RICHARD LILLIS: A “LATIN CAMP” FOR LATIN TEACHERS
Every September, Upper School Latin teacher Dick Lillis jokes to his classes that, like some of his students, he spends part of his summer at Latin camp. For the past five years, he’s attended the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense: an immersion seminar that invites its participants to treat Latin as a spoken language. Led by renowned University of Kentucky professors Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, the program is among the most highly regarded Latin immersion programs in the country.
Dick says his interest in spoken Latin began many years ago, when he learned that Brother Reggie Foster – an expert Latinist who was Papal secretary in Vatican City’s Latin Letters Office for almost 40 years – led conversational Latin classes in Rome every year. “I’d wanted to do that when I was a kid in college, and I’d never had a chance to,” he says. “But then I heard that a lot of Reggie’s former students take part in the Conventiculum. Here was a chance to really experience Latin as a living language!”
The Conventiculum is a six-day affair that takes place at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Some 40 participants stay in college dormitories and eat many of their meals in the dining halls. On their first day, they sign an oath swearing to speak only Latin for the duration of the week – in class, after class, over breakfast, going out to dinner, and at every other possible time, too. At first, Dick says, this is easier said than done.
“I remember my first experience quite well,” he recalls. “I’ve been studying Latin for decades, and I’d been teaching it for over 30 years at that point, but I’d never spoken it much. On my first day, Terence Tunberg stood up and began speaking in these beautiful, long, Ciceronian sentences, and I thought, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ At the beginning of that class, I was comprehending maybe 20 or 30 percent of what was being said – but by the end of the same day, I understood about 85 percent. And I kept improving.”
Over the course of his days at the Conventiculum, Dick and his classmates read a number of Latin texts and discuss them, from standard classics to renaissance and modern works. They perform speaking exercises and delve into art history and paintings that relate to their discussion topics. Veterans of the program write a comic play together, which is performed at the end of the session. Dick is always a part of that group – as of 2018, he has participated in the Conventiculum for four summers in a row.
“One of the reasons Latin teachers find this program so great is that we all find, at the end of the week, that we can read Latin four or five times more quickly than we could at the beginning,” Dick says. “That’s such a gift. When I get back, I sit down with a stack of Latin books that I’ve been meaning to reread, and I gain whole new perspectives on what kinds of problems students might have with them; how good a given textbook is; whether eleventh graders can understand what Seneca is saying in a particular sentence.”
Dick is quick to add that this is partly thanks to the quality of teaching he experiences at the Conventiculum – which, in turn, inspires him to incorporate some of the strategies he experiences there into his own teaching.
“The teachers are artists at what they do – real Paganinis of pedagogy,” he explains. “As a teacher myself, it’s incredible to be the beneficiary of that kind of instruction.”
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