It's All Greek to Them
From the Athenaze Newsletter, Spring 1994
by John M. Rocklin James Bowie High School, Austin, Texas
Every morning at 7:55 a.m., a dozen students at James Bowie High School
in Austin, Texas, drag themselves into my classroom for a class entitled
"Introduction to Ancient Greek." The meeting time is one hour
before regular classes begin, so the students who enroll in the course
obviously want to be there.
Seventy-five percent of those enrolled do have previous language
experience and have already fulfilled the school's foreign language
requirement for graduation (two years of the same language). The remaining
twenty-five percent, however, are looking to fulfill the requirement with
Greek. This will ensure some type of expansion of the Greek curriculum,
but there are limitations (discussed below). This is the inaugural year of
ancient Greek at Bowie High School, a public school in the southwest area
of Austin recently selected to receive the U.S.D.E. Blue Ribbon for
Excellence. Bowie is perhaps the only public high school in the state that
offers Greek. Most students at Bowie opt for Spanish, French, or German,
but there exists a pocket of students who enroll in Russian or Latin. The
Latin program incidentally has more than doubled since I began teaching at
Bowie two years ago.
Why Greek? This is not an easy question to answer by the very fact of
how this course came into existence. My Latin students frequently must
endure my excursuses on Greek influences on certain aspects of Roman
literature and culture, and I usually end in a lament on how I wish I
could teach them Greek as well as Latin.
Rumor develops and spreads. Students whom I have never seen before stop
by and ask me about the Greek course I am offering the following year.
Before I know it, over two dozen students have expressed interest. I
finally decided to obtain permission from my principal, Kent Ewing, and
with his conditional blessing, formally offered the course on ancient
Greek before school ("zero hour"), so that it would not conflict
with other language courses. Early this fall, I had nearly twenty students
enrolled, but only twelve of those could hack getting to school before
I have chosen Balme and Lawall's Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient
Greek as our primary text. The pace at which we move is set generally by
the course outline I penned for the school district; we will eventually
complete Book I (sixteen chapters) by the end of this academic year.
I was initially worried that the pace would be too brisk, particularly
for those who had no previous foreign language experience, but it is
apparent that we will have no difficulty completing the book. This is
quite remarkable given the various problems associated with teaching an
early morning class: unreliable transportation for some students,
tardiness due to oversleeping, the recent outbreak of the flu, etc. In
addition to the regular course load, I supplement and enhance the course
by using a wide array of media. I recycle materials given to me by my
Greek teachers, Z. Philip Ambrose of the University of Vermont and the
late Joseph Desmond of Tufts University, lending me a variety of methods
for approaching various aspects of grammar.
Visuals are an integral part of the course. Slides and videos are
naturally useful aids in discussing the Trojan War, the Bronze Age, and
mythology, and I am occasionally fortunate enough to bring in artifacts
and replicas. My students are especially fond of Oliver Taplin's video
series Greek Fire, which does a wonderful job illustrating topics such as
Greek myth, architecture, tragedy, science, and sex, and showing their
relevance to 20th century America and western Europe.
Despite all of these fascinating peripheral materials, our focus is on
reading ancient Greek. There is quite a bit of oral reading in class, and
I actively encourage my students to do the same at home (some read to
their pets, others lock themselves up in a closet so they cannot be heard
by family members, others read to their parents and friends). I often
critique them on submitted audio cassettes, and this frees up more time in
class for comprehension.
Understanding is facilitated by vocabulary flash cards and lists, large
morphology and syntax charts displayed in the classroom, and heavy doses
of reading at sight. This latter activity brings shudders to my Latin
students, but my Greek students are not fazed one iota. They readily
accept sight reading as a core component of the course.
As an educator in the classics, I am expected to teach derivatives and
word study units. Parents, who encourage their children to sign up for my
courses (Latin, Greek, and Etymology), generally do so for word building
and SAT purposes. A fair amount of time is spent on activities pertaining
to etymology, but my students will tell you that it is my belief that the
best way to prepare for standardized verbal tests is reading. Roughly ten
percent of the lexemes found in the standard English dictionary are
derived from Greek. If one were to incorporate medical terminology, one
would find a much larger percentage of derivatives. We are now approaching
an age of heightened medical awareness, with the onslaught of AIDS and
other renegade viruses such as the new vaccine-resistant TB, and the
utility of learning Greek bases and prefixes is increasing.
Before writing this article, I gave a survey to my students, asking
them questions ranging from their motivations for taking such a course to
their expectations for using their acquired knowledge in future endeavors
(I was deliberately vague). When asked what they wanted to get out of
ancient Greek, the majority of them responded that they wanted an improved
linguistic proficiency. This proficiency may be in ancient Greek, but many
wanted a better knowledge of the English language. Other students were
primarily interested in the cultural aspects.
I asked students to state briefly their career goals and how Greek
might tie into them. Over half aspire to become medical doctors or
engineers, though other students want to be politicians, UN translators,
and ministers. One student remarked, "Whatever career I might pursue,
I believe that the benefits received from a more comprehensive knowledge
of history and English (through Greek, among other languages) will be
helpful in achieving success and contentment."
My students are, thankfully, a heterogeneous lot and admire the
language and culture for various reasons. "The thing I like most
about the Greek language is the uniqueness of it and how beautiful if
sounds when you speak it," noted one student. This very student is
concurrently enrolled in my AP Catullus-Ovid class and, with a little help
on the Greek side, led a wonderful discussion on "Catullus' (poem 51)
translation of and expansion of Sappho fr. 31." It is the
transference of knowledge or application that motivates many of my
students, both Greek and Latin, and in this respect, we teachers of the
classics are very fortunate.
Another student interested in philosophy in language stated that he
admires the "way of thinking about the human being." And another
student is extremely fond of Indo-European linguistics and institutions
and frequently asks me to elaborate cross-culturally on grammar. (He now
wants me to teach him a little Linear B and Hittite!) In terms of the
class itself, students enjoy it because it is "laid back,"
"learning is happening," and it is "different."
What I aim to accomplish in this course is to instill a sense of
admiration for the language and culture and to equip my students with the
skill to look at the world view and gain a better understanding of
themselves via language. As an added bonus, students begin to realize that
learning something challenging can be engaging and fun. Finally, how does
one start a Greek program in one's school? Perseverance, sacrifice, and
devotion (AKA blood, sweat, and tears). Organizing an ancient Greek course
is a taxing undertaking that requires the cooperation and patience of many
people as well as endurance of whatever setback may arise, but it is
certainly worth the effort. Your most powerful resource, however, is your
students. Their interest and ability to spread the word will carry you
far. I have even received three letters from students at other schools
asking to take this course next year. They are attracted to the unusual
alphabet, culture, mythology, and especially the possibility of eventually
reading Homer, Sophocles, and Koine. Though my program is still in its
infancy, I am optimistic about its growth and hope other teachers are
encouraged to establish a full classical curriculum.
I would like to thank Kent Ewing, Valerie Boreing, Jamie Jones, and
Michael Hydak. Without their generous support, this would not have been
-Reprinted from Texas Classics in Action, Winter 1994, pp. 9-11.
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