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Washington Observer, April 2004 Print E-mail

Friday, April 23, 2004

Teacher sharing wealth of ancient coin exhibit

BY BARBARA S. MILLER, Staff writer

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UPPER ST. CLAIR - A traveling exhibit of the Ancient Coin Museum will be making its first stop ever at an elementary school this week, thanks to the efforts of a teacher who has been recognized for her efforts in introducing Latin to her young students.

Zee Ann Valenti Poerio, who teaches third grade at St. Louise de Marillac School in Upper St. Clair, found the group, "Ancient Coins for Education," through the Internet as she searched for ways to make Latin relevant to the pupils.

"Up pops 'Ancient Coins for Education,' " said Poerio, a native of the Washington County community of Atlasburg. "I contacted them a year-and-a-half ago. Most of their focus is on middle school and high school."

The Ancient Coin organization donates a freshly unearthed coin for each student to do some detective work. It's up to the students to soak the coins in distilled water, gently scrub them with a toothbrush to remove dirt on the surface so they can read the Latin inscriptions on the coins and identify the emperor depicted and the era of his rule.

The coins, though old, are not rare.

"They're third-century Roman coins," Poerio explained. "It was a period of inflation, so there were tons of coins. There were no banks; people buried money for safekeeping and never retrieved it until someone today digs it up."

The project was such a hit with the students that Poerio decided she should share her information and enthusiasm about her program with others.

She joined the Classical Association of Pittsburgh and Vicinity and the Pennsylvania Classical Association, winning a scholarship to the American Classical League's conference at the University of Buffalo, N.Y.

"While I was there, the Excellence Through Classics board asked me if I would serve on this national board, so this year I'll be inducted into the ETC. This is me, little Zee Ann from Pittsburgh, vice chair of this national board."

Meanwhile, Poerio also received a grant last year to conduct a workshop for teachers in the Pittsburgh area on how to incorporate Latin and Greek into a curriculum, and she expects to make a trip to London next year to discuss her primary Latin project.

Sponsored by the Dickinson College Department of Classics and the National Committee for Latin and Greek, the workshop drew 40 teachers from as far away as Erie and New York.

She included information about the Ancient Coins for Education organization. "I'm like their pioneer at the elementary level," Poerio said.

The organization donated six coins for her to display at the St. Louise de Marillac school open house, and the idea grew into a larger, visiting exhibit that will be open Friday and Saturday to the general public.

About 70 coins will be on display. The coins are both Latin and Greek. Although the United States, compared with the Roman Empire, doesn't qualify as ancient, there will also be American coins on display.

Between 1 and 3 p.m. today, Matt Lavigna, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service in Pittsburgh, has arranged for a talk about counterfeiting, and Dick Gaetano will discuss Buffalo nickels at 6 p.m. today.

There also will be a few artifacts on display, including oil lamps from the first century; a fibula, a toga pin, from the first to third century, and a fish hook. A member of the Ancient Coin organization from Philadelphia is scheduled to visit the exhibit with a reproduction Roman helmet.

On Saturday, there will be an art contest for children with ancient coins as prizes.

Fourth-graders will act as docents at the exhibit, explaining the significance of a particular coin to visitors.

"It's exciting for them to know about another culture, another time, another place in art and history and everything," Poerio said of her students' Latin studies, which she integrates into various parts of the curriculum. "It's almost like they have a secret language."