Susan Meyer, ’09, has a BA in Latin and Italian with a minor in Classical Humanities. She graduated UNC’s MAT program with a masters’ degree in education with an emphasis on Latin.
She is currently a Latin teacher at Culbreth Middle School. Her first interview with the Classics department can be found here.
Meyer is also the recipient of the 2018 Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the Precollegiate Level from the Society for Classical Studies.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge Classics studies face?
Susan Meyer: For me personally, it’s a misunderstanding of what we do. I’ll hear my students tell me sometimes that when they’re signing up for Latin, their parents tell them “No, not Latin – that’s not useful,” and “why would you want to learn a dead language?” I think there’s a lot of wondering what they can do.
One of the first things I do with my students is arm them with information. Sure, yeah, Latin is a dead language, but it’s still worthy of study. I give them points so that when someone asks, they can say: “Yeah, I’m gonna take Latin, and this is why I’m going to take it.”
Q: What would you change from the curriculum if you could?
SM: We have a lot of freedom, actually. The curriculum is pretty overarchingly vague; it doesn’t tell me I have to teach this case at this point in the year. So I get to tailor it to student interest for topics like, women in ancient Rome – that’s a huge personal passion of mine. While I was at UNC, I took the class with Sharon James called “Women in Ancient Rome”, and it was an amazing class. It’s so great that I can tailor it to my kids so that they can see themselves in ancient Rome and that it’s not just a lot of guys. I can include all the voices in my classroom so that they can see themselves in ancient Rome.
Q: How have you integrated different styles of teaching into your everyday classroom?
SM: I am huge on giving students as much choice as I can possibly give them. I’m always telling them to do “what makes your brain happy” to acknowledge that everybody is in a different place and a different journey. You know your brain, you know what’s helping and what’s not.
Especially now, I love technology – and students, pretty overwhelmingly, are really into it as well. In technology, I can find a lot of different resources to try things. Let’s say a student is having trouble with charts – I have a ton of different websites that they can do exercises on and hone their skills in, or listen to audio. Let’s say they don’t do well with websites, they love books instead? I have so many books in the classroom that they can read and absorb. It gives me so many more options to engage them with.
I work with the tech teacher as well (he’s a huge Latin nerd) and when I was a kid, I really loved this game called Super Munchers, so he used the programming language Scratch to program a Latin Super Munchers. The game had categories like masculine nouns for the kids to play with – so there’s a bunch of Latin nouns on the screen, and the players have to eat the masculine ones to progress. The kids loved it, and it’s engaging!
SM: Oh my gosh, yes. Community is at the forefront of my classroom. Latin is absolutely my passion, I read and study it in my spare time – but as a teacher, my priority is that students feel safe and happy. They’re there for the whole year, sometimes three, and it’s really important to me that they feel respected and happy where they are. I’ve always wanted to find a good way of adding my community focus plus my Latin, and making it intentional instead of something that just happened from inside jokes and being together.
I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if they got points for being kind? That’s where I took my house system from. It adds a sense of extra family; there’s a competition, of course, but the kids see what behaviors are rewarded, and learning and being kind for the sake of trying instead of competing and succeeding, not just doing it for the grades. It’s really changed my atmosphere.
In my very first year of teaching, my favorite moment was the very last day. My eighth graders were graduating, and we had nine people total in the class. We were saying goodbye to one another, and one boy who had a lot of trouble getting into the class at the beginning of the year asked for a hug because we were a family now. It almost killed me right there! My favorite moment was when that kid said we were a family. When I realized that was my favorite moment, I realized that should be something I focus on. And then we had Latin families!
My kids even continue to be involved after they’ve gone on to high school. We run these registration fairs – all the electives do – to show fifth graders their elective choices. Our alumni come to wear togas and help me with it. I figured, hey! They can explain it just as good as me, so why not let them? Plus, it’s always fun to see my older students again. They’ll drop by, add to my murals on my classroom walls, and catch up. God, I’ve had one show up every single year – he’s in college now, and I get around ten of them coming to the registration fairs every year. Some of my alumni are pretty consistently a part of my life. One came back and helped me organize all my cabinets over summer!
Q: Have other teachers in your system adopted your house system or community-related methods? If not, what other methods do they use?
SM: For sure! They haven’t done specifically my system, but they each do their own different type of things. I know for sure they have them in different families where they allow, like, marriages and do all different kinds of things. Community is a central theme to Latin teaching.
Q: What sort of outreach do you do with students?
SM: We do lots of stuff! As mentioned before, promoting programs to fifth graders in electives. We march in the holiday parade in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Kids, they’ll see us marching in our togas and go “whoa, that’s so cool!” We’re sometimes the first exposure kids get to Latin. We have Latin Spirit day – especially for students who don’t really know what Latin is, it helps them too to see it and get a chance to understand it.
I also make sure it’s not seen as some elitist language. I make it clear the Romans were people, not just a bunch of Ciceros. You don’t have to be a certain image or person to take Latin. That’s an image I have to take with my kids, it’s not the smartest language and you don’t have to be a genius to take it.
I advertise to a certain personality, not a certain demographic – on my classroom door, I have a Tardis, something Skyrim, and some Harry Potter posters. I have a bunch of Harry Potter stand-ups in my classroom, a picture of Batman in my hallway. I try to reach out to our marginalized kids in that way. I’m conveying that you can be a complete gamer nerd and come hang out with me.
I try to make it very evident that this is a safe space for our LGBT community, or at least allies of the community. I’ve taken Safe Zone Training and have images of Roman murals and my students have written our phrases in rainbow. I wear a rainbow pin every single day. I’m trying to actively put a message out there to the students and the school that this is a safe space respecting all identities.
This has maybe had an impact on my demographics, I think, because I’ve seen my students being more openly themselves in my classroom. I think word of mouth with the type of lessons and things we talk about in my classes really convince kids to come. Whose voices are we not hearing here? It’s a big focus of mine to stop and talk about lower classes and the woman, the people from all over the Mediterranean: not being afraid to talk about people outside of the textbook. I actively find resources that help out with that, but I do wish there were more resources that were geared towards the middle school level that we could have discussions on.
Q: How do you think your UNC experience helped prepare you for teaching?
SM: Well, a good example is what I just mentioned. I did my Safe Zone at UNC-CH, although I was already a teacher when I got that. Honestly, though?
Just about everything that I know about the Classics is from UNC. The teachers in the Classics, they really inspired me to have a geeky passion in it, to delight about learning the ancient world. Especially for Roman history, Professor Talbert’s class was my favorite – he would start at the exact time his class started and end the exact second his class ended. He would talk from start to finish, and I took pages and pages of notes because he was such a genius!
Professor Sharon James was so supportive when I decided to be a secondary school teacher- I was in her Roman comedy class, and it was phenomenal, obviously, but she always went out of her way to make me feel included, even though I was a School of Education student not a Classics student. She was always great support for me and from UNC.
The School of Education allowed us practica, shadowing a teacher, taking over their classes – that was irreplaceable. I was really worried at first, thinking about being a teacher, about my subject. I thought “-I know Latin is my passion, but what if I don’t like kids?”, you know? After practice, though, I came out going “I’m passionate about my subject, but the best part is the kids.”
My partner was Sara Clay, she was my mentor at Carrboro High School. She was a Latin teacher. That pairing – Sara taught me everything I knew about being a teacher. Without UNC giving me that connection, without that incredible connection of Latin teachers – they are all absolutely amazing instructors and wonderful people who supported me and nurtured me through my years of teaching. It’s really cool that UNC started me on this path to this place.