Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Grooming young Classicists

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I gave a talk to a group of primary school children.

My eldest niece has just started learning about the Romans as part of Key Stage 2. So my brother asked me if I'd be interested in talking to her year, and then talked to the teachers about it.

I had very little idea how to go about this, and how to pitch it. The only seven-year old I've ever tried to talk to about the Romans is my niece, and I'm not sure I did a great job of that. I did look at some material on the BBC website (which I found whilst looking for something else) - but the trouble is, Key Stage 2 covers 7 up to 11, and I got the impression that the BBC material was aimed at the top end of that range.

Still, I had some ideas. Pictures seemed like a good idea. I knew the kids had a visit planned to Verulamium, so I could try to tie what I said into that. (This meant I had an excuse for going to St Albans, which I'd never done, and always wanted to - a possible trip a couple of years ago fell through due to bureaucratic inertia, but I will be leading a trip next year, and experience has shown that I need to go and look at places before I can tell other people what they ought to be looking for. Plus I got to meet up with an old school friend who teaches Classics at St Albans School, whom I hadn't seen for several years, and his family, who I hadn't seen for even longer.)

Kate advised me to talk about people, rather than buildings, and to include as many stories and gory bits as I could. And I also employed a couple of techniques that I use on adult students: I tried to make links between life in Roman times and life today, and I had some replica artefacts - the wax writing tablets seemed especially appropriate, as these were what Roman children would have used for their school exercises.

So, I did some mugging up, I prepared my Powerpoint presentation, and I visited St Albans. At 9:30, I was in front of about forty to fifty children, ready to give a talk on life in Roman Britain, and the changes towns brought, with reference, where possible, to Verulamium.

I'm never wholly at ease when I'm not working from a prepared script. I feel I tend to trail off when making my points, and go 'er' a lot. There seemed to be a lot of fidgeting in the ranks, and I felt I was losing them. This wasn't helped by the fact that I kept looking at the back of the classroom rather than at the kids. But some I noticed seemed to be paying close attention. So I kept going for forty-five minutes, until I was at the end of my slides. Then I answered questions. For another half an hour, and they would have kept going had it not been break time. So that rather shows that they were paying attention.

The questions were a mixed bunch. Some were very broad - 'Are you going to say anything about the gods?' or 'Are you going to tell us about Boudicca?' As one of the teachers said afterwards, 'You'd think we hadn't given them lessons about those subjects, but we have.' But, of course, what the kids were doing was testing their teachers against a real expert, and, more importantly, showing that they had heard about these subjects. I tried to answer appropriately - with Boudicca, rather than rehash what they would already have been told by their teachers, I made points that the teachers might not, such as that we know Nero seriously thought about giving up the province, probably after the Revolt. On the gods, I started talking about the Pantheon, before realizing that I would not remember all twelve - so, in a moment I'm proud of, I threw the question back at the kids, and said 'what gods do you know of?' We didn't get all the Pantheon (poor old Minerva got overlooked), but they felt involved. When the questions were out of left field, I tried to bring them back to telling them something about the Romans - answering a question 'who rules Rome now?', I managed to bring out the continuity of the role of the Pontifex Maximus, appropriate given that this was a Roman Catholic school. I was less successful with the questions about how old Romulus and Remus were, and what Romulus used to kill Remus, saying that I didn't think we know (Livy doesn't seem to say), though I'd guess a spear was Romulus' weapon of choice.

There was one awkward moment at the first question. I'd shown a picture of St. Germain's Block, a surviving portion of the city wall of Verulamium, and pointed out that much of the material from the wall had ended up in buildings like St Albans Cathedral. A girl asked why there was a round hole in the wall, and a teacher told her off for not listening, because she'd just been told. However, I believed that this particular hole was actually the result of mediaeval use of the wall, perhaps as part of a chapel. I agonized about whether to undercut the teacher's authority, but in the end, truth won out. Unfortunately, it turns out that I've misunderstood a guidebook, and the teacher was right after all. Oops.

Overall, though, the adults who were there, two teachers and my brother, who video'd proceedings, were impressed and enjoyed it. My brother said I pitched it exactly right, and also that he ended up learning stuff. Afterwards, he drove me around Amersham looking for a couple of Roman Villa sites.

I very much enjoyed doing this, and I'd certainly do it again.


Anonymous said...

Having been born and raised in St.Albans, I pretty much grew up with the history of the place, and my own two daughters have always been hugely fascinated with the Romans. In summer you often get re-enactors giving talks at the Museum, Hypocaust or Amphitheatre.

Tony Keen said...

There was a re-enactor dressed as a Roman soldier in the Museum when I visited on Sunday. Unfortunately I didn't have time to look at the Museum's displays properly and give him my attention, so I didn't listen to him much.

Unknown said...

On the gods, I started talking about the Pantheon, before realizing that I would not remember all twelve...
I'm so glad it's not just me. The trouble I've had with schoolchildren is trying to find the level without ever patronising them, because they're so fast to pick up on that. I does sound like it was fun.

Anonymous said...

Good for you for having a go!
I demonstrate spinning and weaving as a Viking, for eight year olds, and get them to have a go themselves - fun, but exhausting!
(The friends I go with said I was their slave at one school, and the kids got quite concerned about me).