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Composition Assignment: Classic Narratives

Our 3rd grade grammar school students love that first special moment that they are able to read a story in Latin for themselves.  This is a huge milestone. Their eyes just light up with the realization that they are truly comprehending a story in another language.  From that moment on, Latin stories become a favorite class activity.  Another great milestone comes at the end of 5th grade when they are then able to compose a story in Latin for others to read.  Up until this moment they have received the joyous gift of reading, now they are able to give that gift to others.  This post outlines our grammar school composition project, the “capstone,” if you will, of our grammar school Latin program.

  1. Choose a classical well-known fable, preferably one with a very clear narrative structure and repeated lines.  Examples: Three Little Pigs, The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man, Chicken Little.  Asking the students to write out a Latin story is already a challenge in and of itself. Do not add to that labor by asking them to also invent characters, plot, and arrange a full story. Start with something well-known and familiar. It is also best to select a story with a simple framework that has scenes that are repeated, but in slightly different ways.  That allows you as the teacher to help students set up a basic story pattern and then tweak it slightly for each scene.
  2. Outline the story together.  As a group create an outline the story, dividing it into clear parts.  Sketch out some of the important English phrases. Remind students they need to keep this simple enough for their 3rd grade friends to read. The following is a sample outline for The Little Red Hen.  Note the repetitive nature of each scene. Keep It Simple, Sweeties!
    • Introduction: Little Red Hen lives with a dog, a cat, and a mouse. They are all lazy. The Little Red Hen always works.  One day she finds some seeds.

      Quis me iuvabit facere farinam?

    • Planting Scene: Little Red Hen asks “Who will help me plant the seeds?”  “Not I” says the ____ (repeat with each animal). Little Red Hen says “I will plant the seeds.” And she does.
    • Harvest Scene: The wheat grows tall. The Little Red Hen asks, “Who will help me pick the wheat?” “Not I” says the ____ (repeat with each animal). Little Red Hen says “I will pick the wheat.” And she does.
    • Mill Scene: The Little Red Hen asks “Who will help me ground the wheat into flour?” “Not I” says the ____ (repeat with each animal). Little Red Hen says “I will grind the wheat.” And she does.
    • Baking Scene: The Little Red Hen asks, “Who will help me bake the bread?” “Not I” says the ____ (repeat with each animal). Little Red Hen says “I will bake the bread.” And she does.
    • Conclusion: The Little Red Hen asks, “Who will help me eat the bread?” “I will!” says the ____ (repeat with each animal). The Little Red Hen says, “I alone planted the seeds. I alone ground the wheat. I alone baked the bread. I alone will eat the bread.” And she does.
  3. For larger classes, divide students into smaller groups. Assign each group 1-2 scenes from the outline.  Ask each group to create a word bank or glossary for the words they will need for their assigned scenes. The students will need to use a Latin-English/English-Latin Dictionary for this activity. I recommend Cassell’s or Collins Gem.  When given many Latin words that can represent a particular English idea, encourage them to choose words that they already know or  are familiar.  Keep It Simple, Sweeties!
  4. Translate the repeated/thematic line as a group.  Once the groups have looked up words, kick start the composition segment by identifying some words and phrases that must be consistent throughout the story.  As a teacher guide them in choosing the best way to interpret those segments.  For Example:
    • Little Red Hen: Gallina Rubra
    • “Who will help me . . . “:  “Quis me iuvabit . . .?”
    • “Not I,” says the cat: “Non ego,” dicit feles.
  5. Entrust each section of the story to one group. Once the students are comfortable with the framework and have some phrases to get started, allow them to put their assigned scenes into Latin on their own.  Circulate the room to offer assistance as needed.  Let them work through thoughts and discussions on word choice, grammar, syntax, etc. That is part of the learning process and the creative joy!  Students may want to try to use constructions more advanced than their Latin abilities (e.g. passive voice or indirect speech).  Remind them: Keep It Simple, Sweeties! The goal is to write a children’s book for young Latinists.
  6. Teacher Edit.  Every good author is backed by a really good editor.  Ask the groups to turn in their drafts.  Edit their work so that it is grammatically correct, but don’t rewrite the story for them. They need to own this process, own the story, and feel the sense accomplishment.
  7. Illustrate! While edits are in process or after they have been returned ask each group to come up with an illustration for their scene.
  8. Publication and Presentation.  Once the story is finished, we like to share the fruit of our labors.  Teachers may wish to make a bound copy for each student. The class may wish to give a public reading to other students or their parents. One year my class performed their Latin version of Gallina Rubra (The Little Red Hen) in Latin for the younger students. Because we chose a classic tale with a clear format and well-known repetitive lines, it made the story easier to follow and a delight to hear and see.


For more on Latin Composition with suggested lesson plans for all ages, please visit the post: Imitation in Writing Through Latin.



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