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15 Questions with Lee Dixon

Juliana Martin, 21 Cent Journalism

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Lee Dixon teaches Latin 1 through Latin 4. He has several hobbies and is very involved in the Latin community. His classroom is different than any other. There is stuffed animals, no desks, a big caribou head, and at least for Latin 1, no textbooks.

You were in metalworking for several years before teaching, what interested you in that?

I like working with my hands, I am very good at building stuff, I’m very good at reading blueprints and being able to think spatially. I’m actually probably better, without a doubt, better than that, than I am at Latin. Latin is actually very difficult for me. I was a very mediocre Latin student in high school, and my wife can attest because we were in Latin classes together in college. I was a pretty mediocre Latin student in college also. Certainly my first year teaching, I was better at working with metal than I was at Latin or teaching. Metalworking is kinda what comes naturally to me.

How long have you been teaching Latin?

This is my sixth year.

What inclined you to teach Latin?

It was really the only thing in high school I liked. I always looked forward to going to Latin class, even though it wasn’t easy for me, I really liked it. I like that it’s weird and its different. Although its really not, its a language. It’s no different than Spanish or French or Arabic or whatever. But I like that it is kind of a weird and different thing that attracts weird and different people. And I like people that are weird and different. And I like all the culture, I did a lot of sword fighting, and reenactment for probably like 12 to 15 years, so that’s kinda where my metalworking / building and my Latin parts kind of came together. I like feeling a connection to ancient people. And I like handling ancient objects, recreating ancient objects, like the Romans would have, and I like speaking Latin because it makes me feel like I’m there. All of those things attract me to Latin.

Do most kids stay in Latin all the way through high school?

Certainly not. I think that’s the way it goes with any language. A lot of people stay for two years because that looks good on a college transcript, so really after Latin 2 you lose a lot of people. It is challenging to stay in a language for four years, because if you haven’t been a good student and you’re in Latin 1 or Latin 2, problems start to pile up on themselves. And so when you’re making that choice, ‘do I want to move on to level three,’ a lot of people are like ‘Oh no, I can’t do this.’ So I’m hoping that changing the way I teach Latin and making it a lot more interactive is gonna make it so it’s a lot easier for people to go from two to three to four and I’m hoping that in a couple years I’ll have a lot more kids staying for all four years.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I don’t know if I really thought about it all that much. I had thought about being a teacher, because I would often sit in class and think, ‘I could do this a lot better than that guy,’ and now that I am a teacher, I think that was a silly thought to have because teaching is really really hard. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t taught how hard it is. But I had thought about being a teacher, I didn’t really have strong thoughts outside of that. When I was a real little kid I wanted to be a scientist or an inventor which is again like working with my hands. So I really didn’t give it much thought, my parents never talked to me about it, so I just kinda stumbled into welding and I worked as a welder and I was like “this is horrible,” and then I went back to school. I was thinking math or Latin, and then I took calculus and it was the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in a college class.

You live in Lawrence, why are you working all the way in Overland Park?  

I grew up in this area. I went to Blue Valley North, and I used to live over here even after I graduated from college. And then I got married. And my wife worked at Blue Valley High and so we stayed in the area, but then my wife quit her job and got a job at KU and my wife has a lot of medical problems so she can’t really drive. So it was logical to move up there. So now my wife works from home or bikes to her job and I get the very long drive. But I really like Lawrence.

Tell me about your style of teaching and how its different from other teachers.

Well I certainly think that my style of teaching is a lot like any other language classroom. I strive to use Latin actively. I don’t know if I would call my class a spoken Latin class, but I speak a lot of Latin, students speak a little bit [of Latin], we do a lot of writing in Latin, and those are things that no other high school Latin teacher in Kansas is doing. And only a handful of people in the country do. I am trying to make my classroom look a lot more like a modern language classroom. And my hope is that every class is fun and engaging, but I’m still teaching a lot to my students and I’m still holding them accountable.

Why do you teach the way that you do?

I think it’s more fun. I think it’s more effective, and it follows the research on how people learn a language. Most of what I do in class is supported by academic research on how people learn languages. So I read a lot of research and read a lot about what we call ‘best practices’ which are you know, ‘how should you teach’ and I read a lot of the research that backs up the best practices and that’s what I try to make my classroom reflect. Because it should be the way that humans learn a language. Rather than trying to force language on people in a way that doesn’t work with their brains.

You have a big taxidermy animal head in the classroom, tell me about that.

Carl is my grandfather in law’s prized caribou. My wife was born in [Wasilla] Alaska, it is in the middle of nowhere Alaska, not near a big city. And their family would go hunt a caribou every year, and that caribou would provide most of the meat that they would eat throughout the rest of the year. So Carl was not a trophy kill, but he was a majestic caribou and so his head was taxidermied. And Carl was in my grandfather in law’s house for a very long time then my mother in law had it in her classroom for about ten years, and then she moved to South Carolina and Carl did not move with them. And Carl was sold to a curiosity shop in downtown Kansas City. And when my wife found out she was very angry and so my mother in law bought Carl again and then I went and got Carl but I live in a very small house and Carl does not fit in my house. So he is here. And I hope he will be something interesting and fun for students.

 You’re a part of the Kansas Junior Classical League, what exactly do they do?

Well the Kansas Junior Classical League is a state organization and I run it, and what it does is it kinda brings together all the area Latin Clubs so we can kinda work together, all the teachers work together to set up events. We’re doing four big events this year, ultimate discus, [real Roman] coin cleaning, we’re gonna do a Latin themed breakout room event, and then the state Latin convention. What we do is try to have fun events for kids to go to that make them use their Latin skills outside of school or interact with other Latin students and just have fun, enjoying Latin and Roman based things. It’s just a way where teachers can hang out and students can meet students from other schools and we’re just trying to support the study of classics in Kansas.

Besides the KJCL you’re a part of SALVI which promotes spoken Latin and you do a lot of Roman reenactments, what inspired you to be such a big part in the Latin Community?

I don’t know it just kinda happened, I didn’t really want to run the KJCL, my friend had ran it for several years and did a very good job of it, and nobody else wanted to do it. So I did it. I don’t really like doing it, but it’s an important thing and I think I’m good at it. I don’t like it but I’m good at it. And I like SALVI a lot, it’s a lot of fun. I’m not super involved with SALVI, because they’re kinda based on the east and west coasts, they don’t really have much in the Midwest. My wife, though, is a volunteer at SALVI and shes working on setting up a SALVI workshop in Oklahoma. I really like that organization, there’s lots of amazing people in it, and it’s probably been the biggest thing for my life as a teacher that’s changed the way I view my discipline and changed the way I teach. And I love doing reenactments for many many years. When I was in high school I started sword fighting and then really continued sword fighting and building armor and making replicas of ancient things, really until like two or three years ago. I don’t really have the time to do it anymore, and I’m also worried about my health, because the level of fighting is very aggressive and I was really worried about getting head trauma and not being able to really function in the classroom.

I know you like to hike, where’s the most interesting place you’ve ever gone?

The best hike I’ve ever been on is, my wife and I spent five weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a 2.5 thousand mile trail on the west coast and we hiked about 300 and something miles of it. And that was awesome because we were really in places where we would maybe see one or two people in a day. And we were sometimes four to five days away from any type of civilization so it was kinda cool to be in a place where you had to rely on yourself and if you got injured you had no option, other than getting yourself to safety, which was cool. We were in a couple of dangerous situations out there, somebody actually died on Mount Whitney while we were climbing Mount Whitney. I mean that’s not cool but it’s also like, part of the coolness of hiking is you’re completely responsible for yourself and there’s no one else out there to help you. My favorite place to hike though, is probably Big Bend National Park, which is in Southern Texas, on the Mexican border. The Chisos Mountains is the mountain range there and there’s the south rim which is about I think about 3.5 thousand feet up from the desert floor. And we go out there pretty much every winter for winter break. And we try to get on the south rim for at least a night. And so you can camp pretty close to the rim, and it’s basically like being at the grand canyon except no one else is there. It’s about a day and a half’s hike from the main camp ground so there’s not really a whole lot of non hikers who make it up that far. So it’s really just people who respect the wilderness and its really cool if you do see someone out there. It’s very isolated and you’re just 3000 feet up from the desert floor and you can see everything for miles and the first time we were up there we saw a mated pair of golden eagles fly for like two or three hours. And golden eagles are some of like the biggest birds in the world. It was cool.

I heard you bake bread in an unusual way, tell me about that.

I have a dirt oven. It’s basically a slightly updated version of what ancient Celtic people would have used, or Romans also use something similar. It is literally just dirt mixed with – er – you could almost say its clay, its dirt that has a lot of clay in it, that’s been mixed with sand and straw. It took me pretty much all of a summer to build, but I literally just dug a big hole in the ground piled up a bunch of clay dirt, built a base out of stones I got from a farm that I worked at over the summer. And then I built this clay dirt oven and it was a cool project to kind of learn how ancient people would’ve built this thing, but then also built it a little bit better with some modern things that I had at my disposal. But yeah I bake a lot of bread and I’m hoping in the future to start like a little summer bakery in my house and make a little bit of money.

Besides hiking and baking what other interesting hobbies do you have?

I started shooting archery again, my wife and I shoot occasionally, and we shoot like traditional recurve or long bows with wooden arrows and we make our arrows ourselves. We have a gigantic garden. We have 25 garden beds, 20 fruit trees, 10 blueberry bushes, and we have bees, and we also have chickens. So we kind of have like a little homestead but in the suburbs so our house is kinda weird looking. I guess that’s my hobby.

Do you teach your daughters Latin and/or do you incorporate Latin at home?

We used to have a dog and he doesn’t live with us anymore, he lives at a friends house now because he wasn’t doing well with our kids, and he knew Latin. So we only taught him Latin commands and he was pretty good at them. And you know my kids are foster kids and in the past two years we’ve had six different foster kids so we definitely don’t teach them Latin unless they are somewhat interested in it, and they are usually not. We do however though, if my wife and I need to talk and we need to talk privately we typically talk in Latin and the kids get very angry because they know we’re talking about them.

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