Category: Lesson Plans

Narrative, Cause/Effect, or Question of the Day: A tension in lesson planning

In a recent post, I shared some of the lessons that I learned while teaching world history this semester. I also gained insight into another tension that I’ve always confronted while teaching a history lesson: do I tell a story or do I answer a research question? Strayer’s Ways of the World was enlightening because he often focuses less on an event, say World War 2, than on its connections to other events, cultural phenomena, and social movements. I really liked this method and used it as a model for several of my lectures, but it does seem like it’s often in tension with other ways of organizing a lecture. Here are what I see as some of the pros and cons of each way of organizing the lessons:

Narrative / The Story of History

  • PRO: It can be very entertaining for students, especially if it’s told in an engaging, soap opera-like way.
  • PRO: It provides the basic historical facts that students need to make sense of the past.
  • CON: It uses up class time–can this passive reception of historical facts be done at home through flipping the classroom?
  • CON: It presents your interpretation as if it is the only possible interpretation–as if it is historical fact. It doesn’t necessarily allow students to formulate their own opinions on the past.
  • CON: History is not always neat and tidy, and there is not always a good standard to help determine why you’re including one piece of information and why you’re omitting another.

Cause and Effect of Events

  • PRO: It encourages a higher level of thinking: making connections between events. Even if you’re the one doing all of this higher level of work, it models for students how this might work.
  • PRO: It allows you to highlight certain themes throughout the semester, such as the importance of nationalism or the limitations of ancient communication technology.
  • CON: Students may not have the basic skeleton of knowledge, which you’re attempting to flesh out with this method.

Question of the Day

  • PRO: By providing a clear direction for the lesson, the question focuses the lesson in a very targeted way. If the information does not relate to the question, it is omitted.
  • PRO: It models research.
  • PRO: You allow students to engage in the major interpretive debates about a particular field of study–for example, why did Rome gain its empire?
  • CON: Depending on how the lesson is taught, students will need certain background information that they may not have or that is not easily delivered by one reading. You may be exposing them to it for the first time in class, and so they may feel overwhelmed.

Ancient Slavery, a lesson plan

In a recent post, I commented on a difference between ancient slavery and the modern, American antebellum slavery: racism. Race was not a major factor in ancient slavery. But, how do we convince students of that?

This semester, in Roman history, I spent an entire day on Roman slavery and the growth of slavery during the Late Republic, so that they could understand the (perceived) economic problems confronted by the Gracchi. Since I wanted students to learn about many aspects of ancient slavery, and since the best way to understanding another culture’s ideology and thoughts is their writings, I developed several stations with various primary sources (Slavery Primary Sources): Cato’s De Agricultura on how to run a farm, Varro on which slaves to buy to be herdsmen, Livy and Strabo on how Romans obtained slaves from war and pirates, Horace about a slave auction, legal sources about fugitive slaves, and the plan of a first century BCE slave villa. The students spent about 5 minutes looking at each document and attempting to complete the Slavery Stations Worksheet before they looked at the next document. For each document, in addition to document-specific questions, students needed to make two decisions: (1) if the author’s thoughts about slavery were motivated by economic profit, and (2) if the author’s thoughts were motivated by racism or ideas about ethnicity.

In a very brief, rushed moment at the end of the class, to bring everything together and drive home points about slavery, economic profit, and racism, I asked if Roman slavery was motivated by racism to which my entire class provided a resounding “No!” When asked if it was motivated by economic profit, they shouted a resounding “Yes!” (Cf. The Half has Never Been Told on American slavery and capitalism). The following class, we went into a little more depth, reviewing the documents to discuss the conditions of ancient slaves (Had the class period been longer, this would have followed the two debriefing questions). Overall, this was a very good, thorough introduction to Roman slavery and practice of historical methods–and much better than if we had discussed an article or I lectured to them about it.

  • Side Note: As noted above, this lesson plan was motivated by a desire to show the historical reality: that Roman slavery did not involve racial thinking. In addition to the academic responsibility of making this point, I was also motivated by a concern for modern social justice (and thoughts on sensitive topics): to show that racism is man-made, it is not natural, and it is not inherently connected to slavery. In this regard, I think this lesson was successful. I do not think it was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students identify or eliminate any racial thinking they might have, nor do I think this lesson was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students understand the social and economic status of black people in the United States today. To get close to accomplishing that goal, I still think that something about Roman freedmen would need to be included, but that is a problem I am still contemplating (See an earlier attempt and a reflection on its inability to fully help students understand instances of police violence against black people).

Geopedia, Pompeii, and Spatial Analysis

There is an excellent German website that combines Bing’s maps with wikipedia’s articles:  Like videos, this is a great tool to take students on a virtual field trip.  For example, in my Roman Archaeology class, I asked students to visit this site at home, explore the excavated area of Pompeii, and answer a few questions on an assignment sheet (pompeiispatialanalysisassignment).  After a brief explanation of spatial analysis (so, more or less, looking at the distance between sites and the ease of movement from one place to another), this assignment sheet asked some factual questions, and other questions that encouraged students to think about spatial analysis.  After answering these questions, students took an online quiz based on the first set of factual questions–the second set of spatial analysis questions was not graded or assessed with the online quiz.  This second set of questions tried to get students thinking about how to analyze maps of archaeological sites and it primed them for a class discussion about spatial analysis in Pompeii–where this type of analysis has been particularly fruitful.

geopedia Pompeii.png

In class, we discussed how spatial analysis has helped us understand the lived experience of Pompeii.  This discussion also allowed me to introduce various types of buildings: bakeries, fulleries, and fountains. Since the spatial analysis seemed to overwhelm some students, because of the level of the course, and because of what I wanted students to get out of the lesson, I told them that they only needed to know the conclusions from this analysis, not be able to reproduce it.

Things to Consider

  • Spatial analysis will confuse some students and is still not necessarily obvious from geopedia, but this is one of the best ways to let students play around and actively engage with maps of ancient sites.  So also remember to be clear about what you will assess students on: factual information, preliminary spatial analysis, and/or conclusions.
  • The assignments involving geopedia should be fairly structured so that students are guided through a difficult new skill or topic.
  • Geopedia is not GoogleEarth. Geopedia helps students identify sites from aerial images and provides information about sites in the same screen as the map. Google Earth does not necessarily provide these same clues and combination of information, but it does seem a bit easier to move around the map than geopedia.
  • Geopedia will not work well with every archaeological site or city.  Pompeii works well because it does not feature as many buildings from wikipedia as the Forum Romanum does.  It also features only buildings from AD 79 instead of from the 10th Cent. BC to the present day, like the Campus Martius in Rome. It allows you to focus in on what may be relevant and important for your course, instead of being distracted by a medieval church that (even though it’s very nice and interesting) is not necessarily relevant to your course.
  • The lesson plan here is still a work in progress.

Teaching the Homeric Question(s)

Homer is a foundational text for our discipline, and there has been a massive amount of scholarship about him and his poems.  Much of this work is detailed and complicated, and it draws on data points in many fields: Greek philology, archaeology, and Hittite studies. Many undergraduates do not possess the skills to grapple with this data–the ability to read Greek, for instance–especially at the beginning of a semester when Homer is usually taught.  So, how do we teach Homer in a way that students will understand the relevant problems?

First, we need to ask ourselves: how much do students need to appreciate the orality of Homer’s epics and the complexity of its time frame?  For example, in my mythology class, I do not teach mythology as a single unified body of stories.  I teach it more as “mythologies”–stories that are told often, develop over time, and change to fit their circumstances–much like Albert Lord and Milman Parry’s ideas regarding bards. In that class, students need to understand the Homeric Question. In others, such as a course that briefly mentions the archaeology of Troy, they will not need to.

To explain the Homeric question, after students have been introduced to the problems by the introduction to their/an edition of the Iliad, I would divide the class or unit into three sections:

First, “why could an inhabitant of fifth century Athens not have read an account of the Trojan War written during the Trojan War or soon thereafter?”  I get my students engaged with the issue and, as a class, we analyze the assumptions in this question:

It assumes that there was an account of the Trojan War written during or soon after the war. You can discuss how Linear B was primarily used for accounting purposes, so it likely did not record an account of the war.  Even if it did, the people of Greece forgot how to read Linear B during the Dark Ages.  After the Dark Ages, when Greeks began to write again, they adapted the Phoenician alphabet and some of the early writing (like Nestor’s cup from Pithekoussai or the pots from Methone) was poetic and contained potential references to the Trojan War (i.e. Nestor). So there existed no account that they could read.

It also assumes that there was a Trojan War. Archaeologically, this has been hard to confirm.  Depending on the course, it may be a distraction to discuss all the issues with Heinrich Schliemann and his excavation of Troy, but it may be helpful to point out that he dug straight down through many layers of Troy and called things by deceptive names (e.g. the “Jewels of Helen” from Troy II).  It is probably most helpful to discuss two finds from the recent University of Cincinnati and University of Tübingen excavations: (1) the Luwian seal and (2) the fortifications of Troy VI’s lower city (below).troy-vi-gate Homer provides a nice description of a gate like this:

“And they built within these walls gates strongly fitted that there might be a way through them for the driving of horses; and on the outer side and against it they dug a deep ditch, making it great and wide, and fixed the sharp stakes inside it.” (Iliad 7.438-441)

There’s only one problem.  In the Iliad, the Achaeans build this gate. At Troy, it is the Trojans’ gate.  This serves as a clear example of how literature and the archaeology of Troy/the Aegean Bronze Age do not quite line up with the idea of Homer as a reliable account of the war.  From here, you can mention the Luwian seal as a rhetorical device to lead the discussion towards the Hittite Empire and its documents, such as the “Treaty of Wilusa,” that have many close parallels between names of people and places: Wilusa/Ilion, Aleksandru/Alexandros, and Ahhiyawa/Achaeans.  Then, you might rattle off the various parallels or near parallels in archaeological discoveries and Hittite documents to objects and events in the Iliad.  The goal is not for students to remember all these details, but so that they get a sense that it is likely that Homer is representative of a memory that the Mycenaeans attacked the Hittites, possibly at Troy, and that Troy was destroyed.  This memory/memories had to be passed down orally, the story was embellished over time (including with the participation of gods), and that it seems to have some basis in (an) historical event(s).

Second, “If it makes logical sense to say that the Iliad and Odyssey were orally transmitted, what evidence in the texts is there for this?”  I would describe different features of oral poems, such as the epithet system and type scenes that lead to Lord and Parry’s important contributions.  After they have heard about these epithets and such, this is a great opportunity have students hunt through the text for epithets and stock phrases that would help an oral poet compose the poem on the spot and/or memorize it.  Similarly, I show the poem’s orality by reading a small portion of the Iliad aloud and ask students if it is more entertaining to have heard the poem than when they read it silently at home.  I would also inform students about rhapsodes, the Peisistratean recension, and how cities had different texts of Homer–and even how Plato’s text of Homer does not always match our standard editions.  It may also be helpful to discuss Homer’s two different versions of why Hephaistos was thrown from Olympus and who cared for him when he landed on earth.

Third, depending on your comfort level, timing, and the course, you could also discuss how the visual versions of the Trojan War myths on pottery also suggest that the Homeric poems were transmitted orally and not entrenched in Greek culture until the 5th Century BC. To show this, I select examples from my students’ reading and Steven Lowenstam’s As Witnessed by Images–the Ransom of Hector works very well because Achilles is portrayed very differently on the pots and in the Iliad.


Things to Consider

  • This is a very detailed way to introduce the Homeric Question, and this level of detail may be overwhelming, inappropriate, or unnecessary for some classes.  So, what do they need to know? In your particular class, can you just leave it at “Homer was an oral poet.” and these are a few of the implications of that?
  • This is still a very complicated way to introduce the Homeric Question, but it is an improved version of the seemingly successful lessons that I used in my mythology class this semester.
  • Similarly, this lesson plan can still be improved and I welcome your input on how to improve it.
  • Since high school and undergraduate students tend not to appreciate the value of literature reviews (and can be easily confused by them), I would avoid reviewing the scholarship on the Homeric question. Just report the finds and conclusions of the scholarship.
  • My lesson plan here follows Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Homer.  You or the person who translated your edition of the Iliad may disagree with Nagy.  For example, I like Barry Powell’s translation because it is often easier for students to read, but he does not agree with Nagy.  Therefore, students may have a harder time finding epithets or type scenes that fit with Parry and Lord’s thesis–and so accepting that Homer is an oral poet.

Romans and the Other

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sheStatue of Liberty.jpg
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

Ancient Rome can be a powerful lens through which to examine modern political issues.  How we treat foreigners is an enduring moral and ethical issue that has been thrust into the spotlight lately by the Syrian refugee crisis, the need for immigration reform in the United States, and the way that Islam has been perceived and manipulated within geopolitics. To help teach students about the treatment of foreigners (and what might be good or bad ways to treat them), I present this lesson plan.  It is not perfect, and it may be difficult to fit into some courses because it was designed to address an ethical issue rather than a text; but it is worth considering and perhaps it could inspire a discussion or class of your own within your actual curriculum or course.

First, either at home or in class, students read a packet that includes seven passages about how Romans treated people from other cities:

  • An annalistic account of a war with and victory over Pometia (Livy 2.17)
  • The end of the siege of Veii (Livy 5.21-22)
  • Caesar’s ethnographic account of the Gauls (BC 6.11-16)
  • Caesar admitting Gauls into the Senate (Suetonius, Julius, 76.3 and 80.1)
  • The Senate’s debate about enrolling Gauls in the Senate during Claudius’s reign (Tacitus, Ann., 11.23-25 — chosen instead of the inscription from Lugdunum because it presented the issue about the treatment of non-Romans in clearer ethical terms and in the format of a debate)
  • Tacitus’s account of Agricola “civilizing” some Britons (Agr. 20-21)
  • Part of Tacitus’s ethnographic account of the Germans (Ger. 3, 5, and 9)

N.B. The Claudian senatorial debate is a key passage because it is a very good illustration of this entire issue, so you could simplify this lesson plan to discuss only that passage or use this lesson plan to discuss that text.


After each passage, there are several questions.  Ideally, students would answer these questions as they read.  You could have them answer them in groups or as part of their homework.  You could even assign seven groups one passage each.  The questions focused on these ideas:

  • Are the Romans at war with this Other?
  • How is the Other described?
  • How do the Romans treat the Other?
  • How is this treatment described (i.e. positively, negatively, objectively)?
  • How does the description of the Other relate to the treatment of the Other?

After students read the packet and answer the questions (at home), I would typically have students discuss their answers to questions in small groups.  This lets students remember what the passages are about and it allows peer-to-peer teaching to clear up some of the confusion.  While these discussions are happening, I would circulate around the room so I can get a sense of how well students understood each passage.

If you assigned one passage to each group, I would have the seven groups summarize the passages and take away points for the rest of the class.

Once students have a better understanding of all the individual passages, students would start comparing and contrasting how the Romans perceive and treat the Other in the passages–first briefly in small groups, and then more extensively as the whole class.  I would encourage students (explicitly or through guided questions) to consider the following themes:

  • Historical habits of treating the Other (especially as discussed in Tacitus, Ann. 11.23-25, but also with Rome’s liberal granting of citizenship [to manumitted slaves] compared to ancient Greek cities)
  • Treatment of enemies at war vs. treatment of people at peace
  • Civilized vs. uncivilized — similar to Rome vs. different from Rome
  • Connection between a Roman positive/negative perception of Other and positive/negative treatment of Other
  • How well informed are the Roman perceptions of the Other?

Some patterns will emerge from this discussion, some will not.  I would not force trends to emerge in the discussion, but I think the passages can all be related back to these themes somehow.  Once these themes have emerged and students are satisfied that the passages do indeed relate to these themes, I would ask students to begin relating them to their own world:

  • How did you react to some of these passages? (The first two examples about sacking cities and killing or enslaving survivors are good places to start for this question.)
  • How would the Other have reacted to some of these passages? (The Suetonius passage about Gallic Senators may be very helpful here)
  • Do we act similarly to the Romans?
  • Do we need to think of enemies in a negative light or as uncivilized?
  • How do our perceptions about the Other affect people’s views on refugees, immigrants, and Muslims? Can we improve our perceptions and knowledge about these groups?
  • How should we treat the Other if we are at war with them? if we are not at war with them? How do we distinguish between war and peace today?


Some things to consider and keep in mind about this lesson plan

  • Two examples (Caesar on the Gauls and Tacitus on the Germans) are ethnographic, and the conventions of the genre dictate that the authors remain somewhat objective.  The fact that these conventions exist suggest that there were some norms about how to think about the Other, so the lesson plan is talking about these norms (instead of perhaps the individual authors’ perspectives).  The analysis of norms is, in some ways, a more powerful analysis of the society.
  • The students may mistake their own reactions to, say, the Gauls’ use of human sacrifice for Caesar’s reactions to this practice.  So, depending on your interpretation of this passage, you can ask if the practices are described negatively or if the practice itself is mentioned to reflect negatively on the Gauls, or if Caesar doesn’t care.
  • The discussion is very open-ended and could open things up for some nasty comments, so be ready.
  • The passages are, in some ways, limited.  For example, they don’t mention anything about treatment of the Other with whom there are economic ties. Personally, I am not too worried about this because of how I interpret these texts and understand the Roman economy, but you could mention it in the discussion comparing the passages and ancient behaviors with the modern world and talking about ethics.
  • The lesson plan asks students to do things that are high up on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning, but I did arrange questions and activities in a way that would climb up the taxonomy as you progress through the worksheet and exercise. So be judicious of when you use this lesson plan with your students.
  • Similarly, drawing on the Taxonomy of Affective Learning, students may develop ideas about how one should act in relation to the Other, but there is no guarantee that they will put these ideals into practice.  This exercise is structured in a very intellectual way.  So you could encourage students to have empathy by asking students how the Auruncans or Veians or Gauls would have felt in these situations.  This empathetic response could then help guide the development of an ethical guideline, and move students higher up the affective taxonomy.  Additionally, you can return to these ideas in other class sessions–after all, the Romans frequently interacted with other cultures–in order to reinforce the students’ memory of the analysis and their likelihood of following the new ethical standards you develop as a class.

Despite these caveats, this is an important to consider and Rome offers one way to consider it.  Admittedly, this lesson plan was developed in order to address an ethical issue, not in order to discuss these texts, or even a specific issue about the ancient world–you could easily adapt it to discuss a specific text with your students.  Nevertheless, there are important lessons or ideas about Roman culture that students can take away from these texts:

  • After winning a battle, Romans often burned enemy cities and enslaved survivors.
  • The Roman elite was comprised of people from many cities, not just Rome.
  • Romans too had disagreements about how to treat the Other.
  • There were generic conventions about how to discuss the Other in ethnography.
  • The Roman people could voice their opinions through graffiti.

Talking about suicide: The Roman Civil Wars

Recently, I quickly taught about the Roman civil wars.  I mentioned Cato the Younger killing himself at Utica, Brutus and Cassius’s suicides at Philippi, and Antony and Cleopatra’s suicides after the Battle of Actium.  During my first class about the civil wars, I started to feel awkward talking about all these suicides, and I wondered how the students were reacting.  During the second class, I omitted the word “suicide” and just called it a death.  Yet this also felt disingenuous and it reminds me of the modern social stigma against talking about suicide and against people who have committed suicide.  So how do we talk about this difficult topic in a better way?  Or, first, why should we even talk about it?

Why suicide matters

  • According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “In 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for AmericansIn that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes.”
  • According to the same group, “In 2013, adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 10.9.”  So 10.9 out of 10,000 people aged 15-24 committed suicide.
  • Our students are going through stressful major life changes, no matter what age they are in: whether it is middle school, high school, or college.  Stress and hopelessness can trigger suicidal thoughts.
  • Personally, I have seen the confusion and the anguish undergone by the people who love other people who killed themselves.

Discussing Suicide in the Ancient WorldAjax suicide vase

Like sexual violence, suicide is often mentioned in our sources, including as historical events.  During the Trojan War, Ajax kills himself because he lost the competition for Achilles’ armor to Odysseus.  In the Aeneid, Dido kills herself after Aeneas leaves Carthage at the order of Jupiter.  During the Roman civil wars, many people kill themselves, as mentioned above.  So how do we talk about this topic in a sensitive way?

There is a tension here that seems specific to historians and students of literature.  In its recommendations for educational videos about suicide, the American Association of Suicidology recommends that you do not fixate on people who committed suicide and why they did so.  But, it may feel disingenuous to say and is impossible to deny that Ajax, Dido, Brutus, and Cassius killed themselves.  We almost have to talk about these suicides.

There are two strategies that I have thought about while looking at materials about suicide prevention:

  1. Talk about the differences between our culture and Roman culture.
  2. Slip some of the suicide prevention ideas into the lecture or discussion.  Many of my ideas are derived from this lesson plan developed to go along with a PBS “In the Mix” video. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention says that the goal of talking about suicide should be to “promote hope, connectedness, social support, resilience, treatment, and recovery.”

Here’s how that might look with a quick discussion of the Roman civil wars:

  • Discuss how Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Pompey fled and was defeated at Pharsalus. Pompey fled towards Egypt and was assassinated.
  • Caesar pursued the remaining supporters of Pompey, including Metellus Scipio and Cato the Younger in Africa.  After Caesar won the Battle of Thapsus, Cato killed himself.  Ask “Why did Cato kill himself but Pompey?” This subtlely calls attention to the fact that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary solution and is not the only option.
  • After Caesar was assassinated, various political events resulted in Brutus and Cassius fleeing Rome to seek support in the East and Antony besieging the assassin Decimus Brutus in Mutina, then being besieged by Octavian and the consuls.  After the siege of Mutina, Antony allied himself with Lepidus and then with Octavian.  Mention how these episodes show people making connections and alliances where possible in order to stay alive and preserve their position — a comment on interconnectedness, resilience, and seeking help.
  • Octavian and Antony then pursue Brutus and Cassius to Philippi where the Liberators are defeated and commit suicide.  Here you can ask “Rather than giving up hope and killing themselves, whom could Brutus and Cassius have asked for help?”  This question risks either encouraging giving up hope or preserving it–and hopelessness did have something to do with the suicides of Brutus and Cassius–but it does emphasize the importance of asking for and seeking help.
  • From a planning perspective, it allows you to pivot towards Sextus Pompeius, whose importance during the civil wars has received more recent scholarly attention (here and here).  You can talk about how Sextus tried to be a hero of the Republic and greatly influenced events in Rome, even receiving temporary recognition/legitimation from the Triumvirs and Senate.  For suicide prevention purposes, it is also nice that he was executed by Antony rather than killing himself.  This emphasis on Sextus hints that Brutus and Cassius’s suicides are preventable, gives more historical credit to an important historical figure, and potentially heroizes someone who could have helped Brutus and Cassius.
  • After Sextus’s defeat, it became a standoff between Antony and Octavian.  After the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves.  Here is a good place to distinguish between modern and ancient cultures.  Cleopatra certainly–and possibly Antony–committed suicide to avoid being led through the streets of Rome in Octavian’s triumph at the end of which she would have been ritually killed.  This would have been very humiliating for a resilient monarch in a culture that placed a great emphasis on shame and honor.  We can mention, or ask our students questions to show, how this shame/honor-based culture is not as prominent now (at a time when we encourage people to be themselves).

Some of the suggestions in the above paragraph are, perhaps, too subtle or greater fixations on suicide prevention than we might want to do in a class about the Roman civil wars.  It is afterall a very important this period for Roman history and there may be other themes you want to stress.  And stressing too many themes while telling a complex story may not work out well.  However, this plan does offer several ways to connect suicide prevention with important historical questioning: why did X event happen? who else could have helped Brutus and Cassius?  did Brutus and Cassius know this? why did they not know this?  how do cultural differences influence historical actions in ways we cannot account for with our own culture?

Other general suggestions:

  • Talk with the school’s guidance counselor or counseling center to see if they have advice on how to teach it.
  • Do not treat it flippantly.  The suicide of Ajax is not the most important episode from the Trojan War so it is easy to gloss over, but if a student asks why or how he died, do not just say “Oh, he killed himself.”  You can talk about how just before his death he suffered from a delusion in which he killed many sheep and he killed himself because he felt that killing the sheep had diminished his honor, in a very honor/kleos based society.  You could  also mention that there were not mental health experts to help Ajax like there are today.
  • Have resources about stress and depression management available.  There are some good online resources, many of which are listed below, but you should also guide students to trained mental health professionals.
  • During our discussions (and class, in general), we should also be conscious of various warning signs of suicidal people (from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Tool Kit): “feeling like a burden to others, sleeping too little or too much, acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs, talking about feelings of hopelessness, searching for methods online, talking about wanting to die, withdrawing or feeling isolated, talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.”

And what if we notice one of our students shows these warning signs or one of our students talks about suicide or approaches us after class and mentions suicidal thoughts?

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Tool Kit, which talks about if a friend shows suicidal thoughts:

  • “Ask directly if your friend is thinking about suicide.
  • “Be willing to listen. Allow their expressions of feelings, and accept those feelings.
  • “Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life. Focus on being present with their feelings.
  • “Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • “Check in with your friend regularly. Schedule times to talk for the next week when you will both be available, to see how they are doing.
  • “Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you. Be patient with yourself and the situation.
  • “Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • “Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • “Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills
  • “Get help from agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
  • “Encourage (and offer to accompany) your friend to seek help and support from a crisis specialist, therapist, doctor and/or clergy member.
  • “Show them the safety or “crisis coping plan” on the Lifeline web site, and talk together about [how] your friend can use this to help him/her to cope in these difficult moments.”

Other Resources for Teachers and Students

Should we teach sensitive topics?

Last week, one of my friends used a Latin reading with the story of Nisus and Euryalus so that he could talk about the quotation of a Vergil line on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and about quotation and intertextuality.  Since the class was on September 11, 2015, it was perfect timing; but he was also aware he could be opening up several cans of worms: politics about 9/11 and its repercussions, Islamophobia, sexuality, etc.  He was fine with talking about these sensitive subjects in order to achieve his larger goal; but not every teacher is willing to engage in these topics.

While I discussed this lesson plan with him and afterwards, it is clear that there were several factors to consider for talking about sensitive subjects in a classroom:

  • Are you comfortable with it?  Students will not respond well if you are clearly uncomfortable talking about the topic.
  • What is the age group of your class? Is this topic something they should be thinking about at their age?
  • How much are you going out of the way to talk about this? Some topics, like sexuality and sexual violence (Earlier blog posts Part 1 and Part 2), are almost unavoidable in Latin and Classics courses; but others, like racism (Earlier bog posts Part 1 and Part 2) require a bit more effort to address in a Latin or Classics classroom.  Do you have the time to do justice to these issues if you are going out of your way? I don’t think my experimental class on racism was as successful as it could have been because I didn’t put in enough extra work.
  • Is a trigger warning appropriate?
  • Is it best to confront it head on or to wait for students to raise the issue?  In my opening example, my friend wanted to focus on the 9/11 memorial because of the significance of the day, but what about sexuality? It isn’t what he wanted to focus on but it is a large part of the Nisus and Euryalus story, so he chose to deal with the sexuality aspect quickly if students mentioned it.  Does this work in every case?  Can we quickly discuss the topic and move on or does it require a class of its own so that you can address it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and considerately?
  • Are you prepared for students’ potentially emotional reactions to a sensitive topic? or their indifference?
  • Is it something students will even find to be a sensitive issue? Again, with my opening example, many current college students would have been very young on September 11, 2001 and probably don’t remember watching the terrorist attacks on the news or the 24-hour news coverage for the next few days.  They are only aware of the aftermath and the narrative of the day.  Will a class about the 9/11 memorial quotation resonate with them? How can you make it resonate more?
  • Do you have a personal story related to this topic? and are you willing to share it?
  • Will students pay attention more because it is a sensitive topic?
  • Is this a black-and-white issue or is it an area with grey areas?  For us, rape is always bad; for ancient Greeks and Romans, rape was not necessarily bad.  We need to be able to carefully communicate the idea of cultural relativity, but at the same time acknowledge our modern [students’] perspectives.
  • How much discussion and how much lecture is appropriate?  This will depend on the age level of your students, but it is often good to get students talking about the issues.
  • What do you believe is the goal of education? Some people view education as a place for students to learn skills; others view it as a place for students to develop ideas and a personal philosophy.  These different outlooks on education affect how you and how your students will approach the subject and accompanying discussion.  If you think education is about skills, what skills will a class on a sensitive topic address?  If you believe education is about developing one’s ideas and thought processes, then more discussion among students would be a good idea.

Like I said, some topics–like sexuality and rape–are unavoidable and you will have to address them.  Other topics may be optional, and you may not even realize how sensitive some topics could be until a student responds to them.  So you should at least be aware that you may need to discuss things quickly, calmly, and off the cuff.

In that spirit, I hope to suggest ways to address more sensitive topics in the future.  Please let me know if you have suggestions for topics to discuss, or if you have had particular success teaching a specific topic and would like to share your insights.

Lesson Planning

The summer is coming to an end and it’s the perfect time to start thinking about this year’s classes and planning them. So, what are some things we need to consider when planning?

  • Student learning objectives for the course. What do we want students to get out of the class? What knowledge should they have? What skills should they have? If you focus more on “skills” than “knowledge,” the class can go at whatever pace it needs to go and you won’t race to make sure your history class covers everything from the foundation of Rome to the fall of Rome in 476–over one thousand years of history. Instead, you can focus more on what students need to know to be a good historian. Will it matter if they covered the subject matter until Hadrian or Constantine rather than to Romulus Augustulus, if they have been trained as a historian and can do it themselves?
  • Determine how to measure the learning objectives. Each objective should be measurable and testable. So determine how you will measure students’ understanding of the concept, idea, or skill: is a multiple choice test the best way? An essay test? A final paper? An oral presentation? An oral interview with you? A group project? An “epic finale“?  Use your answers to these questions as the major grades for the class.
  • Determine daily/weekly/monthly learning objectives. Once you know how you will test the students for the course, you can determine how to walk your students through the new skills and ideas they need to learn. Each of these steps can be a learning objectives for a day, week, or month depending on how carefully you want to or need to plan. Remember to allow for flexibility if you need to adjust these plans later in the semester.
  • Plan each day with this pattern in mind:
    Warm-up/bell activity: assess and review prior knowledge. In a Latin class, you can go over homework, review morphology relevant to today’s class, etc. In a history or cultural class, you can have your students say what you talked about in the previous class, or you can review a recent skill by reading and quickly discussing an inscription, an object, or a paragraph of text. I would suggest making sure this warm-up is both a good review and a good, logical lead-in to the lesson. This will help students reacquaint themselves with your class and what they need to know.
    Introduction: introduce today’s topic and clearly communicate the learning objectives for the lesson. Find a way to make it interesting for the students by relating the topic to their own lives, and/or saying why today’s lesson will help them.  Depending on the topic, asking questions to gauge their prior knowledge may be beneficial here (obviously better in a cultural class than in an intro language class where you have taught them everything they know).
    Presentation: present the lesson’s material as clearly as possible. You may consider using various visual, oral, aural, etc. means to present the topic and skill.  Gauge students’ understanding as you go by reading their facial expression and asking questions.
    Practice: model the skills and guide the students through practice using them. In a Latin class, translate a sentence with indirect statement yourself and then work through another sentence with indirect statement. In a history class, explain what kinds of things are recorded in inscriptions, interpret one and then ask your students to explain another. This may be a good time to have students work in groups while you circulate and help them translate and/or interpret the text in front of them.
    Evaluation: make sure the students are understanding the material. As you circulate around the groups, are students understanding the material? In a class discussion, are students answering questions “correctly” and coherently?  The way you evaluate students–and ideally all students, not the most talkative ones–here should be based on how you can actually measure the lesson’s learning objective.
    Application/homework: students apply the skills they learned in the lesson. They read sentences with indirect statement, they answer questions about several inscriptions. They show they know this skill and reinforce their knowledge of the skill brought practice.

These steps and ideas are a little fluid. Presentation, practice, and evaluation may all blend together. The important thing is that you are aware if your students are learning the new lesson and meeting the lesson’s and course’s learning objectives. Test grades should not be a surprise.  Depending on how students are learning, speed up or slow down.

Of course, these ideas may be harder to apply to some classes than others. Latin classes are often conceived of as a skill class, but history classes are often about learning “the material.”  Should we be reinvisioning how we teach our students? Is all education really about teaching skills within the backdrop of teaching “hard facts”?


***This blog post based on experience and which contains references to scholarship on this too.***

Discussing Sexuality and Sexual Violence, A Follow Up

A recent Jezebel article has encouraged me to write a follow up post to my earlier post, Discussing Sexuality and Sexual Violence.  Rather than sharing my own opinions, some of which which are still developing and will be discussed in future blog posts, I want to share two ideas on the topic that I have appreciated hearing.

(1) Dr. Donna Zuckerberg’s Jezebel article–“How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke“–discusses the difficulty of talking about rape in college campuses and advocates for confronting the issue, and other difficult issues, and acknowledging that they make us uncomfortable.  The article’s main idea is best summarized by the last two paragraphs:

In other words, Euripides’ rape joke works for me. Comedy reveals a society’s concerns. I almost wish we were at a place where our comedians could make complicated, intelligent, funny jokes about college boys raping drunk girls—but that would require a much fuller, clearer acceptance of the dimensions of the problem. Whether rape is a real problem on college campuses is, to many, a question that still hangs in doubt.

But it’s not to me, and it’s not to many of my students. And so I decided to teach the rape joke exactly as I’d encountered it: something that I knew was potentially difficult and painful, but was more important because of it—more likely to give us insight into the ancient world, and into ourselves.

Dr. Zuckerberg, as I read the article, encourages professors to provide historical and cultural context for such jokes rather than brush them aside as “that’s just the Greeks” or the like.  She also seems to want educators to confront the question “What is the rape doing for this text? for this historical narrative? for this event? for this culture?”  In her example–a rape in Euripides’ satyr-play the Cyclops–she views it as a critique of, and possible attack on, Athenian pederasty and its connections with the symposium.  In the example from my earlier post–the rape of Lucretia–we could see the rape of Lucretia as an attack on L. Tarquinius Collatinus’s rights and family, we could see it as an excuse for revolution; we could see her suicide as victim-blaming, guilt of the victim, and/or a convenient plot device to remove a woman from any historical prominence in the fall of the Roman Monarchy.  Once we, as teachers, have determined how best to interpret the text (or the various possible “best” interpretations), we go armed with these interpretations (and sensitivity and awareness about modern social issues) to class and share the ideas to confront the topic.

(2) A discussion on facebook about this topic contained this valuable suggestion: remind or tell students about resources that they might have as victims of sexual assault, rape, and/or domestic violence.  What legal or counseling is available for the victims?  These will differ based on your school. county, and state.

Transitioning from Textbook Latin to Ancient Latin: Cicero, In Catilinam 1

This semester, I had the pleasure of reading excerpts from Cicero’s First Catilinarian Oration with my Intensive Latin class after we had finished going through the grammar in the textbook.  It was a great text to read because there are lots of materials available for it and because it is a great text to review Latin grammar.  The speech reviews lots of different uses of the subjunctive mood and it uses the same type of construction repeatedly within a paragraph, so one day reviewed indirect questions and another reviewed hortatory subjunctives.  It also helps students adjust to longer sentences more characteristic of Latin than many of the sentences in our textbook.  When we were coming to the end of our textbook, I realized that the students would have to adjust to a different type of material and a different class structure for the speech (and for future classes in a Latin sequence) and I wanted them to get as much out of this Cicero unit as possible.  Therefore, I took the following steps to ease the transition for my students and to help them appreciate it as much as possible:

Provide continuity in instruction methods.  Before the Cicero unit, I used a lot of group work in class but we reviewed homework as a class, usually going over certain sentences on the chalkboard.  During the Cicero unit, I had students go over difficult sentences in groups a few days and then we went over the entire reading as a class.  We eventually cut out this group work element since later classes in the Latin sequence will not have it as frequently.  When we went over the sentences, I used an overhead projector to display a copy of Cicero’s text at the front of the room so that I could mark it up while we went over it in much detail.  I chose to go over the text in great detail because they were introductory students.

Provide continuity in material.  During the Cicero unit, students will, of course, still be reading Latin.  But I knew that I would be reading Cicero with them so I assigned more textbook sentences based on Cicero’s thoughts or style so that they could have an easier transition to “ancient Latin.”  Additionally, I did not shy away from assigning slightly altered passages of Latin well before the Cicero unit.  If the goal is to get students to read ancient Latin, why not expose students to it early?

Provide continuity in evaluation.  I knew that I would be testing the Cicero unit by having them translate passages that they had already seen in class.  Therefore, I made sure to include passages that they had already seen on earlier tests.  The test for the Cicero unit just had more passages that they had seen rather than a single passage on a test with other sections, but the students were familiar with this method of testing their knowledge.  I also made sure to give them a weekly quiz to test how well they were understanding Cicero’s Latin and to prepare them for a test with no vocabulary help.

Introduce new resources.  At the beginning of the unit, I made sure to give students a list of dictionaries–both ones for quick reference and more scholarly ones so they would know about them for future classes.  I also made sure to provide a very good commentary–Susan Shapiro’s O Tempora! O Mores!–for the students and to explain how commentaries (and the numbering of paragraphs) work.  I also told them about a few Latin grammar books in addition to their textbook where they could go to understand confusing passages.  During class, I made sure to provide a photocopy of an explanation of a use of the genitive from one of these grammar books so that they had exposure to these book’s format.  Finally, I mentioned a few series of books–Penguin Books, the Loeb Classical Library–that provide translations of the text, but I did not emphasize these much so that students did not rely on someone else’s translation to read Cicero.  I figured it was better to guide them towards better translations than to hope they never realized translations of Cicero’s speech had been published before.

Formally introduce/review reading strategies.  When we had gone over textbook sentences on the board, I had chunked word groups (noun-adjective pairs, prepositional phrases, etc.) and drew arrows to show modifiers and the dependent clauses or words.  So, when we started the Cicero unit, I formally told them to do this same chunking activity.  Many students found this incredibly useful and did it even when I did not require it, even though one student found the word “chunking” distasteful.

More importantly for future good habits, I required my students to record the vocabulary and grammar that they did not know so that they could use it when they reread the speech–essentially to make themselves a personalized commentary.  I stressed the importance of this by telling them that they should be rereading what we went over in class each day.  I encouraged them to stop writing out translations of their homework and I checked that they had taken these notes.  In retrospect, I should have been asking them to take these notes much earlier than the Cicero unit.

Assign reasonably long assignments. When we started reading Cicero, I did not know how much Latin to assign each night but I knew I did not want to overwhelm the students.  Therefore, for the first Cicero assignment, I asked them to read Latin for an hour.  On the following class, I asked how far they had gotten.  Based on an approximate average of these answers and on the divisions within the text itself, I think I kept the assignments to a reasonable length for most students.

Help the students understand the historical context of the text.  Cicero gave his First Oration Against Catiline in response to certain historical and social actions.  I tried to help students understand these factors through a YouTube video about Catiline’s conspiracy (for how I made the video, see this post) and then we discussed this information in class before we began reading the speech.  I also helped clarify things whenever any specific reference to the historical situation occurred.  For example, in the first paragraph, Cicero refers to nocturnum praesidium Palati, “night-time guards on the Palatine Hill,” and the power of this statement is much clearer when students learn that many senators live on that hill and are in the audience.  If students understand the historical context of the speech, they can understand why the speech mattered historically.

Help the students understand the text as a speech.  Not only did I want students to know the speech’s historical context, but I wanted students to consider its genre.  It was a speech to the Senate whose opinions Cicero could sense as he read the speech and who he was attempting to persuade to do certain things.  Therefore, I briefly told them about procedures in the Senate.  Based on the advice of Christopher P. Craig’s 1993 Classical Journal article, “Three Simple Questions for Teaching Cicero’s ‘First Catilinarian’“, I frequently asked my students to consider three questions: (1) Why does Cicero deliver this speech? (2) What is Cicero trying to persuade his hearers to feel or to do? and (3) What problems stand in the way of achieving Cicero’s persuasive goals?  Since the answers to these questions change throughout the speech, I asked my students to answer this for each excerpt we read.

Secondly, it was a speech that was delivered in real life, not written and distributed to be read.  A more experienced Latin reader can sense that Cicero was speaking incredibly emotionally, but my students probably could not tease that out as some of them were struggling to understand the meaning of each sentence.  Fortunately, there are several dramatic recordings of people reading Cicero’s speech.  I provided links to two of the best ones (best and second best) and asked students to write about how the emotion of the delivery helped them better understand the speech, how the emotion of the delivery could have helped Cicero persuade his audience.

While I did not try this specific strategy, I considered having my students do a Reacting to the Past game that is under production by Bret Mulligan.  The game would have asked students to deliver speeches as if they were in the Roman Senate and then vote on what to do about Catiline and his conspiracy.

Help the students understand the text as a continuous piece of prose.  Even though we read excerpts, we still read long bits of continuous prose from this speech and the speech was meant to be a continuous piece of prose.  Therefore, I began each class by asking what Cicero said in the previous reading(s).  Not only did this encourage students to be continually reviewing the text at home, but it reacquainted them with the text so that they had a better understanding of the text as we reviewed it in class.

Help students see how this text is relevant today. Again, my choice of Cicero’s First Catilinarian was fortuitous because it has been a frequently quoted and invoked text.  Recently, Senator Ted Cruz had parodied this speech, so I asked students to write a response to this parody: compare and contrast the original to Sen. Cruz’s speech, does it matter how faithful Sen. Cruz’s speech was to Cicero’s original? What does our understanding of Cicero’s speech help add to our understanding of Sen. Cruz’s speech?  Students had great responses to this prompt that showed not only a memory of the text of Cicero’s speech but also a great understanding and ability to offer interpretations of the ideas behind that text and Sen. Cruz’s speech.

The goal behind all these activities was not only to help the students translate and understand the Latin but also to understand why this Latin has value and why they should study it.  I wanted to help prepare them to move onto the next level of Latin instruction and to help them make important connections.