Learning While Doing in Middle School Latin

Debra Finger
What happens when you combine passion, professional learning, and appreciation of beauty and excellence? You get a teacher who brings enthusiasm and energy to her classroom and students who learn while doing. Anne Smith loves mosaic making. She buys imported tile, cuts it, and creates beautiful designs. She also loves teaching Latin and the history behind the classical language and she has taught here at Shipley for 29 years.

In July of 2019, Anne used professional development funding from Shipley’s Denis Nicholson Asselin Award and visited the archaeological site of the Fishbourne Palace Roman Palace villa in Chichester, UK with all of its mosaic tiling. She also attended a weeklong Roman Byzantine mosaic course in Ravenna, Italy at The Mosaic School. Since then, she has incorporated mosaics into her eighth grade classes.

In December and January, students study Roman-Britain and the site of the villa that Anne visited. They then make their own mosaics using actual Roman geometric designs and high-gloss paper as they read about this site in Latin. They learn while doing. Students can develop stronger memory circuits because this learning is connected to multiple modalities.

Recently, Smith has combined the creative forces of her sixth to eighth grade Latin classes, her Classics Club, and the Horticulture Club to participate in the Longwood Gardens holiday ornament tree display. This year’s theme is “Nature’s Splendor” and as such, the students are free to be creative within that parameter as they design a mosaic-tiled flower ornament that will hang on the trees. Students planned out the design on paper, laid the pre-cut, shaped pieces of glass to form the design, then transferred and permanently affixed them to the pre-cut wood.

Anne’s love of learning and passion for Roman architecture has led her to develop one of her professional goals: incorporating more student-driven initiatives into her classes. If you were to glance in the back of her classroom, you might think you are looking at packing materials, but if you look closely, you will see that it is, in fact, the beginnings of a Roman villa made out of cardboard. When her students saw the leftover cardboard from their laptop packaging, they asked if they could use it to bring the Roman villas they are learning about to life.

Anne saw this as an opportunity to realize her goal. Students are incorporating several cross-curricular skills including measuring, proportion, design, architecture, and history, and it’s all happening as these students are also learning Latin. As the students are mentally and physically manipulating what they are learning using multiple modalities, they are creating more connections that will lead to deeper and long-term understanding.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.