You’ll soon discover that the language you choose to study, whether spoken or classical, spills far beyond the classroom—often in ways that may surprise you. Later, through school-organized exchanges and trips to Spain, France, China, Peru, and Italy, you will have the opportunity to explore the country whose culture, literature, and history are becoming second nature to you.

"We read a lot; we talk a lot; we write a lot. One day in the middle of the year, I suddenly realized that I wasn't even thinking about the fact that I was doing all this in French."


Spanish 1 and 2

We plunge immediately into the study of the four basic language skills (speaking, reading, writing, comprehension)—no English in class! The college-level textbook, Dos Mundos, which we use for two years, is soon supplemented with literary or journalistic texts and videos that give you a glimpse of the vast world of Spanish and Latino culture. In addition, you often write stories and essays, or skits that you present to your class.

In Spanish 2 the main subject of study is Barcelona. The cultural sourcebook (compiled by a Commonwealth Spanish teacher) lets us work with a rich and increasingly sophisticated selection of literary, historical, political, and illustrated art-historical articles. We look at dance and films; we listen to music.

Early in Spanish 2, we also begin preparation for our March trip. You write blogs and correspond with the Spanish student who will be both your guest and your host.

Students say..."The fact that we get to go to Spain makes it all very, very exciting!”

"My favorite debate I had with my family at dinner was about teenagers spending most of their time on social networks rather than doing something educational, like reading a book. And we were arguing in Spanish!”

Spanish 3

AP Peru! Our in-house-compiled sourcebook is organized to give you an in-depth review of grammar while you study the history, geography, literature, art, politics, food, and music of this vibrant culture. You have become fluent readers, taking on ambitious texts such as the seventeenth-century writer Inca Garcilosa de la Vega, or the more modern César Vallejo or Mario Vargas Llosa. You read about José María Arguedas and indigenism and even learn a few words of Quechua. In June most years, we take off for two weeks, traveling from Lima to Ica, to see the Oasis of Huacachina and the Ballesta Islands, and then to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu.

Students say..."One day we listened to hard rock in Quechua!”


Spanish 4 Literature: Latin American Authors

AP Your Spanish is good enough at this level to let you do in Spanish class exactly what you do in English class: close reading and critical analysis, both oral and written. We study the mysterious genre of magical realism that originated across Latin America during the last century. We read stories by García Márquez (Columbia); Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Cortázar (Argentina); Fuentes (Mexico); and Felisberto Hernandez (Uruguay). We also examine how the movement crossed the Atlantic and made its way into films such as Cria Cuervos (Carlos Saura) and El Espíritu de la Colmena(Victor Erice).

Students say..."After four years of working with words that once sounded clunky, when I read Spanish literature now, I think in the language. The same transformation can occur in every discipline. You can learn to think in the language of science or the language of history. When this happens, you see things fit together in a beautiful harmony, and the field belongs to you.”

Spanish 4 or 5 Language

We continue to read, write, discuss, and watch, and you have a say in what we study and how we run the class. We study various Spanish and Latin American movies and literary texts, but the focus of the curriculum changes yearly according to your interests. Individually or in pairs, you will organize a unit, create assignments, and run discussions.

Note: At level 5, this course can be taken with Spanish 5 Literature.

Students say..."Our discussion topics have included immigration, the Cuban revolution, dictatorships (Dominican Republic, Chile Argentina, Cuba), sexuality and society, music—to sum it up, just about anything you can fruitfully talk and argue about.”


French 1 and 2

Vocabulary, verbs, grammar; vocabulary, verbs, grammar. Within weeks you’ll be holding short conversations and reading short texts. Using a college-level textbook, Deux Mondes, we cover French grammar in two years. Nightly oral and written homework, exercises and self-evaluations on the web, and (because classes are so small) lots of discussion and debate yield satisfying results: you’ll rapidly begin to feel at home in French. Soon we delve into stories, poems, films, newspapers, and magazines. In addition, we investigate aspects of French life—from the arts to politics. Sometimes we make crêpes or mousse au chocolat. After two years, you’ll speak, write, and understand French: you’re ready for an AP-level course. Bonne continuation!

Students say..."My class at the Alliance Française in Paris the summer I was fifteen included students from a diversity of backgrounds. One day I went to the botanic gardens with a young Spanish classmate. During that walk I learned more about a country I had never visited and a language I had never learned than I would have thought possible. That the French we each had studied could serve as the crucial link in a friendship between me and Maria struck me as amazing and wonderful.”

French 3

AP We begin an exploration of classic French literature and plunge into the technically revolutionary French cinema movement known as la Nouvelle Vague with films that include Godard, A Bout de Souffle. We read novellas and stories—Camus, L’Etranger; Perrault, Contes (frequently grim seventeenth-century versions of fairy tales you may know from childhood); Baudelaire’s poetry—and we parse songs by Edith Piaf. In other words, you’ll be doing the same sort of close reading and oral and written analysis you’re already used to in your English and history classes. At the same time, we do an in-depth review of grammar using La Grammaire à l’oeuvre in class, at home, and on the web, into which we fold work on idiomatic everyday speech.

Students say..."We read a lot; we analyze a lot; we talk a lot; we write a lot. One day in the middle of the year, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that I was doing all this in French.”


French 4 or 5 Conversation

AP You often work in pairs or small groups to do research, create assignments, present topics, and run discussions related to current events and French culture. Since the curriculum caters to your interests, it changes constantly (i.e., you can take this class in consecutive years). We may compare auteurs (film directors) and their styles. Or look at la bouffe (food): organic and local vs. genetically modified and industrial; cooking styles: family style vs. gastronomy (with tastings!). Taking off from Sartre’s play Huis Clos and the idea that “Hell is other people,” we might discuss family relationships and the idea of “the Other.” From there we might transition to “Black, Blanc, Beur” and the legacies of immigration from the classic film The Battle of Algiers (1966), to La Haine, made thirty years later. How were social inequalities addressed—or not—in French politics? What about today? Each unit is articulated around readings, films, music, videos, and whatever else we encounter on our path.

Students say..."I remember kicking back and relaxing while watching my very first black and white film, Jules et Jim, only to find out that I had to do a twenty-minute presentation of a two-minute clip the next week. (In the same way I had previously read books just for the story, I’d watched movies for plot.) So I set out to examine how the filmmaker told the story and what sorts of emotions he conveyed to the viewer through camera angles, lighting, and perspective. Essentially it was close reading with a DVD player. Now I think about all I missed in the movies I saw before!”

French 4 or 5 Literature

AP We jump into major literary works from the medieval Tristan et Iseut to Proust’s Combray or Colette’s La Chatte. You can take this course twice because each year the readings change. For example, we might read seventeenth-century plays by Molière or Racine; Voltaire’s just pre-revolutionary Candide or Laclos’ thoroughly subversive, darkly comic Liaisons Dangereuses; novels by Balzac or Flaubert (almost always Madame Bovary). Outside the “hexagone” we may read Le gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, or Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Often we’ll see films associated with the novels or plays. According to class interest, we read more or less poetry (often more). We read and write a great deal, and class discussions are frequently fervent and sometimes fiery. Having reached this level of language and literary sophistication, you all argue about texts with great enthusiasm!

Students say..."What people say in class sometimes makes me see something in a new light or refines one of the ideas I have. Often the most successful classes are fueled by people’s riffing off of each other’s comments and ideas.”


Mandarin 1 and 2

In all Mandarin classes, we work on the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading comprehension, and writing. If you have little or no experience with the language, Mandarin 1 is the course for you. We study Pinyin—the phonetic system of Mandarin Chinese. You will learn to read and write some 120 Chinese characters that form about 150 words. By the end of the first year, you’ll find yourself using greetings properly and talking to classmates about yourselves and your families. You’ll be able to understand and discuss (simply) topics centered around daily life: school life, weather, and shopping.

In Mandarin 2 we further emphasize aural comprehension and oral expression. With support from our textbooks (we start with Ni Hao, Vol. 3, and soon move on to the college- level Integrated Chinese), you broaden your knowledge of simplified Chinese characters (the system used in mainland China), practicing strokes, stroke order, and radicals. In addition, we read simple poetry and folktales, listen to music, and learn about festivals and holidays. And throughout your Mandarin studies, you get to make and sample extraordinary food.

Students say..."The non-alphabetical system is so different. It’s the most difficult part, but it’s the most interesting. The characters can be like a beautiful block.”

Mandarin 3

We take the plunge and conduct the class entirely in Mandarin, continuing to work hard at the requisite four skills. We also incorporate authentic material into the curriculum—short videos (for example, a Chinese sitcom about an American girl in China), Mandarin songs, poems. With classmates, you get to make up and present original skits that deal with everyday problems, from arguments with your parents to explaining your food allergy in a restaurant.

Students say..."Our xiăo kăo shì (‘little tests’) comprise everything we have learned over the whole year. ‘But that makes it easy,’ Teacher Tan says. ‘No surprises!’”


Mandarin 4

You’ve become fearless enough to try to use the language creatively. Sometimes it doesn’t come out exactly right, but even so, you can be easily understood. We still do intense oral/ aural and written drills, but you also hold conversations, present material to others, and talk interpretively about a text, film, or video. And you’ll see results: by the end of the year, when you watch The Blue Gate, a film made in Taiwan, you no longer need subtitles. Class discussions often turn to social issues, comparisons of culture, or politics.

Students say..."Our teacher told us once, ‘If I could airdrop my students into China, I would want them to be able to survive.’ I think if she did that now, we could!”

Mandarin 5

AP Offered in years when a sufficient number of advanced students request it. The curriculum is based largely on student interests.


Latin 1 and 2

In two years, Commonwealth’s Latin program completes all the grammar you will need to read the classics of Roman poetry and prose, not to mention medieval and Renaissance literature.

Refusing to be outdone by schoolmates who study “living languages,” students from Latin 1 and 2 have been known to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in Latin at our Winter Assembly. From the very start, you will be reading simplified snippets of real Roman literature, and later longer authentic stories, often by authors or about figures you encounter in our Ancient History course. Famous stories include the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus and the assassination of Julius Caesar. (But do you know who Cincinnatus or the Gracchi were?) We read classic passages by Cicero and Ovid, and snarky poems by Catullus addressed to his lover’s husband as well as his literary critics.

Along the way you will also pick up other bits of knowledge—about the history of the Latin language, about the English language, and, just for fun in Latin 2, about how Western languages work in comparison with Eastern ones.

Students say..."When I was applying, I was interviewed by a Latin teacher. He talked about Saturnalia, the famous role-reversal holiday of the Romans, and its relevance to modern religious traditions. I walked away completely convinced that this was the school for me. In fact, I decided on the spot to take Latin the following year.”

Latin 3: Caesar’s Gallic War and Vergil’s Aeneid

AP Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”: “Gaul is wholly divided into sections—three, in fact.” Caesar’s oracular opening to his Gallic War might be the most famous Latin sentence ever written, but it’s curious how Caesar places each word in precisely the least natural position (did you notice the oxymoron that results: “wholly divided”?) and that the record of his military campaigns should begin with some rather deceptive historical geography. He implies that Gaul is not a nation, but merely a word that arbitrarily bundles a few unrelated “sections,” each more barbarous than the next. Is he subtly justifying Roman imperialism—not to mention his own boundless ambition?

Fast-forward one generation to Vergil’s Aeneid, part paean to Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, part lamentation on the human cost of empire. Shall we, like Saint Augustine before us, grieve the death of Queen Dido for love of pitiless Aeneas? Or pity Aeneas, the man of grief destined to found the race that will vanquish all nations? Whether the tragedy of star-crossed lovers, or Rome’s grim history, the same war in heaven is the cause. This is what we’ll discover as we relish the heartbreaking beauty of Rome’s national epic.

Students say..."Though I was not having a good day, I realized that doing Latin with my class would cheer me up far more than most anything else I could do with those forty minutes. Sure enough, by the end of the period my dark mood was crowded out by lively discussions of folk motifs in Vergil. I left Latin feeling buoyed up and refreshed.”


Latin 4: Roman Lyric Poetry

By now you’ve heard of Catullus, the racy Roman poet who inscribed so colorfully on his poems his own riotous life of drinking parties and prostitutes, chronicling his loves and hates in shockingly sordid (and often untranslatable) terms. We’ll revel in all his hilariously puerile antics, but always with an eye toward the profound artistic vision underlying this trifling “play.” For, as one of the “New Poets,” Catullus strove to craft poems of unprecedented perfection and beauty—works that could not be appreciated without scrupulous attention to every word. With the help of the close-reading skills you’ve developed in your Latin and English classes, you’ll detect beneath Catullus’ nonchalance about being “dumped” a heart broken by its own vulnerability, and a man in revolt against Roman “manliness,” craving in vain to love and be loved—tenderly, devotedly—a self-described “fallen flower, grazed at the meadow’s edge by a passing plow.” We’ll linger for a whole semester on this seminal poet before tracing his enormous influence through the first century B.C.E. in Horace’s exquisitely allusive lyrics, Propertius’ modernistic elegies, and the sardonic transmutation of Greek mythology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Students say..."To understand a text critically, to formulate my own thoughts, and to express them clearly through writing or speaking up in the classroom, that was my goal. Taking risks with my own opinion about a passage in Latin became an exciting daily challenge."

Latin 5

For those of you who have advanced beyond Latin 4, we’ll put our heads together to design a curriculum that responds to your interests. The possibilities are endless. Has your appetite for poetry been whetted? We could explore a poet of the imperial era, such as Lucan, or one of the Silver Age, such as Statius, or Seneca’s plays. Or is prose more your speed? We could delve into Seneca’s stoicism, or Pliny’s letters to the emperor Trajan. In any case, we’ll continue to study the ways classical texts have survived to the present day, honing the skills of the professional philologist, including textual criticism, editing, and manuscript studies.

Languages Faculty

César Perèz

Titles: Spanish and Medieval World History Teacher, Debate Team Advisor
Degrees: M.A.
Departments: Spanish

Mónica Schilder

Titles: Spanish Teacher, Diversity Director, Spanish Exchange and Peru Trip Coordinator
Degrees: B.A.
Departments: Administration, Spanish

Rui Shu

Titles: Mandarin Teacher, Jobs Assistant, Community Service Assistant, China Trip
Degrees: B.A.
Departments: Mandarin

Bob Vollrath

Titles: French Teacher, Foreign Languages Convenor, Projects Assistant - Exchanges/Trips
Degrees: B.A.
Departments: French