A case study of a Year 9 class in a mixed-ability comprehensive school – Introduction

If Classics is to help people to live, then a great many questions must be asked of the Ancient World, to which answers can be discovered…that will shed light on the choices perennially open to human beings and to human societies in the conduct of their affairs. (Sharwood Smith, 1977, p. 4)

Of the many potential justifications which could be offered for the continuing place of Classics in the school curriculum, a position of importance must be given to the subject’s “capacity to increase pupils’ understanding of themselves and the world in which they live” (DES, 1988, p. 2). Study of antiquity is able to give students “insight into elements of western European and other societies: language, literature, law, attitudes to religion, civil engineering and technology, and political structures” (CSCP, 1999, p. 7). In this assignment, I present a case study of how students might gain an insight into modern politics through the medium of learning about Roman politics from a widely-available and widely-used resource, Stage 11 of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC) (CSCP, 2002).

Although it has now been possible for many years for school pupils to learn about Greco-Roman antiquity without learning either Latin or Greek, by taking a course in Classical Civilisation, it remains the case that those who do learn an ancient language gain access to ancient literature in its original form, and thus come closer to an original ancient thought. Furthermore, it is because reading Greek or Roman texts in the language in which they were first composed considerably enriches an understanding of ancient culture that learning Latin and Greek continue to be such a desirable part of a classical education. One motivation behind this research project was a wish to investigate the extent to which a class was already aware, and could be made more aware, of the value of Latin stories themselves as evidence for Roman antiquity.

A second motivation arose from observation of lessons during my first professional placement, at a mixed comprehensive school in Peterborough. In that school, I observed a Year 9 Latin class which – due to increased numbers studying Latin in the school – had to be taught by two non-specialist teachers: one taught them the ‘language’ aspects of the subject, the other the ‘cultural background’. Although this arrangement did not seem to impair the students’ enjoyment of Latin, it was unsatisfactory: when, for example, the reading of a Latin story provoked questions about its content (rather than its grammar), the students were asked to save their questions until their ‘background lesson’, which took place several days later. This prompted a dislocation of their learning, as by the time of the ‘background lesson’, the interest that had been stimulated by the story had been forgotten, and the particular points raised by the story could no longer be linked seamlessly into a discussion of the topic. Observing this class emphasised the way in which the reading of Latin stories – even when those stories had been specially constructed in modern times for school use – can raise issues of and generate excitement about ‘cultural background’ by themselves – without any need to turn to the ‘background’ section of a textbook. Additionally, my observations showed me how important it is for the linguistic and paralinguistic elements of Latin to be taught alongside each other in a single lesson, rather than quite separately.

I therefore determined, with this research project, to explore how a Latin text might be used as the main source for learning not only a new grammar feature but also about a feature of Roman life and culture – but this was not my sole aim. For, as Sharwood Smith notes in the quotation with which I began, study of Classics – in this case Latin – can give access to an improved understanding not only of the ancient world but of the modern world too. At a time when Classicists have realised that this potential of their subject has much to contribute within the ‘new’ subject of Citizenship (Copson, 2006), I was keen also to test out a series of lessons which did indeed seek to develop students’ understanding of their place in the modern world as much as to inform them about the Roman world.

My research was carried out during my second professional placement, at a mixed comprehensive upper school in Hertfordshire. The school is situated in a small market town but attracts students from a wide, predominantly rural area in the north-east of the county. Those students considered to have a high aptitude for languages (as assessed before they join the school by the verbal Cognitive Abilities Test) – who on arrival at the school form two of eight Year 9 teaching groups, each of thirty students – are required to study Latin during their first year, after which Latin becomes optional for GCSE and A Level. The class with which I carried out this research project was one of those two Year 9 Latin classes, comprising nineteen girls and eleven boys. Although all students in the class are considered to be linguistically gifted, a range of abilities is nevertheless present within the class; one pupil in the class is named on the school SEN register as he has difficulties with listening and has some behavioural issues, but the class does not receive support from a teaching assistant. The class has two one-hour lessons every week, and by the time of my research, had been learning Latin for approximately six months; I had taught the class for three weeks by the time my research lessons took place. This school does not teach Citizenship in a timetabled slot, but organises a number of PSHCRE (Personal, Social, Health, Citizenship and Religious Education) Days for the whole school during the course of the year to satisfy requirements for Citizenship education.

I chose to base my research with this class around their study of Stage 11 of the CLC, “candidati”, which focuses on local elections in Pompeii. This stage was chosen partly to fit in with the class’s scheme of learning, but also because the subject matter was particularly suitable for a study seeking to investigate how Classics might contribute to Citizenship. The subject matter also seemed peculiarly relevant as a General Election in the UK was known to be imminent at the time of my research, even if the date of the election was not announced until several weeks later.

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