What Made Rome Strong?

As I head into the final two weeks of the school year, I wanted to just take a few minutes here to reflect on the growth of the students in my original pilot section of Operation LAPIS. In the daily whirlwind of all my obligations and requirements, throughout the year I often lost track of just how far these students had come along since the beginning. Thinking back to the first day of class when I told them that they weren’t actually enrolled in Latin I, but rather in a secret mission to save the world as we know it, what they must have thought was absolutely insane is now second nature to them. Indeed, it’s a refreshing sight to watch them file into the class, pick up a laptop from the mobile cart and in one motion log in to their Operative Storage Device (Google Docs) and the Texto-Spatio-Temporal Transmitter (the immersion discussion forums and supplemental CODEX). The computers aren’t a novelty or toy to them, but rather a tool through which they are learning how to think, act, speak and read like a Roman. You should see their protests on the days when I have to cave and allow my science colleagues use of our one mobile cart.

Their digital fluency aside (and, probably, a topic for another post), I wanted to share a moment that really slammed home just how powerful this immersive collaborative role-playing experience has been for them. They (their characters) have infiltrated the headquarters of the Societās Potentium (one of the two factions) and are now faced with a series of riddles, puzzles and debates that will ultimately grant them access to the final chamber -- and with it, hopefully, the Lapis Saeculōrum. Thrown into the darkness, they hear a single voice which asks them a single question: “quid mihi nomen est?” What is my name? They are given a few more clues, thankfully: “ego sum illud quid Romam fortem fēcit. sum quod fuit in principiō.I am that which made Rome strong. I am which was in the beginning.

I flash back to their first immersion prompt, what seems ages ago back in September, and I remember a collection of students that have never been given questions in this way before. I remember students who struggled with the concept that to answer the question of “What is your name?” the ruffian asked of them, they didn’t have to tell him their character’s real name. After a little guidence, I remember students that struggled trying to find a name -- any viable Roman-sounding name -- on the internet or from their own memories of pop-culture to give the ruffian as an answer. They knew of Google, but not how to use it. They struggled to post, respond, and debate with each other. I remember all those times modeling, and remodeling, how to approach these immersion prompts and I remember all of those countless times when I felt that the grain that I was trying to go against was just too harsh.

And so remembering all of those moments, at the beginning of Operation LAPIS, it was incredible to sit back just a few nights ago and watch the discussions and debates that were taking place in their team forums. One team decided pretty early on that the thing that made Rome strong was the idea of Romulus, that is, the idea that Romulus would set the precendent for all ages to come that the defense of Rome was greater than any thing else, including familial bonds. If someone were to threaten the city, they must be dealt with, no reservations or hesitations. Another team, after some heated discussion, decided that the thing that made Rome powerful was slavery and all of the economic implications that went along with it. Another group? Well, their answer was ‘roads’ and all of the consequences that a well maintained infrastructure had on an empire as big as Rome. They considered the economic impact, the speed at which communication could happen, and how quickly troops could be moved throughout the empire to respond to crises.

Why am I highlighting these responses? The simple fact of the matter is that these responses were generated without any guided reading worksheets. They weren’t the product of the research for a five paragraph essay where the library specialists pulled books aside for them. They weren’t even the regurgitation of a hypothetical powerpoint lecture that I had given earlier in the week. No, their responses to answering the question of “What made Rome strong?” were generated wholly on their own because over the past nine months they’ve learned how to approach problems such as this. I’m sure they don’t even realize just how much they’ve grown throughout the year, especially with respect to the ability to problem solve and think critically. I’m not sure how many of their peers in the freshman class could given such a vague “riddle” and, in one night, produce such thoughful reflections on what made Rome able to dominate the Mediterranean for such a long period of time without significant guidence.

In it’s first iteration, Operation LAPIS has produced amazing results in a multitude of areas, including their ability to read Latin. I’ll spend more time soon discussing some other positive gains, but the prospect of just what we are going to be able to accomplish as we continue to iterate the course is making me ecstatic just thinking about it.

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