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Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 10:01 PM

Roosevelt High Latin teacher wins national award

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times education reporter

Nora MacDonald decided to become a Latin teacher while attending Roosevelt High School in the mid-1960s. She was just two weeks into her first Latin class, at a time when most, if not all, of Seattle's middle and high schools offered the subject.

She went on to study Latin on a scholarship at the University of Washington, despite her mother's fears that she'd never earn much money. A few years later, she returned to Roosevelt, where she's spent the past 35 years promoting and teaching a language she believes is as relevant and useful as ever.

On Saturday, MacDonald will receive one of the top honors in her field, winning one of two Precollegiate Latin Teacher Awards from two of the nation's top classics organizations, the American Philological Association and the American Classical League.

MacDonald may be one of just a handful of Latin teachers left in this state, especially in public schools. Two years ago, according to the best figures available, only about a half-dozen public high schools reported offering Latin classes.

But she has spent her career keeping the Latin program alive at Roosevelt, doing everything she could to combat the idea that Latin is irrelevant.

"People don't understand how valuable and really how practical taking Latin is," she said.

Through Latin, she said, her students learn about ancient history and literature, and gain a greater understanding of English grammar and vocabulary, which is based on Latin. And they hone their skills in logic, she said, because Latin's structure is complicated.

In recommending MacDonald for the award, one of her former students wrote that the teacher opened her eyes "to a whole new world: a world of classical philosophy, dangerous politics, conquests, beautiful poetry, and powerful mythology."

The way MacDonald started teaching at Roosevelt underscores the passion that Latin scholars have for their subject.

Her former teacher, fearing that Latin might be discontinued when she retired, kept her departure plans secret until a few days before school started in fall 1977. Because students had already signed up for classes, the district had to scramble to find someone to teach them.

MacDonald's teacher recommended her for the job, and the district called, giving her just four hours to find a baby-sitter for her young children so she could fill out the employment paperwork. She started teaching the next day and hasn't stopped.

Over the years, she has led trips to Rome 14 times and taken students to 66 national and state conventions.

"She's done more for Latin education in the city of Seattle than anyone in recent memory," said Logan Searl, one of three Latin teachers at the private Lakeside School, perhaps the only school in the state to offer a full eight years of Latin instruction to students who want it.

MacDonald is the first teacher on the West Coast to receive the Precollegiate Teaching Award in more than a decade, reflecting the fact that Latin is much more commonly taught back East.

She will receive the award Saturday at the American Philological Association's annual meeting, held in Seattle for the first time in the organization's 144-year history.

In a prepared release, the judges for the award highlighted MacDonald's undimmed passion for Latin, even after more than three decades in the classroom.

But some former students may have put it best. A few years ago, some of them nicknamed her Nora Incitata or, loosely translated, "driven Nora."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com On Twitter: @LShawST



Nora MacDonald




ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Clutching a gift of a plastic guitar with Elvis on it, Nora MacDonald is surrounded by popular icons at her desk.




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