to promote the study of Greek 
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from the Texas Classical Association



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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 8:00 a.m. 

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 possible.

-Reprinted from Texas Classics in Action, Winter 1994, pp. 9-11.

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