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Classical Civilisation before GCSE is approached in a variety of ways by different schools. Since there is no all-encompassing textbook (how could there be?) it is down to many schools who run such classes to come up with ‘home-grown’ courses. At my school, all pupils study Latin in years 7 & 8, and at the end of year 8 may opt to continue Latin, start Gratin (both Latin and Greek in one timetabled slot) or try Classical Civilisation. I have been given a year 9 Classical Civilisation class this year, and although I was initially put off by the lack of clear guidance I have been enjoying the challenge of creating a new scheme of work with my head of department.

is Homer approachable before GCSE?

At this stage in the school year my Year 9 (ages 13-14) Classical Civilisation class have studied a real variety of things: Greek and Latin creation myths, the gods and various myths surrounding them, the life-cycle of an Athenian/Spartan woman (it’s a girls’ school) and now we have moved on to the literature module. Before this year, my hod had done book 6 of the Iliad with them, but although a wonderfully foreboding and moving book, I felt that it may not be as engaging as other books for students of that age, mainly due to the lack of really gritty action. When studying the Trojan War I think some real fighting is a must! We considered studying part of the Argonautica because it is a text they are unlikely to meet if they carry on with Classical Civilisation, but the cost of getting these texts in was high. We decided upon Iliad books 22 & 24 instead, giving them a good balance of drama and emotion (the Odyssey, being a GCSE text, was ruled out). Coincidentally I studied these for my Greek A2 (did anyone else do it?!) so it has been bringing back fond memories.

At GCSE, AS and A2 there is clear guidance in specifications and mark schemes as to what your aims should be, and the levels of response expected from pupils, but what of key stage 3?

Our approach has been a combination of ‘watered down’ gcse-style questions, plus fun activities/projects to keep them amused and engaged. We have split each book into sections for reading homeworks and the following lesson, check the plot is understood (through direct questioning in class or question worksheets).

To introduce the topic, I split the pupils into groups and gave them something to research, in order to create a presentation to the class. The topics were:

  • how did Paris cause the Trojan War?
  • why did Achilleus go on strike?
  • the death of Patroklos.
  • the heroes: Agamemnon, Menelaos, Hektor
  • the heroines: Helen and Andromache

There are lots of other topics possible of course. I made the other pupils ask the presenters some questions to ensure understanding of the plot.

After the first reading homework, we discussed the difficulties faced in reading Homer, and they picked out the ‘lofty’ language that he uses, such as ‘winged words’ and ‘he moved Hektor’s heart’ so as one activity, I tried to get them to re-write some of these sayings to make them more easily understandable.

My class have also appreciated having time to sit and think on their own, so I give them 5-10 minutes to highlight and annotate their texts. We then discuss themes and characters and how successfully Homer conveys them.

Here are some more specific activities:

  • pick out words/phrases to do with…(e.g. pity, horror)
  • write a paragraph about how a character is portrayed by Homer (making them think about adjectives, similes, context)
  • I picked out the similes from the duel scene and made them find a picture which described it, then talk about how appropriate (or not) the simile is
  • they also wrote their own similes based on the duel between Hektor and Achilleus. This they did find challenging as I made them use something we can relate to nowadays. The pupils had some great ideas such as the setting sun for Hektor, Achilleus being a mousetrap and Hektor the mouse (explained by the fact that the mouse wants the cheese which represents Hektor wanting to fight Achilleus through honour). This I have to say was the most enjoyable task for them and for me so far!
  • looking at the relevant (!) scenes from the film ‘Troy’ (I know I know…but wait!) and discussing how the scene is conveyed on screen, and whether changes made are important or if the overall feeling of the scene is still conveyed.

We have not finished the two books yet, but other ideas for the rest of the reading so far include:

  • a newspaper report on the death of  Hektor from either a Trojan or a Greek perspective
  • a debate amongst the gods over what Achilleus should do at the end of book 22
  • write an epitaph or a poem to be read at Hektor’s funeral, giving and opportunity to look at examples of funeral poetry for ideas
  • hot seating activities, asking why a character is behaving in such a way

We originally anticipated only taking half a term over this (5 weeks) but since both my hod’s class and my class will have only just got to the end of book 22 by then, we have decided to just see how it goes and learn from it for the future.

The response from the pupils has been great – at a recent parents’ evening, many said that this it the unit which has grabbed them the most, so I think it might get a few more GCSE takers…which is of course a bonus!

What do you think? Do you have any other approaches for set texts in translation before GCSE level? Comment below, or email salvemagistra@hotmail.co.uk if you would like to create a post.

p.s. look out for a new Ancient World Breakfast Club post tomorrow: Simonides and the Poetry Industry given by Max Pappenheim. Check out last week’s, Justinian and the flowering of Byzantium too – it was a revelation (for me anyway!).