Ancient Greece and Rome offer a valuable perspective on ourselves: as if we are looking in the mirror, but the image is distorted in some way. The dissonance provokes thought: how do we reconcile the similarities with the differences? How do we construct our own identities: who we are, what is our intellectual and cultural heritage, and where and how do we want our future to transpire. These are partly historic and cultural problems, partly ethical. In order to answer these questions, we must have a firm understanding of ancient languages, history, and cultures, as well as the skills necessary to study them.
To help students answer these important questions for themselves, I employ a variety of techniques. One of my most important tools is peer-to-peer teaching. This group work allows me to differentiate instruction and encourages students to actively engage with primary sources and ancient languages. For example, when I teach about Greek coins’ uses and chronology, I create five stations, where examples of coins from different time periods are located. Groups of students circulate among the stations to complete a worksheet about the coins. I encourage one group making a connection with their memory of Hellenistic history. Another group gets a hint about how to detect a forgery among the coins. Some students ask for clarification, and others cheerfully use their prior knowledge to identify the civic mints which produced the coins. At the end of class, I lead a class discussion to synthesize our ideas about coins and numismatic techniques.
In order to allow for extensive use of group work in class, and in order to encourage the pursuit of learning outside of the classroom, I often flip the classroom, so that students receive information passively at home, test their comprehension with online quizzes, and can actively engage with new material under my guidance at school. For example, before class, students watch my YouTube video about Horace’s life as well as the themes and literary precedents of his Odes. The video warns students that they will read condensed, erudite poetry and it primes the students to notice the moral lessons presented in Horace’s “Roman Odes,” which are assigned for homework. In class, we discuss the morals promoted by the odes, how these morals compare to those promoted by other Roman authors, and how they relate to the priorities of the Augustan regime and Roman identity.
In order to encourage students to move beyond simply translating or reading the words on the page, class discussions help students apply their growing knowledge to the modern world. As we translate and read Cicero’s speech against Catiline, students analyze Cicero’s arguments and the limited evidence he has to support his claims (with reference to my video on the conspiracy). They discuss Cicero’s justifications for his plan to execute Catiline’s co-conspirators without a trial. Once they understand Cicero’s perspective and have supported it with the evidence in the text, I ask them to relate it to the modern world or give their own opinions. Should you denounce someone as a credible threat to the State without hard evidence? Is it right to execute someone without a trial? Or with one?
In addition to training students to talk about their ideas in class and learn outside of the classroom, I require my students to develop their skills and ideas in writing assignments (and provide helpful feedback on their ideas). Early in my Roman archaeology class, students briefly describe the temples in the Area Sacra di Sant’Omobono and offer preliminary interpretations of the buildings and their role in the lived environment of Rome. Later in the term, as students’ visual literacy develops and after we have compared monuments from different cultures in class, students write a brief paper explaining how an Augustan relief featuring Apollo, Diana, Latona, and Victory fit within the larger Augustan sculptural and building program. At the end of the term, they write another brief paper finding a modern building modeled on an ancient monument, comparing the buildings, and sharing what the comparison tells us about the modern building as well as its ancient model.
I assess my students’ progress not only through papers but also through a variety of other methods. In smaller classes, the relaxed environment makes students comfortable to ask questions, and I can sense when students are confused and overwhelmed by a concept or when they are comfortable with it. Often, in my Latin class, students’ hesitation and discouraged looks make me translate more sample sentences with them in order to further clarify the new concept. In larger classes, I adapt the personal response systems used in science classrooms: throughout each class students quickly answer several multiple choice questions or they put several events in chronological order. In classrooms of any size, short in-class writing assignments help students develop their analytical skills, synthesize new information with old information, and let me measure their progress in preparation for exams.
Just as I expect students’ skills to improve throughout my courses, I continuously reflect upon and improve my teaching skills. I contribute ideas and share my experience with my teaching assistants at weekly meetings and with my colleagues at regular meetings of Classics and Latin teachers that focus on important pedagogical topics, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, in-class writing, and strategies for teaching Latin (e.g. Spoken Latin). My inspiration comes not only from my own classroom and department, but I also read pedagogical articles, consider their insights, and apply them in my own teaching. Finally, I write this blog about teaching Latin and Classics. Some posts—such as the ones on stations or on allowing students to earn points by correcting errors on tests—are based on my own positive experiences and students’ subsequent improved learning. Other posts—such as the ones about how to teach students with disabilities or students with dyslexia—are based on scholarship. This blog and other teachers’ responses to it refine my own teaching practices that give students the analytical and communication skills necessary to apply their knowledge of the ancient world to understanding and living in the modern world.