“Is something wrong here? Why isn’t this working?” If you’re a Classical homeschooler with children have passed the Grammar stage, you’ve probably asked this question as you watched the pleasure of learning Latin turn into toil and frustration. You’d expect some amount of toil and frustration in pursuit of a good, true, and beautiful end — but should it feel like a horrible slog? If learning was joyful at the beginning, shouldn’t there still be joy in the journey?
Even the best-trained, best-supported Latin teachers in schools, colleges, and universities feel similar frustration and pain. “Why do my students predictably struggle when they first encounter authentic Latin literature?” they ask. “Why must I spend so much time on review and reteaching of what they seemed to understand so well?” The source of their struggle is the same: the textbooks and approaches they use were not designed for the young people who are using them.
If learning was joyful at the beginning, shouldn’t there still be joy in the journey?
As a Classical homeschooler, you know that young children (in what we call the Grammar stage) love to know what, but older children (in the Logic stage) love to know how and why, and eventually, in the Rhetoric stage, young adults seek to combine and create. If you’ve ever looked at the Common European Framework of References for Languages or the Proficiency Guidelines published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, you’ll see a similar pattern: beginners or Novice-level language learners rely on memorization, Intermediate-level learners develop a deeper understanding of the language and culture and begin to express themselves, while Advanced- and Superior-level learners are able to understand complex texts and express complex ideas. It’s obvious that different methods are needed for the different levels.
Where are the tools designed for Logic and Rhetoric-stage learners?
But if you look closely at popular Latin textbooks, you’ll see that they were designed for adult beginners (Wheelock’s Latin), college students (Latin for the New Millennium), or children preparing for the British examination system (Cambridge Latin Course, Oxford Latin Course, Ecce Romani). Where are the tools designed for Logic and Rhetoric-stage learners?
My dear friend Dr. Ann Martin and I created the Tres Columnae Project to fill that unfortunate gap. At the time, I was teaching Latin in a small, open-enrollment public school in North Carolina, and Ann was working with fifth-grade students at a small girls’ school in the United Kingdom. Logic meets Rhetoric. Both of us — and all of our students — were frustrated by the available textbooks. One day, as I looked at a sea of desolate faces, I finally asked, “Why are you all so frustrated?” “It’s not you,” they said, “it’s just that we hate the textbook.” The readings, they said, were stupid and artificial; the grammatical explanations and exercises were tedious and superficial; the characters in the readings were flat and unrealistic; and the whole thing was “flat and dead.” I couldn’t argue with them — not only because they were right, but because I’d spent years trying to develop supplementary materials to address these very deficiencies. “But we like it when we make up stories together,” they told me, “and couldn’t we just do that?”
We continued the conversation. No, obviously we couldn’t just use the textbook’s copyrighted characters … but the students had already dismissed them as artificial and unrealistic. Yes, obviously we needed a progression of grammatical and cultural topics — “But could it make more sense than what This Book does?” they asked. “And could it go deeper? And couldn’t we try to figure things out for ourselves first?” Yes, we clearly needed a master list of vocabulary, and it should contain the most important words for reading and understanding Latin literature. Some language teachers, in their understandable haste to move away from the ineffective textbook, go to an opposite extreme of “whatever the kids say they want to talk about,” but that’s not what my students wanted at all. They wanted real, meaty, important things to read; real, significant issues to talk about; a deeper dive into Roman culture and history than any textbook seemed to offer; and then a chance to create and share stories “and other things — we could make videos, too!”
Logic-stage learners satisfy their need for how and why by building and refining their own “mental representations” of important concepts and by starting to create and refine their own characters, stories, storylines, and even the occasional “authentic” Roman house or town.
Almost a decade later, the Tres Columnae Project is still growing from that vision. Late Grammar-stage learners enjoy reading the “core” stories and applying the facts and concepts that they’ve memorized. Logic-stage learners satisfy their need for how and why by building and refining their own “mental representations” of important concepts and by starting to create and refine their own characters, stories, storylines, and even the occasional “authentic” Roman house or town. Everyone reads and understands pages and pages rather than sentences and paragraphs, and by the time they reach the Rhetoric stage, Tres Columnae Project subscribers are well-prepared to engage with the greatest Roman authors and create well-formed responses to their works in Latin as well as in English.
Is Tres Columnae right for you and your family? You are the best judge of that. But we’d like to invite you to explore our freely available stories, especially those in Lectiōnēs I, II, and III. If your children want to be part of our joyful learning community, you’ll probably find a subscription plan that works for you, or you might want to join one of the classes we offer through our partnership with Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. And if you want to spread the word about how a joyful learning community building meaningful things together can assist in your quest for the true, the beautiful, and the good, please invite your friends to the Tres Columnae Way.
For over twenty years, Justin Schwamm taught high-school Latin in southeastern North Carolina and worked “within the box” to make life less difficult for all types of students, especially those who did not “fit the mold” of conventional schools. In 2009, at the urging of students who wanted an alternative to “flat, artificial, and dead” Latin textbooks, he founded the Tres Columnae Project to provide his “joyful learning community” model of language learning to a wider audience. Justin left public-school teaching in 2014 and has devoted his attention to working with homeschooling families, expanding the reach of the Tres Columnae Project, and serving Gifted Homeschoolers Forum as Lead Teacher and Director of Online Programs.