Outstanding Teacher of the Year

Svetlana J. Lazarova

Svetlana J. Lazarova

Latin Teacher
Palm Springs High School
Palm Springs, California

Svetlana grew up in Bulgaria and attended an “advanced placement” high school of only 500 students. At an early age, she learned and became fluent in English and went on to learn Russian, German and Armenian. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree and her Mater’s in The Classics and English Language from the University of Sophia, in Bulgaria. She moved to the United States in 1991, going directly to Palm Springs, California. Upon arriving in the United States, she took and passed the CBST test and became certified to teach in California. While working part time at Vons Grocery Store, she would substitute in local schools until she could secure a position at Palm Springs High School in 1993, where she has been a full time English and Latin teacher.

When the previous Latin teacher at Palm Springs High School retired in 1993, at the age of 80, there were only 8 students enrolled in Latin and no advanced Latin classes scheduled. In 2009-10, there were over 200 students in enrolled in 6 periods of Latin from basic Latin to Honors Latin. Svetlana virtually “sold” her preparation period to accommodate the increased number of students wishing to enroll in her classes. Over the years she has also taught English Learners and Honors English.

Since 1997 Svetlana has also been actively involved with California Foreign Language Project, LA STARS – at first, as a participant and eventually, as a presenter in two strands – Framework Aligned Instructional Practices for Experienced Foreign Language Teachers and Making the ELD Standards Come Alive. She is a member of the group responsible for the development of the World Language Content Standards for California Public Schools K-12.

Currently, Svetlana is in the process of publishing her second book for Bulgarian teachers on methods and strategies for teaching of Classical and modern literature, as well as a book of poetry.

Svetlana said, “I have worked hard to develop and sustain the Latin program at Palm Springs High School. Students are actually recruited by other, older students and even parents of current and/or past students. Once I can get students enrolled in my classes, I find as many ways as possible to create situations where students experience early success. I find that once they learn they can compete, their confidence begins to grow and they are much more likely to enroll in other advanced courses. Of course, this also helps other teachers, has actually improved the school climate and has helped increase the number of AP classes. Many of my peers are now beginning to subscribe to the philosophy that all kids can learn and rise to the level of expectations we create for them.

“Because parents also recognize and support this approach and are grateful to see their students do well, we have created a large number of “allies” in the community. This has resulted in the program being able to market and sustain itself over the years.

“I am adamant about accepting all students who wish to take my classes. I have an open door policy. My classes are very diverse and inclusive of all types of students. About 1/3 of the students are athletes; many are music, theater arts and ROTC students; many are AP and Honors students; and several are students with learning disabilities. A majority of the students come from low socio-economic homes. So, when they come together, I try to create an atmosphere where I pay close attention to the mixture of students and will not permit ‘cliques’ to form in my classes. To do this, I force students to do a lot of group work and I mix them up, not only as racially and economically diverse groups, but also with a broad range of academic skills. I give them time to prepare a group translation and assign specific tasks according to their abilities so everyone can contribute and have a sense of success.

“In Latin I, we spend very little time on grammar and, instead, I focus is on ‘doing the language.’ I conduct the class in Latin about 85% of the time. I read to them in Latin; I tell them stories in Latin; and I use pictures, gestures and repetition to communicate the messages. It is basically a conversational approach. My intention is to create the right linguistic environment by avoiding the use of English as much as possible. We learn a language best when we hear it spoken.

“I force them to breathe and eat the language and make it a part of their everyday life. This approach is 180 degrees from when I began my teaching career. Communicating in Latin, at this point, is more important than the grammar. I feel I can always come back to the structure of the language. I never rush their learning. I know they will eventually ‘discover’ grammar and, when they do, they own it.

“I am aware this is not how Latin is usually taught. I am using a rather ‘cutting-edge’ language acquisition theory for teaching modern language. Latin is traditionally taught by simply reading the words and learning the vocabulary and complex grammar. Conventional wisdom is that a dyslexic student could never learn Latin. However, Latin is actually good for dyslexic students because the focus is on the ending of the words, which change depending upon how the word is used in a sentence. By focusing on the oral aspects of the language, and having to draw pictures to learn, we can bypass the dyslexia and they can learn to communicate without completely understanding the structure. Learning a language orally, with special reinforcement, helps a student learn to recognize the words in print. I arrived at this approach because I have a cousin with Down syndrome who was able to learn three languages in our Bulgarian town because people spoke to him in those languages.

“In Latin II, we do much more reading and begin the exploration of classical studies. I introduce syntax analysis and they repeatedly ‘read and translate.’ I base the year on the 12 Labors of Hercules. Students have to translate and explain the workings of sentences and paragraphs. Here is where we also begin to study Ancient Art and the Culture of Rome. We do a number of activities and projects, including collages or creating pieces of art of functional pieces such as ceramic pots or plates.

“In Latin III, we study the history of Rome and read and translate Cicero. This is where they have to write analytical and expository essays focusing on style, effect and thesis. The must memorize and recite in Togas and wreaths. We share the food of the time and act out scenes and passages from the literature to demonstrate understanding of the works.

“Latin IV is an Advanced Placement Class. At this point in their studies, I come back to the structure of the language. By now, they are able to read, translate and write the language. Now, we can put it all together. We spend the year studying Virgil’s Aeneid and at the end of the year, their project is to explain their journey and compare it to the travels of Aenias.

“At all levels of Latin, I try to make the material as relevant as possible. Through reading, discussion, translation and analytical writing, we find what was pertinent at the time and compare and contrast it to what is meaningful today. I always try to get them to find the common human factors and illustrate how important it is to learn from our mistakes. With Hercules, we learn about self control and individual responsibility. I try to bring the universal topics to life for the students as we explore the world at large and see our place in it now and in the future. I want them to learn and retain individual ideas about morality, ethics and life. I want them not only to learn language skills, I also want them to learn life skills.

“To be effective as a teacher, I believe in lifelong learning. Therefore I find myself constantly searching for ways to improve my teaching of language and find many different ways to unleash the age appropriate curiosity of my students. I break up the pace of my classes with a variety of activities and assignments. It keeps me on my toes and it keeps the students actively engaged.

“What makes me most proud as a teacher, is when my current and former students find interest in learning other languages or when I find they are majoring in the Classics or Art History because of the exposure they received in my classes. Once I get to know my students and their capabilities, I see my role as pushing them beyond those capabilities. I expect a lot and I am never disappointed by what I get in return. If nothing else, I know they head off to college prepared for what to expect.”

-Published 2010

Carlston Family Foundation is now Above & Beyond Teaching