Ancient coins enthrall, educate pupils

Program teaches Latin, history, science

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The classroom at St. Louise de Marillac School in Upper St. Clair was quiet except for the sound of "ah."

Each third-grader was holding an authentic, small bronze Roman coin from the fourth century.

And it was theirs to keep.

"It's so cool to be holding a piece of the past and to know what they had for money back then," said 9-year-old Jake Cortes.

Teacher Zee Ann Poerio said her students usually have a sense of reverence when they open the small manila envelopes and see their own coin.

Coins are big in Mrs. Poerio's classroom.

She uses coins to spark interest in everything from Latin (many of the coins are Roman) to science (bronze includes the elements copper and tin).

While she had never taken Latin, Mrs. Poerio became interested because of her Italian heritage. After reading that Latin helps SAT scores, she began using Latin as a way to teach root words, culture, art, mythology, creative writing and problem solving.

She uses the book "Minimus: Starting out in Latin," and has children sing "Happy Birthday" and read "The Cat in the Hat" in Latin.

Students in fourth through eighth grades can participate in an after-school Latin Club.

Given that ancient coins have Latin inscriptions or Roman numerals, Mrs. Poerio decided to use coins as a way to help students make connections.

On the Internet, she found Ancient Coins for Education, which was started in 2001 by a small group of classical numismatists looking for a way to bring ancient history to life in the classroom. The organization provided the first group of coins for her students to try to identify.

She placed the coins on her desk, with magnifiers and microscopes, and the children loved the activity so much they told their siblings, who came over because they wanted a look, too.

That led to her starting an Ancient Coin Museum, which has grown to more than 300 identified coins and other small artifacts, most donated by numismatists and coin enthusiasts across the country.

Mrs. Poerio, certified in both art and elementary education, has made many of the displays, which include explanations and enlarged pictures of coin detail. All of the coins have identifiable images and are in good condition.

She periodically displays the museum in her classroom and uses coins from it for instruction.

This week -- National Coin Week -- she had two long tables in her classroom, draped with black and white cloths, and holding much of the collection.

During Open House and other public events, Latin Club members dress in traditional ancient clothing and mythological costumes and act as docents for the museum.

Students from classes throughout the school who visited the museum this week have found the coin display fascinating.

One Greek coin from 359 to 336 B.C. was issued in the reign of Philip II of Macedonia and displays the head of the god Apollo facing right on the front, known as the obverse, and a youth on a prancing horse on the reverse.

Philip is perhaps best remembered as the father of Alexander III, known as Alexander the Great, and there is a coin from his period, too. That one had the Greek mythological hero Heracles on the obverse and a bow and quiver on the reverse. A map depicts the legacy of Alexander the Great.

There's a "coin zoo," too, from 400 B.C., with coins depicting animals such as a lion, snake, dove, bull, goat, camel, owl, octopus, snake, elephant, hippo, eagle and the latest addition, a crocodile donated through Ancient Coins for Education in the form of an award.

The Ancient Coin Museum will be on display May 23 at the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists annual coin show at Robert Morris University.

Mrs. Poerio also is coordinating several classics events for the summer for the American Classical League.

The small coins the third-graders received this week were well worn, making it difficult to decipher the markings on them. Children who join the Latin Club get a higher quality coin.

The period in which the coins were minted was one of great inflation, so they have been found buried in large quantities.

The students can take the clues they see on the coins and try to identify them through the Ancient Coins for Education Web site.

Student Stephen Hudock, 9, at first thought his coin depicted an alligator, but he decided it was more likely a person. The braid-like feature near the face at first looked scaly.

"I really never thought I would have something like this," he said. "I hope I don't lose it."

Classmate Alyssa Eicker thought she could make out a nose and chin on the front. "I think it's amazing," the 9-year-old said.

Rianna Piacquadio, 9, couldn't make out any markings but still said, "I think it's very special, and I'm lucky to have it."

Michael Gleason, 9, had been looking forward to his turn to get an ancient coin. His older sister, Marielle, now in fifth grade, had gotten one when she was in third grade.

"She said, 'You're going to like it a lot.' I was just waiting."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 29, 2009) An ancient coin in a photo that accompanied this story as originally published Apr. 25, 2009 about students at St. Louise de Marillac School was a Roman bronze coin minted in the 4th century AD. The coin was misidentified in the photo caption.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.


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