PORTLAND – Phil Thibault usually gets a skeptical response when he tells people that he teaches Latin at Portland High School.
“The first thing they say is, ‘Does anybody still teach that?’ ” Thibault said.
The skepticism mounts when he explains that Latin is one of the most popular subjects at Portland High.
Veritatem dicit. He speaks the truth.
In the past eight years, Thibault and fellow teacher Michelle Tucci have breathed new life into a long-dead language and developed an innovative, engaging classical language program that serves essentially twice as many students as it did a decade ago.
While some high schools offer few, if any, Latin classes, Portland High now offers 12 sections of Latin and two sections of Greek, with more than 20 students in most sections. The number of students in the program has grown from about 150 in 2000 to about 250 today, and about 50 of them are taking Latin and Greek at the same time.
The program grew even further this year when Portland High opened its Latin and Greek classes to students from the city’s two other public high schools, thanks to a new shared first period.
Five students came from Deering High School, which was on the verge of dropping Latin for lack of interest. One student came from Casco Bay High School, which is too small to offer Latin. Richard Kress, an English and Latin teacher at Deering High, now teaches two sections of Latin at Portland High.
Principal Mike Johnson and others say the classics program at Portland High is popular because Tucci and Thibault work hard to make learning fun and relevant. Superintendent Jim Morse calls them a “dynamic duo” for their personal, energetic approach. Students have responded to their warmth and high standards, nicknaming them Mama Tucci and Papa Thibault.
“They are two teachers who have mastered the unique but essential balance between having incredible passion for their subject and having incredible passion for their students,” Johnson said.
Thibault and Tucci call their approach the “optimum learning trifecta,” which means they strive to make Latin intellectually stimulating, emotionally engaging and personally relevant to each student. If they can get kids moving by playing a game, working in groups or answering questions on the Smart board at the front of the room, so much the better.
Rather than recite Latin verb conjugations or read dry Latin prose, students play “trash ball” during grammar lessons, watch interactive videos on their netbooks that dramatize texts from the Cambridge Latin Course or read graphic versions of classics such as “Custos Cadaveris (Guardian of the Dead),” by Apuleius.
“When they’re with us, they’re in the Latin zone,” Tucci said. “We don’t go through the motions, ever.”
Students say they sign up for Latin because it’s the root of many other languages, they want to improve their SAT scores, or they plan to pursue careers in science or health care, which use many Latin words.
They stay, and often sign up for higher-level Latin and Greek classes, because Tucci and Thibault make it fun.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a class,” said Kiana Sawyer, a freshman who’s taking Latin I to boost her SAT scores.
“It’s one of the classes that I don’t dread going to,” said Nick Volger, a sophomore who’s taking Latin II and Greek.
All fun aside, Tucci and Thibault say they make sure students are learning. They say that 30 percent of their first-year students who take the national Latin exam score high enough to win medals, as do 90 percent of their first-year students who take the national mythology exam.
Moreover, 90 percent of their students who sign up for one course in the classics program return for a higher-level course the next year.
Tucci, 41, started teaching Latin at Portland High 16 years ago. She was drawn to the profession after taking Latin for four years as a student at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish and studying under the late Gloria Duclos, a renowned classics professor at the University of Southern Maine.
Thibault, 54, previously taught French at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. He moved to Portland High in 2002 to teach French and Latin. A few months after Thibault arrived, Tucci recognized him as the young man who had been her piano teacher when she was 7 years old.
They soon realized that they had a similar approach to teaching, so much that they now both teach Latin and Greek at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.
While they work well as a team, Tucci and Thibault bring their own styles to the classroom.
Thibault is an accomplished singer and musician who regularly plays the piano in his classroom and leads his students in a chorus of verb conjugations. “We break into song for things that are really hard to memorize,” Thibault said.
Tucci targets students who look lost or bored, challenges them to do their best and praises them for the smallest accomplishments. If struggling students try to drop her class, she often refuses to sign the paperwork and urges them to keep trying.
“I had a student say to me once, ‘I like how I feel about myself when I’m in your class,’ ” Tucci recalled. “The bottom line is, they all want to get the questions right. We just try to have fun while we’re learning.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: