Lori Brown has been the eighth-grade Latin teacher at Matoaca Middle School for three years and her journey to get there was not conventional.
She danced when she was younger, but her injuries forced her to go to physical therapy school. A patient-caused injury then led her to back to her first love, and she was the ballet mistress at a performing arts school for 12 years.
Brown’s husband was in the Navy and when they ended up living at a boys’ boarding school, she decided to take Latin with the students. Her love for the language caused her to go back to college where she got a degree in Latin. After teaching in Fredericksburg, she moved to Chesterfield and taught at L.C. Bird High School before she accepted the full-time position at Matoaca Middle.
Brown said she jumped at the chance to teach at the middle school because she likes the age group and they are open to learning.
“They’re just starting to be at the point where friends mean more than school, but most of them are still really interested in knowing things. Frankly the kids who take Latin tend to be the ‘geeky’ kids and I love them. They’re awkward and awesome and fun, and … they’re just sweet,” she said. “They’re goofy and fidgety. They’re just at that incredible in-between stage, and it’s a tough time for them so I think they need to be surrounded by people who enjoy being with them.”
Brown — who said she was called “Webster’s” in high school because of her love for words — said her favorite thing about being a teacher is seeing students make a connection with something they already knew.
“I teach 1A, which is half of the Latin I curriculum, and the kids that have read Harry Potter find out that a lot of the spells that are in Harry Potter are real Latin. They make the connection with a word they knew and then they find out, ‘Oh it comes from this verb and now that makes sense why this word means that,’” she said. “It’s just always that moment when they go, ‘Oh I didn’t know I knew that’ or ‘That’s really cool, that makes sense to me now,’ [so] that’s the best thing because we’re all connected to the past. We’re kind of busy rewriting the past and trying to erase the past, and I think that’s a mistake because then you don’t learn anything, and you can’t avoid it for the future.”
Brown’s classroom activities include playing “Pin the dagger on the Caesar” to commemorate the Ides of March, having a Roman cana (dinner) and eating like the Romans did. Students have to build a Roman dwelling or monuments from the Roman Empire for their final projects. Brown wants to bring ancient Rome alive to her students, and though her methods may seem unconventional, she said her way of teaching is unorthodox because it is old-fashioned.
“The kids are sort of addicted to their Chromebooks, and I think that’s a problem especially when they’re learning a language. All the studies show if you write it, you remember it better, and so I tend to force kids to write notes rather than type notes. I think it just helps,” she said. “The other thing they have to do in my class is learn a lot of English grammar because if you can’t do English grammar, you can’t do Latin. They don’t learn a lot of grammar anymore, not hardcore grammar, so my unorthodoxy is I do old school orthodox.”
Despite her short years as a Latin teacher, Brown said she has had former students return and thank her for being hard on them. She said she sees herself teaching until it’s time to retire and loves that her students challenge her to think about things in a different way.
“I really love it. I love the kids. They challenge me to find new ways to do things and find new ways to present things and make me think about things that I haven’t thought about before,” she said. “The kids aren’t bound and so sometimes they just pull stuff out of thin air, and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought about that at all,’ so that’s what’s fun.”