I retired from teaching in 2008, after 33 rewarding years in the classroom. I’ve said this before: but I can’t name five kids in all those years that I didn’t like (although I admit some were easier to like than others).
Certainly, I found that great abilities were sometimes masked and did all I could to bring talent to the fore. In days of yore—before standardized testing spread like kudzu across the educational land—one way to bring hidden talent to view was to offer students all kinds of options in their work. You need not worry whether or not they could provide answers to abstruse questions on a mandated test every spring. Rather, you encouraged teens to develop an array of abilities.
You tried to foster a love of learning that might be carried forward through life.
By 2008, I had been teaching Ancient World History, as required by State of Ohio guidelines formulated to meet growing testing requirements. We were required, in one year, to cover twenty-eight centuries of world history (1000 B.C. to 1750 A.D.), from China to Europe to Aztec and African lands. Students would be tested at year’s end and success would be measured by answers to fifty questions on one test.
I told my principal at the time, I considered this “educational malpractice.” Her hands, too, were increasingly tied and she only grimaced in response.
I worried about the future of education in those days. I worry even more, nine years removed. From what I hear from younger teachers today the pedagogical kudzu has been impossible to stop.
So here’s an example of what I was still able to do—barely—in the last years before I retired from teaching. I had re-read the Iliad a few years before and realized seventh graders might actually enjoy a synopsis of the story, if I could put it together right. I felt some would enjoy the war story. I thought others would like the love story involved. I also believed exposure to great writing might rub off and help my students learn to express themselves with greater facility. I was almost certain the State of Ohio wouldn’t include a question about Homer or the Iliad on any spring test.
I just didn’t care.
It took long hours to put together a reading of more than 6,000 words; but I was happy to put in the time for a good cause. I had recently read Xenophon, too, because that’s what good teachers do. They always seek to broaden their knowledge base.
For that reason, my synopsis started with a quote from Xenophon about the fate of cities that fell to invaders: “It is a law established for all time among all men that when a city is taken in war, the persons and property of its inhabitants belong to the captors.”
The Iliad opens after ten long years of war and students quickly realized figures in the story acted like people they knew today. Agamemnon was petty. Achilles was a hot-tempered killing machine. Paris is a handsome narcissist, Helen the ancient world equivalent of a Victoria’s Secret model.
At one point, Achilles, face black with rage over unfair treatment at the hands of his king, storms out of a meeting, but not before calling Agamemnon a “wine sack with a dog’s eyes [and]…a deer’s heart.”
From the first, students seemed interested when we dived into the story; and I was sure my plan was working the following day when I heard one boy say in jest that his friend was a “wine sack with a dog’s eyes” while they waited in a cafeteria line for a lunch lady to pass them slices of pepperoni pizza.
When students were reading, I told them not to worry about all the names of Greek and Trojan warriors. I only hoped they might develop a sense of the horrors of war, whether millennia ago or ten thousand miles away in Iraq in 2008. In scene after scene, Homer describes the carnage in vivid detail. The warrior Pedaios meets death:
…the son of Phyleus, the spear-famed, closing upon him
struck him with the sharp spear behind the head at the tendon,
and straight on through the teeth and under the tongue cut the bronze
and he dropped in the dust gripping in his teeth the cold bronze.
I felt scenes like that might stick in teen minds.
To cap the unit I explained that we would soon be putting together a comic play, loosely based on Homer’s story. It was an idea I stole from my good friend and colleague Jeff Sharpless, whose classes were also reading my synopsis. Eventually, Mr. Sharpless and I were able to get fifty students to stay after school to practice for roles in the play, to make props, and work on songs for a “Greek chorus.”
Mr. Sharpless and I both asked students to complete several projects during a school year; and work on the play counted as one. Naturally, not every student likes to perform and Amanda, a quiet but talented young lady asked if she could do an art project based on the Iliad instead. Amanda was a creative thinker, diligent in all her work, and I immediately give permission to go ahead.
I was right—at the end of the year—and the State of Ohio had nothing to say about Homer or the Iliad or the carnage of war, ancient or modern, on the state social studies test. And, in a world where measuring learning according to A, B, C and D tests was taking over, no play could matter, and no art project either.
Still, I would have said nine years ago, and still say today, a project like Amanda’s is what true learning is about.
Here are her water color drawings and descriptions based on the Iliad by Homer. I think you can probably guess her grade:
Agamemnon must give up Chryseis, asking for someone else’s spoils. Achilles calls him greedy. This makes the king angry, telling Achilles he must lose Briseis.
[Both men had taken beautiful Trojan women as prizes during earlier fighting. Now to placate the gods, the king must give up his prize. He takes Achilles’ woman in a fit of anger. Achilles, the greatest of all warriors, refuses to help in the fight any longer.]
Helen decides to watch the fight. Priam tells her, “I do not blame you. I blame the gods.”
[Priam is Troy’s king. Paris had stolen Helen from Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother.]
Paris leaps from the ranks of the Trojans, wearing a leopard skin. Menelaus accepts his challenge.
[Paris and Menelaus have agreed that whoever wins the fight can take Helen and the war will end.]
Pendaros shot an arrow from behind his friends’ shields. The arrow brushes Menelaus.
[This shot by a Trojan archer breaks the agreement and a general slaughter begins again.]
Diomedes’ spear pierces Aphrodite’s hand and immortal blood flows. He warns her to leave the battle.
[Gods and goddesses often intervene in the fight; in this case the goddess of love is wounded!]
Odysseus visits Achilles. He offers the warrior a cup of wine and goes over the situation. Achilles will not return to the battle.
Patroklos, dressed in Achilles’ armor, throws a stone at Hector’s chariot driver. The man’s skull caves in.
[Patroklos, Achilles’ dear young friend, tries to save the Greeks as they are driven back by the Trojans. He dresses in Achilles’ armor to bolster Greek spirits.]
Paris releases one of his arrows. The missile strikes Diomedes’ foot, going through to the ground.
Odysseus and Diomedes capture a Trojan named Dolon. They question him and he begs for his life. Diomedes severs Dolon’s head from his shoulders.
Achilles mourns Patroklos. He calls himself “a useless weight upon the ground.”
[Hector kills Patroklos in battle while Achilles sulks. Achilles now vows revenge.]
Andromache [Hector’s wife] tries to convince Hector to stay in Troy. He says he must not flee from the fight. Andromache is heartbroken.
Hector and Achilles meet. Hector loses his nerve and runs around the walls of Troy.
The spear of Achilles was driven into Hector’s neck. The dying man pleads for his body to be given to his father for proper burial. Achilles scorns his wish.
Achilles puts holes in Hector’s feet. He drags the body around in his chariot.
Even after his revenge, Achilles finds no peace. He paces along the beach at night.
[Priam sneaks into the enemy camp in the dark and begs for the return of his son Hector’s corpse; Achilles relents.]
Hector is placed on a towering pyre of logs. He is respectfully burned. This ends the Iliad.
And that is how you could teach, and how a student could still learn, in an era before school reformers strangled true learning in ropes of tests.