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It's all Greek

The classical Greek language is alive and well at Northeast High School, the only school in Pinellas to offer the class.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001

The classical Greek language is alive and well at Northeast High School, the only school in Pinellas to offer the class.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Not so long ago, David Wolkowsky would have laughed had anyone predicted that he would be taking a classical Greek class, eager to get his hands on a copy of The Complete Handbook of Greek Verbs. Two years ago, he never would have imagined himself being interested in anything connected to a language that hasn't been spoken outside of classrooms for 1,500 years.

But when the 17-year-old saw a classmate perusing the thick volume with the tiny print last week, his eyes lit up. He reached for it and asked where he could get a copy for himself.

David is one of eight students studying classical Greek at Northeast High, 1717 54th Ave. N. Like most of his classmates, he was attracted to the course -- the only one of its kind in Pinellas County, and only one of a handful in the state -- because it is unique.

"I knew that you had to take two years of a foreign language to get into college," he said. "I didn't want to take Spanish because everybody takes that. Greek seemed like the most interesting language from the course descriptions of what was available."

It is the response assistant principal for curriculum Barbara Muhly was hoping for when Northeast began offering classical Greek three years ago. Looking ahead to "controlled choice" in 2003, the school was seeking courses that would attract students to Northeast. "Controlled choice" will replace court-ordered busing for desegregation. Under the new system, parents will have more latitude in deciding where their children are educated, and schools will compete to attract students.

"As we began to move toward choice, we wanted to offer opportunities in foreign languages and in other subject areas for students that were unique," Mrs. Muhly said. "We also wanted to capitalize on the strengths of our school."

Because one of the school's strengths is its faculty, she said, she asked the teachers for suggestions. Among those who came forward was foreign language department chairman Alan Blessing. He reminded Mrs. Muhly that in addition to being certified to teach English, Latin, German and Spanish, he is certified to teach classical Greek. Modern Greek is taught at Tarpon Springs High, but classical Greek is not offered. Mr. Blessing thought it would be an interesting addition and offered to add it to his course load.

The class started in 1999 with 12 students. Many of them were seniors, but five continued with Greek II last year, and four students began Greek I. This year, one of the original students is studying Greek III. Three students are in Greek II and four students began Greek I.

All three levels meet together Monday through Friday at 7:20 a.m. Mr. Blessing divides his attention among the levels, actively teaching one group while the other students work on exercises.

Because their focus is on reading rather than speaking the language, they spend a lot of time translating. Their goal, Mr. Blessing said, is to be able to read great works of literature, like the Iliad, in their original form.

"We usually start with vocabulary, because they need that to work with the language," Mr. Blessing said. "We take a look at the grammar being taught for the chapter and practice it. Then we generally go on to the reading passages so they can start to see how the reading and the grammar flow together."

One of the first tasks for beginning Greek students, Mr. Blessing said, is learning the alphabet. He spends about two weeks teaching them the characters, then works on pronunciation, which is the main difference between classical and modern Greek. In most cases, he said, students start feeling comfortable a few weeks into the course.

But it can be overwhelming at first, said second-year student Victoria Talbot, 17.

"In the beginning I thought to myself, 'How am I ever going to learn how to read this?' " she said. "You have to work to understand this language. It doesn't come naturally."

The effort is worth it, Victoria said. She admits there are more people who speak French and Spanish, but she likes knowing a language "that has been around since the beginning of civilization."

Several students have found practical applications for the study of classical Greek. Third-year student Eric Partney, 17, said it has helped him understand English grammar, because many English words are derived from Greek. Eric and the other students spend a lot of time with an English-language dictionary studying the origins of words and expanding their vocabularies in both English and Greek.

They also learn history and culture, which Mr. Blessing said is important in the study of any foreign language. It is the combination of learning a country's language and its culture that expands their minds, he said.

Jan Kucerik, world language supervisor for Pinellas County Schools, agrees. Classical Greek may not attract a lot of students, but as long as there is a certified teacher willing to teach it, and even a few who show interest in learning it, making it available will continue to be important, she said.

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