Students in Judy Hunt's advanced Latin class at New Haven High School have their reasons for learning a "dead" language: higher test scores, a stronger grasp of English and better preparation for college science and medicine courses.
There's also the toga parties and pig sacrifices.
Today, Hunt will stage a "pig sacrifice" when she cuts into a cake that has the image of a pig on the frosting. The ceremony is part of an ancient Roman celebration, Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn. To thank him for a good harvest, Hunt said the Romans had a pig sacrifice.
"Sometimes you need to do weird things to get their interest to create learning," said Hunt, who has taught Latin at New Haven for six years.
After nearly 50 years of dormancy, a renewed interest in the 2,500-year-old language has Latin classes enjoying a renaissance at schools locally and nationwide.
That interest includes New Haven. Hunt, a 1962 New Haven graduate, recalls when Latin was the only foreign language offered at school. Years after she graduated, Hunt said the school started offering French and Spanish, which became the most popular foreign languages for students to take.
From staging mock pig slaughters to conjugating Latin verbs to the tune of the "Mexican Hat Dance," teachers use interactive methods like these to revive a language no longer spoken in common society.
Reports from the Indiana Department of Education and the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language show students statewide are enrolling in Latin at a slightly higher rate than the national average. About 3 percent of all foreign language students nationwide take Latin. In Indiana, it's about 4 percent. Membership at the Indiana Junior Classical League - a network of Latin clubs across the state - rose 8.5 percent to 1,552 last school year.
And it's no wonder.
Studies have shown that students taking Latin have a better understanding of English and perform better on college entrance exams.
This year's college-bound high school seniors taking Latin averaged 559 out of a possible 800 on the verbal section of the SAT - a whopping 58 points higher than students who took Spanish, according to the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit agency that administers the SAT.
In the 1970s and '80s, the U.S. government funded Latin classes in under-performing urban school districts and found that children who were given a full year of Latin performed five months to a year ahead of control groups in reading comprehension and vocabulary. The Latin students also showed gains in math, history and geography. But Congress cut the funding, and nearly all the districts discontinued Latin.
A phonetic language, Latin gives students an understanding of how English words are created. With 60 percent of English-language words based on Latin, students learn grammar structure and basic phonetic principles.
Taught at an elementary-school level, Latin also can help students improve their reading skills. The language is a staple of Zion Lutheran Academy's classical education program.
Students become immersed in the language starting in kindergarten, when they are exposed to Latin vocabulary. In the fourth grade, students start learning the mechanics of the language, said the Rev. Joel Brondos, headmaster.
Brentwood Elementary is Fort Wayne Community Schools' only school with a Latin focus for elementary students. School officials there said Latin is used as a tool to strengthen reading comprehension, critical thinking and vocabulary. Principal Get Nichols was unavailable for comment.
Latin also is taught at four FWCS high schools: Snider, Northrop, Wayne and North Side. Budget cuts and low student interest has school officials phasing out Latin at North Side this year. Latin is not offered at Northwest Allen County Schools.
In the Southwest Allen County Schools district, Homestead High School offers Latin to middle and high school students.
Homestead Latin instructor Kathy Adair said the program has a devout following, despite being the smallest of the school's foreign language programs.
"The thing I always like to feel good about is that we start with fewer numbers in the first year and hold on to them," Adair said, adding some take Latin all four years. French and Spanish students generally study up to three years.
Latin has gradually attracted more followers at Homestead. She now teaches five sections of Latin - three more than when she first started teaching the language 16 years ago.
What was said to be Latin's downfall has resurrected it.
Latin was once taught to elite college-bound high school students in the 1950s, drilled through memorization. Today's Latin teachers have adopted new methods, which include lessons in Roman mythology and culture.
Bishop Dwenger High School graduate Brady Partee recalls learning about the Roman Empire in his Latin class. Now a freshman at the University of Dayton, he said he'll be able to apply what he has learned in a Western Civilization course he is taking next semester.
"I know I'll be able to sleep through it," said Partee, who took five years of Latin - four years at Dwenger and one year at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School, Dwenger's feeder school, with Donald Shorter.
Shorter has served as Bishop Dwenger's full-time Latin teacher for 11 years, working part time at St. Vincent de Paul until this year.
Shorter said the increasing size of Dwenger's Latin program forced him to stop teaching seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Vincent de Paul. This year, about 15 percent of Bishop Dwenger's 1,026-student population is enrolled in the program. And 80 percent of them first studied the subject at St. Vincent de Paul.
He credits support from the school's administration, guidance counselors and parents.
"Also, the students get caught up in the trend," Shorter said.
Latin's renaissance has seeped into popular culture, with references to it in the Harry Potter novels and movies, and in the film teachers said might have started it all: "Gladiator."
The growth comes at a time when some schools are dropping Latin programs, he said. While budget cuts may be a factor at some schools, he believes the problem lies in the shortage of teachers of the language. It took St. Vincent de Paul Principal Sandra Leeson three years to find a replacement for Shorter.
Jean Williamson was interviewing for another position when Leeson discovered she had a background in Latin.
"This year, when we made the decision that we were going to hire a teacher, we were lucky enough to find one," Leeson said.
Shorter has faith in the staying power of this "dead" language: "Latin is continuing to plod along, and it will survive."