I once asked a group of Year 3 children how they would define 'learning'. One little girl said, 'Learning is ideas flowing round your brain.' This has been my working definition of learning for several years now, and if this girl was right then, this was a weekend of very high quality learning. From the outset, we had ideas flowing merrily around our brains, a fluidity which only increased as the course progressed. We teachers are fortunate to have frequent opportunities to engage in professional development courses. It is rare, however, to attend a course which provokes and inspires in the way this weekend did. The presentations were excellent, the mood relaxed and informal, the learning style open and thought provoking.
I did not learn any Classics in school, except for a very cursory glance at Roman history (cursory, probably, because in those days the Roman Empire was almost current affairs!) I have since learned a little New Testament Greek and am keen to learn more. This course inspired me, and gave me the confidence I need, to teach Classics, especially Classical languages, in school even though my own knowledge and skills are of a very low standard. Let's face it, much of what we teach in school, we do so from the one or two pages that the children haven't reached yet. (Our Year 5 and 6 are currently learning about the geography of Peru; it is amazing how much I have learned about Peru in the last few weeks!)
I would summarise the outcomes of this course in three points:
1. Teacher learning
I feel inspired to learn, and in learning, to teach. I have no Latin, but the resources we were introduced to on the course and the way they were demonstrated, made me realise that I could teach the children in my class as I learned with them. With the enthusiastic support of our headteacher, we now have short sessions that fit into the interstices of the timetable (for example, ten minutes before hometime) in which we learn Latin together. We are using the online version of the Cambridge Latin Course, which is extremely easy to follow, and which a number of children are now using at home and are further on than I am! Now it is getting really exciting, because those children sometimes teach the class in which I am a genuine pupil. (Deeply humiliating, as the children do not miss an opportunity to remind me not to call out, etc!) I wonder how much of the curriculum could be taught in this way? In some areas, the teacher will, by necessity, remain the authority on a particular topic or skill, but I wonder if learning together could be a model to explore beyond the boundaries of my limited Latin. What makes this so exciting for me is that I am not pretending for pedagogical effect, I really am learning with the children.
The children are so inspired by learning Latin that six of them asked if they could use one of their lunchtimes each week to learn Greek!
For the final half-term of the year, we are planning a Greek project. We are planning to learn some of the language and about the history, mythology, culture and characters of Ancient Greece. We are also hoping to stage an open-air Greek play (in English!) Bring your umbrellas.
2. Learning as enjoyment
Classics must regain its place in the mainstream curriculum. We were told about the effects of learning Latin on Literacy standards, and that is music to all teachers' ears, but (a big BUT)... Perhaps Classics could lead the way to a new, less utilitarian view of the curriculum, in which children engage with learning simply because it is enjoyable, life-affirming and a vital aspect of our growth as human beings. Put simply, because it is fun! This must surely be at the heart of learning, as we awaken to the fact that we no longer live in the industrial and imperial society in which our education system was founded and for which that system was designed to prepare children.
Children want to have fun (and so do I), and why shouldn't they (I). They love violent stories, bloodshed, larger-than-life characters, monsters, battles, treachery and deceit. Well, look no further! This stuff is better than Eastenders! I will never forget the sheer relish and bloodthirsty fervour with which a girl (Odysseus) in Year 4 once gouged out the eye of a terrified little boy playing Polyphemus. It was a truly hideous sight! They were acting, I should point out, but none of us felt entirely safe in her company after the experience!
3. Classics at the core
Further to both these points, a thought to ponder: since our knowledge and understanding of the world, the development of language and literature, art, mathematics and science, all arose and developed from the Classical world, how would it be if we placed Classics, not just in the curriculum, but at the very foundation of the curriculum. Would it, I wonder, be possible for children's educational development to follow the steps of humanity's development and begin with the Classical world? Peppa Pig on a long journey home during which she encounters problems and strange creatures, maybe. Who knows?
I am profoundly grateful to all the member of the training team, and the other delegates, who provided one of the most inspiring, thought provoking and enjoyable courses I have experienced. Thanks also to the staff of Gregynog Hall for their warm welcome and for providing the comfortable accommodation, excellent food, plentiful drink!
Written by Nigel Williamson