Steven Hunt writes from lockdown with a message of hope for us all.
I am writing this from my study in my house in Cambridge from where I have barely moved for three weeks. We are, like all others, in lockdown. The shops are restricting the numbers of customers. People pass by on the other side of the road. Neighbours speak to each other six feet apart or on the telephone. I speak to my eighty-year old mother twice a day on video chat. Sometimes I do this while I am on my allotted daily walk so that she gets to see the outside world.
Normally at this time of year it is the busiest for school students, teachers and university educationalists like me: students are preparing for their examinations, teachers are nearing the end of their syllabuses (breathing a sigh of relief) and it is the glorious time of year when I get to visit all my teacher trainees, my teaching colleagues and friends in the mad lesson-observation period that takes place either side of Easter.
It seems trivial to write about Classics teaching in schools now, though. And anyway, teaching in the classroom isn’t taking place. Desks are empty. The whiteboard is switched off. Caecilius in cubiculo dormit. Metella in atrio non sedet.
And yet maybe this is a good time to talk about how Classics teaching is bearing up under the conditions: teaching and learning has moved online. Indeed, thanks to the resilience and adaptability of Classics teachers (honed through long and successful practice with the challenge of keeping the subjects in schools), Classics continues to thrive online, buzzing up and down the wires, zapping through the air, and into countless homes through computer screen, laptop, ipad and smartphone.
Why are we so well placed? And what does this mean for Classics teaching in the long term?
1988: Kenneth Baker denied Classical subjects membership of the National Curriculum. In the state-maintained sector GCSE examination entries fell from 8,493 to 3,388 as head teachers, duty-bound to provide the required National Curriculum subjects and with the introduction of local management of schools to take into consideration, cast around for efficiency savings. Some got rid of Classics provision entirely. Others reduced or redeployed specialist staff. As a young Head of Classics in a comprehensive in Essex I watched helpless as my department of three teaching staff offering Latin, Ancient Greek, Classical Civilisation and Ancient history to A Level, which had been built up over many years, whittled down to two teachers and then one, with a part-timer employed to see the other subjects out. Only Classical Civilisation survived. Baker’s idea that Latin might thrive with gifted and talented groups taught off timetable was never going to be attractive enough to both teacher and students to make it worthwhile: a difficult subject offered part time after school isn’t especially attractive. Many schools in my district simply stopped offering it.
It was partly in response to that crisis that the Cambridge School Classics Project (CSCP) developed a full suite of digital materials. Originally materials had been developed by Bob Lister to support undergraduates at the University of Cambridge. A vocabulary-analysing tool was created to speed their reading of difficult and lengthy texts. Lister felt that such a tool would be useful for teaching school students and from 1991 a small suite of digital translation and comprehension resources was being trialled in local schools for use with the Cambridge Latin Course. I was by now teaching in a school close enough to Cambridge to be involved in seeing how the resources worked and also to design some of the questions and answers and to try them out with my own school students.
From 1997 the Blair government began to invest in state schools: teachers were encouraged to trial software, computers were installed in every classroom, interactive whiteboards made their appearance, and the internet was installed. Training was hit and miss: those who wanted to try out the new hardware and software were given the opportunity. I remember the excitement of my first PowerPoint; my first video; the video my students made for themselves – with sound and music and everything!
In 2000 CSCP received a multi-million pound boost from the government in a grant to develop digital resources to teach Latin in schools where there wasn’t a Latin teacher available. Lister’s forward-planning with CLC led to the publication in 2001 of a DVD and a CD. The DVD had interactive texts, talking heads (Rachel – the Grammar Teacher), drag-and-drop exercises, video documentaries given by such luminaries as Mary Beard and Keith Hopkins, and—best of all—video dramatizations of the CLC stories themselves, in Latin, with (and without) subtitles. Caecilius vivit! The CD comprised an oral retelling of the Iliad – War with Troy – in collaboration with Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden, two professional storytellers, with primary school students in mind.
But while the CSCP material was originally designed to help students learn Latin in schools where there was no teacher, in practice many schools which still did have a teacher gladly grabbed the resources and used them as a supplement to their everyday teaching. Now, when I go into schools, I rarely see teachers not using at least some part of the resources (which now live happily online, free to access) firmly integrated into their lessons. In less than twenty years teaching Latin has become multi-modal.
So now, with the challenges before us of having to teach remotely using the internet, Latinists are already digital natives: students know how to find the materials, use them efficiently, and learn. Some are trying to teach to a school timetable, logging on at 9.05 in the morning until lesson end. Others prefer asynchronous teaching and learning: a package of materials, a video to watch, a text to annotate, a PowerPoint to inscribe ‘all in your own time’. Then they wait for the emails to roll in.
Universities and classical organisations have piled in to support: Michael Scott at the University of Warwick has a link to a whole range of online videos; Massolit, the Oxford-based organisation which provides videos of talks by academics, has provided its service for free; text books such as CLC and the Bolchazy range are available to all; newcomers such as Suburani make access temporarily gratis. The American Classical League offers free webinars every few days on subjects ranging from Roman catapults to April Fool’s jokes in Latin. Magister Craft opens up his box of Latin-speaking Minecraft figures; Natalie Haynes does online stand-up with OvidnotCovid. Meanwhile the Facebook threads are alive with teachers exchanging tips and ideas (synchronous or asynchronous? PowerPoint or Peardeck? Quizzlet or Kahoot?). Lists of Youtube videos and Latin novellas are being sifted, curated and shared.
But there’s something still missing.
Translation, even comprehension, doesn’t have to take place synchronously. Students can learn their vocabulary in their own bedrooms. Verbs can be found and sorted into rows while dinner is being put out on the table. Teachers and students are Zooming or Googling or Skyping their way through Virgil’s Aeneid while the cat looks on. But what this strange ‘virtual schooling’ is showing more than anything else is the need for human contact.
Learning is a sociable activity. Well, we knew that. And now we know for sure that online teaching is not a replacement for the normal classroom interactions that we have taken for granted without thinking for so long. When you are online, you are on your own. What students desire is interaction not just between teacher and student but between student and student – they learn as much from each other as they do from the teacher as they negotiate meaning and construct knowledge through shared experiences and collaboration. Every teacher knows that they cannot always tell exactly what learning might come out of a classroom – but they know that it will be a good thing because it’s been created among young people.
Those online resources aren’t going to be put back in the box: they will become integrated into schemes of work. The lists of files will be stored in a safe place. That YouTube video on Thucydides (Mr. T) will find a place in the lesson plan every year hence. And I suspect that once we get back to normal, teachers and students will find that the lack of formal structure might filter through just a little bit back in the classroom. Lessons will become a little looser, with students engaged through multi-media even more than before. They will be accessing materials remotely and building them together at home before returning to the classroom – the flipped classroom will reappear. Students are now exploring real classical sites with Google walkthroughs or flying across Olympia with assassin’s Creed. They are listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, making memes. Exposure to the classical world is no longer totally dependent on teacher knowledge in the classroom and a good few books. Out of this strange lockdown should come an explosion of interest and excitement about the classical world from students as they and their teachers begin to unlock the endless possibilities of the internet.
Steven Hunt is Senior Teaching Associate and Subject Lecturer for the PGCE in Classics at the University of Cambridge. He is the Editor of the Journal of Classics Teaching and regularly provides consultancy and training services on behalf of Classics for All. His recent books include Teaching Classics with Technology. (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and his Teaching Latin; contexts, theories and practices (London, Bloomsbury) is due to be published in 2021.