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A Classic – Mary McBride

Remarkable Teacher

Rick Mercer recalls Lois Brown


Mary McBride A Classic!

With today’s push for technology, how do we explain a vibrant and highly popular classics program in rural Ontario?

When Mary McBride graduated from the University of Toronto in 1969, she moved from her north Toronto home to the then outrageously distant and small town of Alliston. In the intervening 36 years, the town has grown and Banting Memorial – with over 1,800 students – is now Ontario’s largest rural high school, and McBride’s love of her subject remains constant.

“I believe I teach with as much enthusiasm today as in the early years of my career.”

McBride has taught Latin, ancient Greek and French to several generations of students and has no immediate plans to retire – though she passed the 85 factor eleven years ago.

“I never find it easy and it’s always tiring,” she says. “But I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Students learn their classical languages – most commonly Latin – in a social and historical context. They learn how the people lived, dressed, entertained, travelled and engaged in politics – not just how they spoke. They wear the clothes, create the art, discuss the politics; they even design and race chariots.

The chariot race is a popular competition at the Classics conference.

There is a tradition among McBride’s Latin students of creating a scrapbook that encapsulates the year’s work and extracurricular activities. This large-format, hand-bound, meticulously illustrated piece of living history is a huge project - taking weeks to craft. The students’ creativity is impressive and the pride they take is evident.

The 2004-05 edition contains sections on their activities at the Ontario Classics Conference, their class trips, the Grade 12 classics dinner, participation in provincial, national and international academic and mythology competitions, June commencement (acknowledging the many Latin and ancient Greek students who are award winners in other academic and athletic areas) and McBride’s July trip to the American National Junior Classical League convention (NJCL) – not to mention the many fundraising and classics-related clubs and activities.

With today’s compressed high school program and at a school where so many students are bussed in, it should be tough attracting students to courses with a strong extracurricular component. “Today, kids have few options. So it’s a compliment if they find room for Latin, especially because they know it’s so demanding.”

"There can be no greater tribute to a teacher's success than to be perceived as a passionate learner and to communicate passion to others."

McBride believes that the extracurricular activities – far from discouraging students – are key to their involvement and their success.

Sports and arts may be more common extracurricular activities, but McBride offers something special. “She combines academics, the arts and athletics into a unique program that students and parents love,” says Fallis.

Classics conference

The Classics conference is a highlight each year. Over 500 students and teachers from across Ontario compete in activities that classical Greeks and Romans believed encompassed a proper education – challenging mind, body and soul. There are academic quizzes on Roman life, customs and mythology; artistic displays including mosaics, painting, drawing and sculpture; and athletics events including a 100-metre dash, a mini-marathon and swimming races. For one popular competition, students build and race chariots pulled by two male students. They also write and perform a 10-minute play on a classical theme, dressed in hand-stitched costumes.

The students enthusiastically throw themselves into preparations for the conference. It is the focus of fundraising and executive council work. Competing against prestigious private schools such as University of Toronto Schools and Toronto French School, McBride’s team regularly places among the top four.

"She combines academics, the arts and athletics into a unique program that students and parents love."

Each Latin and ancient Greek student must produce a creative work and many of these are displayed at the Classics conference – one instance in which a classroom assignment crosses over with extracurricular activities. This past year, a second-year Latin student took first prize with a mosaic containing over 50,000 pieces that took more than 250 hours to create. A Grade 9 student who created an original needlework of the Prima Vera placed first in a miscellaneous category – there is no needlework category at the Classics conference.

McBride’s students also held third place in 2004 for their cleverly titled The Muse-ic Man, A Mythological Romp through Virgil’s Aeneid.

So much more

McBride’s own school year begins each July when she attends the NJCL convention where she enriches her already incredible repertoire by attending workshops and lectures and interacting with Latin and Greek teachers from across North America. “If I can take away one great new activity or idea each year, it’s worthwhile.”

McBride introduced Certamen to Ontario almost 20 years ago after learning about it at an NJCL convention. The three-day, semi-annual Jeopardy-like competition is open to Latin students at all levels – testing knowledge of Roman history and culture, Greek and Roman mythology, Latin vocabulary and English words derived from Latin. Students prepare for the event after school, mastering content and buzzer techniques. As the competition nears, McBride hosts her six teams at her home for pizza and evening practice session.

Students attending the Classics conference model Greek costumes in the fashion show.

She has travelled extensively in Europe and has a vast slide collection that complements her teaching and learning activities. She has arranged exchanges with Latin classes in American schools – hosting the Americans in turn in Alliston and Toronto. She and a colleague from another Simcoe district high school take students on trips during March break every other year. In 2005 they visited Rome, Pompei and Florence.

Back in class

Over the years McBride has invested her own money and her students’ imaginations to create a rich learning environment. She shares over 1,000 books with her students. Mottos, posters, photos, models, costumes, artwork and previous years’ scrapbooks decorate the classroom. She employs slides from her European travels in her teaching. “Something will come up in class and we’ll spend 10 minutes viewing slides and discussing an aspect of classical culture or history.

“Sometimes my students think I’m getting off topic, but it is something I intended to teach. I just let them decide when.”

This responsive teaching style is in part possible because McBride is a firm believer in variety and short chunks of teaching time – rarely spending more than 20 minutes on a single activity.

McBride with students in the classroom

Students must master a complex and large vocabulary to be successful in Latin and ancient Greek. She believes that active participation and excellent attendance are vital to that learning. She values parental involvement and calls home if students are struggling. She also points out that when learning a new language, students need prompt and regular feedback, and advocates marking nightly for best results.

McBride drills students daily, though not in the strict manner of her own high school and university days. Instead, she uses games, puzzles, bingo and other word contests. (See sidebar, opposite page, for recommended games.) Candy is awarded to game winners and to students with excellent attendance.

Although she knows her program well she still spends time prepping every night, often creating new activities and handouts.

Quo vadis?

McBride has not gotten bored teaching the same things year after year. “It’s the kids’ reactions that make it enjoyable. I never know what they are going to say and which tangent we’ll take.”

Her enthusiasm for her subject has affected generations. The thousands of Banting students who have had Mary McBride as a teacher since 1969 are tremendously lucky, as are her future students. One of her nominators, a university professor, wrote: “There can be no greater tribute to a teacher’s success than to be perceived as a passionate learner and to communicate passion to others. Mary McBride has been fulfilling that ideal for generations of students over a lifetime.”

A quotation posted in McBride’s own classroom perhaps best captures the aspirations and impact of this dedicated professional and her students: “De his factis in perpetuum dicant – Let them speak of these deeds forever.”

Vocabulary review

Learning theories say that to memorize something new, you must repeat it at least forty times. If you don’t want students reciting “canis” forty times, you must be more creative. This means crossword puzzles, cue cards for kinesthetic learners and drill games with candy prizes – all of which motivate students to learn and be successful.

Two of McBride’s favourite classroom games are Flyswatters and Word Cubes.

Flyswatters places vocabulary from each chapter of the Cambridge Series Latin textbook into grids. An overhead projector displays 24 Latin words or phrases. Two students with fly swatters stand on either side of the large classroom screen. When the teacher calls out an English word or phrase, the first one to identify the correct Latin translation swats the answer on the grid to stay in the game. The loser hands the swatter to a classmate – as does a three-time winner, after collecting the requisite candy reward. It’s a fun way to review vocabulary.

McBride’s Flyswatters grids for stages 1–20 of the textbook are available from the North American Cambridge Classics Project at

Word Cubes challenges pairs or small groups of students to create a rectangle by selecting and pairing squares from a total of 24 two-inch cubes. First, McBride writes vocabulary on each of the six sides of 24 cubes – English and its corresponding Latin word adjoining. Then, the cubes are cut up into individual squares. Students must race to make rectangles with matching English and Latin vocabulary. It’s a major brain-teasing challenge that builds vocabulary skills, engages visual, linguistic and kinesthetic learners and is great fun.