Classical Civilisation: the saviour of remote Classics?

There is no doubt that remote school brings with it many challenges.

Several of these are particularly acute in the context of a linear subject like Latin. At a distance, it is very difficult to vary explanations of new material in a way which can cater for different students’ needs. An extended period of remote schooling brings with it the further challenge that a student who has not grasped a new piece of grammar or vocabulary is then held back in subsequent work which assumes an understanding of previous lessons. Added to this is the difficulty of stimulating engagement: in live teaching, even a clinically dry lesson on grammar can bring with it the bounce of to and fro between students and teacher. For students working through the same material via an unresponsive worksheet, motivation can quickly start to wane. 

On the flip side, there can be substantial benefits for the students.

Remote schooling has some advantages too: it builds students’ ability to work independently, and it gives them the space to work through material at their own pace, unfettered by the need in a live classroom for teachers to keep students moving in line with the structure of the lesson. The sea-change in circumstances is also prompting significant reflection among teachers about the best way for students to learn, the best digital platforms to use and the best content to deliver. 

Motivation and interest is key for students to progress.

Student progress always depends on the extent to which they buy-in to the process. In the context of remote schooling the need for students to feel motivated to learn is particularly acute, since so much of the will to continue has to come from the students themselves. Two things fuel engagement more than anything else: a sense of progress and a direct interest in the content studied. The benefits of Latin as a school subject are many, but it is not always the case that students feel their progress is particularly fast-paced, nor are they always thrilled by the finer points of vocabulary or grammar. Without the natural variety of interaction in the classroom, there is a risk that students feel that they are just doing yet another piece of translation, or looking at yet another vocabulary list.

Classical Civilisation is a great way to engage students, even at a distance. 

Classics’ secret weapon is its tremendous ability to reinvent itself, according to the needs of the time. As teachers, we are fired by our own interest in the Classical world. The challenges of remote learning are perhaps best addressed by a readiness to bring this interest to the fore. de Romanis has been written as much as a text book for Classical Civilisation, as it is a textbook for Latin. The new theme for each chapter allows students the buzz of something different to think about. Students can read about the theme for each chapter in English; this means they are not held back by gaps in their knowledge of Latin. Each chapter has four sources for analysis, some of which are text-based, and some are visual; in addition there are wider questions for discussion and the teachers’ guide (available online) highlights ways to connect discussion with questions relating to the modern-day. The companion website offers resources which teachers can give straight to their students: printable worksheets, video links, powerpoint summaries and (self-marking) online multiple choice quizzes.

Free online de Romanis materials offer a great way to enrich teaching plans for the Summer Term.

Our hope has always been that de Romanis will offer a range of ways for students to be inspired by Classics; we hope too that teachers who are trying to find ways to keep the subject fresh, accessible and interesting next term will find much that can help them in the de Romanis resources. There are twelve different chapters, and twelve sets, therefore, of material which teachers can dip into at choice: the chapters build upon each other, but each introduction (and associated materials) would work well on its own as a free-standing unit. The explanations have been designed to be accessible for KS3 (or even - for Book 1 - the upper end of KS2), but the sources and questions for discussion have plenty in them which would be worthwhile and interesting at KS4 and KS5. Olympian gods, Roman heros, Roman gods, sacrifice, festivals and shows, prophecy, political history, oratory, the army, Egypt, Augustan propaganda, Roman Britain: there should be something to keep even the most recalcitrant students keen to keep reading!

Image and imagination

‘Make sure there are colour images and that they are big enough!’

In the early stages of planning for de Romanis, this was advice we heard again and again, and rightly so. All students - especially those in KS3 - need the vitality and immediacy of a well chosen picture. 

Selecting the digital images for the course has been a really interesting process. We wanted, of course, to have a large number of images which could provide the buzz of primary evidence for the Romans: the crocodile shown on the Aegypta capta coin, for example, is a brilliant way for students to see how exciting and remarkable a place Egypt must have seemed from afar. Similarly, pictures of phenomenal buildings such as the Pantheon inspire students with awe at the Romans’ technical skill, whereas images such as wall paintings from Pompeii help students imagine what everyday surroundings might have looked like. In addition, images often provide a hook for students to create something of their own, such as a model of a votive offering. 

All students can connect with visual material, regardless of how much or how little Latin they know. 

Digital images, however, gave us a further opportunity: we wanted de Romanis to be a story not just about the Romans, but about how the story of the Romans has inspired imaginative works throughout the ages. Included in the course are some hard-hitting paintings such as Royer’s tragic depiction of Vercingetorix’s surrender in the face of the merciless Roman army, Gérôme’s ghoulish rendering of the assassination of Julius Caesar, or the limpid and exposed beauty of Cleopatra’s corpse, as painted by Rixens. Imaginative works of art bring an important dimension: emotion, atmosphere, focus and interpretation are key to any painter’s skill; they help students to understand that the stories from history are stories to inhabit and that they need to think, feel and imagine themselves into these scenes if they are to experience their full power. This principle was acutely relevant to the Latin stories too.

Inevitably, stories written in fairly basic Latin can only achieve so much through words alone.

We wanted students to think about these stories, however, not just as collections of words, but as stories about people with ideas, feelings and thoughts which students could engage with and imagine for themselves. Beatriz Lostalé has illustrated each of the Latin stories in the course; we have been so lucky in finding an illustrator who has been able to bring these stories to life with a tremendous vitality and attention to detail. We hope that teachers will be able to use these drawings as a way for students to jump straight into the human interest before they start to battle with the details of Latin grammar.

Just before we submitted the final manuscript, we asked each other and some of the people who had helped us along the way which of these illustrations were our favourites. Interestingly, we all had a different answer: one loved the feisty fight-back shown by the Sabine women; another liked the iconic moment when Mount Vesuvius erupted but the Younger Pliny did not quite have the same get-up and go displayed by his uncle; someone else preferred Calgacus’ stirring call to freedom in the face of the uniformly regimented Roman army, or the tranquil beauty of Horace sitting in the shade of a tree on his farm, or Cicero’s harrowing grief at the death of his daughter.

We hope that the students who use de Romanis will look at the images and use their imaginations to feed and thrive on the interest that lies within.

The story of Rome has captured human imagination for centuries, and here perhaps lies the reason why: we engage when our imaginations are fired, but as individuals we are drawn to different stories. Within the tapestry of the history of Rome are so many moments of such different colour and emotion that each student is bound to find something somewhere which pulls them in.

Which is your favorite? Take a sneak peek at some of the illustrations in de Romanis

Katharine Radice

Making the most of de Romanis

When developing de Romanis, it became clear that, while we all covered the same material each year, we did so in different ways. The flexibility within de Romanis reflects how much we value this ability to vary the pace and type of learning activities for our own classrooms. Moreover, de Romanis includes ample opportunities for extending the content of the textbook into more creative activities.

Getting creative in the classroom need not be expensive or time consuming. 

Consider the least respected creative endeavour: watching a film. Long held to be a lazy option for the last day of term or a cover lesson, films are often considered to be frivolous. However, even the most historically inaccurate films have value. Select scenes can round out a lesson; the chariot race scene from Ben Hur is an excellent complement to Chapter 5, while the graffiti scene from The Life of Brian is a hilarious reinforcement of the imperative in Chapter 6. Students can also be challenged to find aspects from films which offer a different interpretation of history; for instance, I ask my students to find 5 points in Disney’s Hercules which are inconsistent with what we have learned. They then write a 5 paragraph critique based on those points. This activity not only promotes literacy, it encourages students to critically focus on the film.

Perhaps the most effective activities give students the opportunity to get up and do something. 

When discussing sacrifices in Chapter 6, I have removed the stuffing
from some stuffed toy pigs and added organs made of felt. It only takes about
10 minutes to use these pigs to re-create a sacrifice, creating greater
understanding than simply reading about it. Even spending 5 minutes gazing out
the classroom window looking for birds to perform an augury brings the Roman world to life in a way that will truly make an impression.
Students can also get creative with little onus on the teacher. For instance, in Chapter 4, students can compose curse tablets on aluminium foil, giving them the opportunity to write Latin prose and reinforcing the dative case while promoting their understanding of a popular Roman rite. A few sheets of paper, some coloured pencils and an instruction to make a poster explaining how to discriminate between the subject and object in Chapter 1 reinforces the main concepts of an important aspect of grammar. Displayed on the wall, these posters are a constant reminder of important information. There are also many opportunities for creative work with the introductory content; for instance, my students were delighted to create a comic strip illustrating the story of Hercules and Cacus from Chapter 2. When covering Chapter 3, I task students with creating personified deities for the modern world, yielding such wonderful ideas as Aequalis, the LGBTQ deity of equality.

Some creative work requires no special materials at all.

For instance, when some Year 7 students were struggling to remember their noun endings, I set them the task of turning those endings into songs. Those who were already confident with their endings didn’t feel they were re-treading familiar ground as this was a new challenge; less confident students needed to carefully consider the endings to set them to a tune, and benefitted from hearing the contributions of their classmates.

It is worth remembering that we are ultimately educating young people who will not, alas, all become classicists - and just because something is fun doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Activities that both you and your students enjoy will leave positive impressions of ancient Rome and its language that will remain in their memories long after they have forgotten their perfect tense endings.

Sonya Kirk

Starting points: why begin with stories of the gods?

Students often come to KS3 already familiar with and enthusiastic about Classical mythology. We all agreed it made sense, therefore, to tap into this enthusiasm from the get-go. Students typically love the stories about the different powers of the gods, their extraordinary weapons, and the drama and intrigue within their family dynamics. What’s more, not only are there plenty of female characters available on Mount Olympus, but stories like the birth of Minerva provide the chance to highlight that in the Classical world, intelligence and belligerence are characteristics which are not boundaried by gender. 

Stories about the gods also offered a good starting point when it came to writing the Latin reading material.

Inevitably, the Latin stories in the early chapters were bound to be a bit bare in the telling. I was keen to avoid too much glossing because it is a much more meaningful and productive experience for students if the process of translation is largely one of vocabulary recall and application in a new context. Playing join-the-dots with a long word list at the bottom isn’t really a very valuable or enjoyable exercise. This meant, however, that I had to operate as far as I could within the 30 words included in the Vocabulary List for Chapter 1. The mega-narrative of the stories about the Olympian gods proved a good fit for this challenge. The mythological stories are so big and so bold that even the most basic of renderings is able to feed off the power and interest of the original story-line. Add in a few punchy adjectives like saevus and iratus, and the end result may be simple, but hopefully it still has the oomph necessary to appeal to KS3 students.

Starting with the Olympian gods also offers an opening for an understanding that close relationships are very difficult to get right.

We have been keen for de Romanis to be a textbook which connects with the present as well as the past. This principle meant that there was one further benefit from using the Olympian gods as our opening. Viewed one way, they offer glittering and exciting drama; viewed another, they illustrate a savage and rather dark view of the world. Goya’s painting of Saturn eating his children is the opening image for Chapter 1: its intensely horrific and brutally uncivilised atmosphere brings to the fore the idea that deep in the mythology of the past are the ingredients of jealousy, fear, selfishness and betrayal. Our society today often seems to cling to values which are sentimentally idealistic: we are regularly presented with the notion of a perfect family, complete with a monogamous marriage at its centre and a series of happy children all merrily playing alongside each other. In practice, this is rarely the reality. Anyone who has taught teenagers will know how often they struggle with the difficulty of their own family dynamics. The stories which feed into Roman religion are an important reminder that other cultures have perhaps been rather more balanced about what the emotions within a family might look like.

Katharine Radice

Why we wrote de Romanis

In 2017-2018 Sonya, Angela, George and I were all teaching at The Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge. We had grown increasingly frustrated with the other textbooks available for KS3 students: some used vocabulary which was too far removed from GCSE, others didn’t have the colourful wow-factor and visual appeal which younger students need, and no course offered a really up-to-date view of women in the ancient world. One day, my own son Hugo mentioned to me the lead female character in one of these courses and said, ‘Oh yes, she’s the one who just sits about in the atrium and doesn’t say or do much’. I realised then that even a course which had done so much to offer a more human approach to the ancient world did little to open the door to fearsome females from the Classical world such as Cloelia, Livia, Clodia or Agrippina.

We decided to work on a new course together.

Sonya’s long standing interest in Roman society - especially Roman religion - meant that she took the lead in mapping out the cultural content of Book 1. George, on the other hand, has a love for the intricacies of Roman history and he was particularly interested in the brutal power dynamics which dominated the 1st century BC. He was well-placed, therefore, to shape the thematic content of Book 2. Angela and I decided we would take on the technical challenge of working out a grammar and vocabulary syllabus which would allow us to write the stories needed to illustrate the cultural and historical content of each chapter; in addition we decided we would work on how best to create a range of language resources which would allow for meaningful differentiation and flexibility within the classroom.

Throughout the course we’ve tried to offer a view of the ancient world that isn’t simplified, sentimental or blinkered by our own cultural expectations.

In de Romanis, students will meet gods who are savage, rulers who are cruel, and women who are brave and outspoken. They will learn to think about the Romans as speakers and writers as well as fighters, and to consider the Roman empire from the perspective of the conquered provincials as well as that of the triumphant generals. They will need to think about the impact of inequalities within society, such as slavery, wealth or access to education, and they will be encouraged to consider the blend of persuasion, wealth and brute force which tends to sit behind raw power.

We hope that students will enjoy the Latin stories - we’ve chosen our favourites!

It will give students the chance to think about Greece, Egypt, Roman Gaul and Roman Britain alongside their exposure to the language, people, temples, statues, and coins within Rome itself. We also hope that, whatever their ability, they will find it easier to engage with Latin as a language which they can get right because they understand better how it works and because they have met the words often enough to have a solid knowledge of vocabulary. As to whether or not we have managed this, it is those who use the course who will be the best judges….

Katharine Radice