"I mean, the Romans just have a certain something," he said.

Perfect scorer Matt Campuzano, 16, agreed. "I've always been interested in [Romans], really," he said. A month-long family trip to Italy when he was 7 cemented the intrigue.

"It just fascinated me how thousands of years ago they did so much," Campuzano said. He became interested in studying the language from being in Latin Club, but has since come to appreciate it, too.

Senior Stephanie Reist, 18, who spent a year in Italy as part of her high school career, said the language comes easily to her.

"It just clicks in my head because I'm interested in it," Reist said. "I can see how it can be hard for some people."

Matt Puccetti, 16, credited his success to Chochola.

"Mr. C's teaching makes it easy to understand," Puccetti said. "He always explains things thoroughly."

Chochola started studying Latin in high school because he wanted to become a doctor, then fell in love with the language and knew by the time he was a senior he wanted to teach.

"It's been Latin since I've been 14," he said.

But he almost quit the pursuit as a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio. Frustrated that it took him five hours to translate 75 lines of text, he wondered why go on. What Latin needed was to be taught as a language.

"And it is a language, some huge verbal jigsaw puzzle," he said.

He looked around and it turns out there were people around the country who spoke and wrote Latin fluently. A group convenes every year in Kentucky (can't get more Latin than that) for a 10-day affair where conversational Latin is spoken, Chochola said.

Chochola credits the middle schools for preparing students for high school and language learning, but said more students would be taking Latin if he could figure out a better way to teach older students.

In the first two years, students learn the language quickly, are able to read, write and understand simple Latin. But in the combined Latin III/IV classroom, challenges abound. Suddenly students are reading dense poetry and prose, learning Roman history and students must translate, translate, translate. Frustration abounds because not only does the learning become more arcane, translating Latin often results in English that doesn't make much more sense.

"It gets a lot harder when you start translating real literature," said Ben Meyerson, a senior.

"We have 12-line sentences now," agreed senior Frank Webb.

"We never learned [grammar] in English classes," said Emily Gilman, also a senior. "I learned grammar in Latin."

And, the class mixes third- and fourth-year students, who necessarily are at different comprehension levels.

"I don't even know where to begin sometimes," Chochola said.

He said drop-off between years three and four is common at high schools, but "it's frustrating none-the-less."

He said he spent his first years at OPRF concentrating on the first two years' curricula, and now will turn his focus on the III/IV class.

Latin can't be dead, says OPRF Latin teacher James Chochola, because new words are added all the time.

The Vatican has a council of people dedicated to the purpose, he said, and tend to pick words as they are needed in edicts from the Pope.

Words can be formed by combing old Latin words, or by working backward through Romance languages. For example, the two words for "computer" in Latin are derived from words in French and Spanish.
"Drew Carter

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