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ur in rva

Illustration by Katie McBride

Changes? Emily Gove, ’17, has seen a few.

“The first day they wouldn’t even talk to us or lift their heads up,” she said of her start as a tutor of ancient languages at a local youth center. “There was a day when a boy walked in and asked what class this was, and when he heard what it was, he left. He didn’t know what he was missing.”

The kids who stuck around eventually became full of enthusiasm correcting one another and no longer needed the reward of candy to participate, she said. “The difference between the first and last days was so significant.”

Gove enrolled in Classical Elements of the English Language during fall 2016 and spent a semester studying Latin and Greek language and teaching etymology — the study of word origins — to middle school students. They were enrolled in an after-school program offered by the Youth Life Foundation at the Highland Park Learning Center in Richmond’s Northside neighborhood.

“These five students had to figure out how they would present the whole subject of etymology: breaking words down, seeing words made up of parts — prefixes and roots and suffixes,” said Dean Simpson, the classical studies professor who taught the course. “And as they’ll tell you, they had to figure it out on the fly sometimes. They made use of what they’d been learning about the Latin and Greek roots in English to make it accessible to middle school students.”

Simpson began the program encouraged by examples of British schools using etymology to help students — particularly struggling students — improve their reading. It seemed like a good approach for Richmond’s community-based learning program, which enhances the learning of the Richmond students through community involvement.

Interactive games helped pique the kids’ interest. In one game, the kids took a step forward if they responded to a prompt correctly, but there were a couple of “bombs” along the way that made them back up. It turned the whole room into a game board. In another game, the kids ran back and forth in a relay race matching roots and English words. It got incredibly competitive — there was pushing and shoving, but also learning.

With each activity, the kids grew more interested and took in more information, and the Richmond students understood better how to tutor effectively.

“In the beginning, it was kind of slow because we had just given them a lecture, and we didn’t really do that much with the games,” James McGuire, ’20, said. “But then we got to know them better and developed the games with the blocks and the cards. That really brought out their personalities.”

It also improved the Richmond students’ knowledge of English etymology, said Pebbles Daez, ’19. “I think in terms of our own education, it helped us review all of the words that we had learned so that we could teach them to the kids. It strengthened our own memory, which helped on tests and papers.”

The department continued the program with Latin 102 students going to the center during the spring semester.

“It was so much more than I’d hoped for,” Simpson said. “They, of course, had to be so quick about recognizing what was a match or helping somebody along, saying what word has the same root. These students here were developing a knack of making use of a skill, seeing words made up of parts.”