By Brad Pomerance
For generations, academics sang the praises of Latin instruction. They insisted that Latin laid the foundation not only for improved English comprehension, but also provided students with tools to become increasingly proficient in other languages. More recently, some educators opined that students who excelled in Latin would possess an extra “edge” when they sat for the ever-important SAT exam. Indeed, at Windward School, 7th grade students had been taking at least one year of Latin instruction for decades.
But when the Windward Class of 2020 matriculated in August 2014, they became the first group of Windward 7th grade students in years that did not see Latin listed on their schedules. Certainly, Latin does not maintain the cache that it might have once possessed in the halls of secondary schools throughout the nation. But why did Windward ultimately move away from Latin instruction?
As Eric Mandel, Director of the Middle School and Assistant Head of School, remarked, “all changes at Windward are research-based.” The decision to transition away from Latin was no exception. With the arrival of Peggy Procter, Director of the Upper School, and Dan Walker, Chair of the World Languages Department, in the last five years, Windward began to dedicate tremendous time and resources to the evaluation of its Global Studies Program. This examination coincided with a close look at the composition of the World Languages curriculum.
Dan Walker delved deeply into the subject and found that the research suggested a common theme. Dan recalled, “all of the studies showed that given the rate of human brain development, the younger students begin to study a language, the better.” In light of this research, Dan, Eric and Peggy became convinced that students were not best served by Windward’s existing curricular model of studying Latin first as a foundation for subsequent language instruction. Instead, as Dan noted, the idea became “let’s just get the students to learn the language earlier, rather than have them practice how to learn a language.”
As it so happened, the decision to begin full language instruction at an earlier age also provided an opportunity to add a third language option to the curriculum. Peggy and Dan recalled that three languages had been gaining the most traction in high school education: Portuguese, Arabic, and Mandarin. “Given that we already offered two romance languages - French and Spanish - we decided against Portuguese,” noted Peggy. That left Arabic and Mandarin in contention. Eric recalled that, “students and parents were asking for Mandarin. And with more than a billion people speaking Mandarin and China’s rise as the world’s fastest-growing economic power, it just made sense.”
Apparently, the decision made sense for the students as well. Ten incoming 7th graders opted to take Mandarin this year, a number “which makes us very happy,” said Dan Walker. In comparison, twenty-seven members of this year’s 7th grade class selected French, with the rest opting for Spanish.
Uniformly, Dan, Eric and Peggy referenced the benefits this early start will provide students on the other end of their secondary school careers. “In the past, our students were not able to take AP Spanish or French until 12th grade. Now the students can take that class in 11th grade,” Eric said. As a result, Dan and Peggy are already spearheading the development of additional World Language courses for that 12th grade year, with many different possibilities under consideration. “Maybe we will add a class in Spanish Culture through Film or Life in Francophone Cities,” Dan remarked. Peggy added, “we could create college-level courses that are all taught in the target language. It could be the Mexican Revolution or Cuba/U.S. Relations in Spanish, or France’s Role in the Globe - in French. We could develop AP Literature courses in the given language, which traditionally have been exceedingly difficult for high school students.” While these curricular changes have been widely popular, Peggy also noted that “the Global Online Academy, of which Windward is a member, offers so many other languages that our students can take.”
With all of these options, Windward students are now empowered to become bi- or even tri-lingual speakers like many of their counterparts around the Globe. So get learning! Vamos! Vite!
How do you say “hurry” in Mandarin?
Brad Pomerance, father of Ivy Pomerance (Windward 2020), hosts the television programs “California Edition” which airs on the California Channel and “Air Land & Sea” and “The J Report” which are broadcast on JLTV.
Click to watch California Edition episode 314, which featured Windward faculty member Geraldine Loveless and the students who turned a 7th grade project into a legislative journey that took them all the way to Sacramento.