The alpha course
The revival of Latin is in full swing, but now Greek is getting in on the act in primary schools. Nick Morrison sat in on a class.
It doesn’t take long for the class to come up with a transliteration. It may only be their second week, but they are already handling the letters with confidence. There are a few false starts, however, when it comes to suggestions for English words that could have been derived from “barbaros”.
“Barber” is one suggestion. Indirectly, perhaps, but there is something closer, Graham Kirby tells them. “Ba ba black sheep,” comes next. Getting colder, says Mr Kirby. Eventually, the guesses dry up and he tells them “Barbaric”, to a chorus of recognition.
After “barbaric”, the class swiftly identify the letters to spell “idiotes”. Mr Kirby explains that this meant someone who did not vote, but coming up with its English descendant proves straightforward enough.
Supporters of classical languages argue that it is these connections that make them relevant for 21st-century pupils. Education secretary Michael Gove clearly thinks so, as a classical language GCSE is now an approved subject for the new English baccalaureate.
But while the Latin revival in state schools has been gaining ground in recent years - with the backing of notable champions including London mayor Boris Johnson - these Year 6 children are going one step further by learning ancient Greek.
Latin can seem remote, but Greek has the added complication of using a different alphabet. Far from being off-putting, however, this is proving a major attraction, says Anneka Horne, Year 6 teacher and literacy co- ordinator at Bayards Hill Primary in Oxford.
“We study French as well but there is something almost magical to the children about a language with different symbols,” she says. “They love to solve puzzles and it is like decoding a secret message.”
Bayards Hill, which serves the Barton estate in east Oxford, was approached by the Iris Project last term about running classes in ancient Greek. A charity that promotes classical languages in state schools, the Iris Project has been running Latin lessons for several years, but now wants to branch out and teach Greek as well.
The school had scheduled a project on ancient Greece for Year 6 this term, and jumped at the opportunity to run language sessions alongside.
Today’s session, for example, combines revising Greek letters with an activity involving Greek artefacts. Pupils are given replicas of artefacts and asked what they could learn from them about Greek culture. Even though they are copies, the pupils excitedly pass around the bowls, jugs and figurines, complete with “aged” patinas applied earlier in the day.
“The children are realising that there are quite strong links between ancient Greek and English and that many of the words we use have their origins in ancient Greek,” says Mrs Horne. “That makes it seem so much more real and tangible.”
But the advantages lie not just in their practical benefits. “I don’t feel something necessarily has to have a direct impact on their lives for it to be a valuable experience,” Mrs Horne adds. “Education is about widening their opportunities and giving them a chance to experience something new, and this is one of those moments.”
The Iris Project has been running Latin lessons in schools since 2006, and this year is working in 16 schools in London and Oxford. Lessons are taught by volunteer tutors, the majority of whom are classics students at University College London and King’s College London.
Mr Kirby, project co-ordinator and teacher of today’s session, says the decision to offer Greek came out of a drama exercise last year. As part of the build-up to staging a Greek play in translation, pupils at an east London school were given taster sessions in the language. “We realised that if they were to put on a play they would need some basic knowledge of the Greek world, so we ran workshops around the myths and gods and some of the social aspects, such as democracy,” he says. “As part of that, we taught them some of the language and introduced them to the Greek letters.”
The response suggested there was an appetite for ancient Greek, according to project director Lorna Robinson.
“The children loved it - they were fascinated by ancient Greek and were always asking about the language, so it felt like we were missing something out,” says Dr Robinson. “People said it would be hard to introduce the Greek letters, but to me that seemed to be part of the appeal.”
It is early days, but the Bayards Hill pupils have taken to their new language. “It is interesting how all the letters back then were different from now,” says Mitchell, 11. “I didn’t know some of our words came from Greek - I thought they were made up out of the blue.” Patrick, 10, adds: “We learn French as well, but it is more exciting learning a language when the letters are different. It is like a mystery.”
After just two sessions, Grace, also 10, is finding ancient Greek “extremely interesting”. “It is fun,” she says. “It is complicated and the alphabet is difficult but it is still possible to learn.” Maisie, 10, agrees the lessons are fun, although admits to finding it hard to learn the letters. “They’re not like proper writing,” she says.
Mrs Horne says learning some of the language has given an additional element to the pupils’ work on ancient Greece. “They’re really enthused by the subject now, and to have the experience of a new language has been valuable,” she says.
The lessons follow the model the Iris Project uses for Latin lessons. Instead of rote learning, they involve myths, drama, story telling and - like today’s artefact-handling session - learning about the lives of ancient Greeks.
Mr Kirby says the project also aims to dispel some of the prejudices surrounding ancient Greek. “Classics should be for everyone and at the moment it is not,” he says. “There is a fundamental unfairness and that creates barriers around the subject.”
So far, a number of primary schools have taken up the project’s offer and are running taster sessions or lunchtime clubs. Bayards Hill, though, is the first to offer Greek in a regular lesson. All 60 Year 6 pupils will have an ancient Greek lesson every week until the end of the school year.
“We wanted all the children to experience it because we felt they should all have the opportunity,” says Mrs Horne. “If we ran it as a club we would get the children who are interested in Greece anyway, but this gets them all involved. Some of them have been quite surprised at how much they’re enjoying it.”
The pupils are set Greek homework, she says, adding that parents have taken a keen interest in the project. She says the children also benefit from being able to speak to specialists in Greek culture.
“Having the chance to put their questions to an expert and share their thoughts with them gives them an insight into a topic that can seem distant,” she says. “Ancient topics are far away from what they experience and this puts it into context, and learning the language helps make it real.”
Ancient Greek has been scheduled as part of a literacy lesson at Bayards Hill, and Dr Robinson believes there is an obvious connection. “It is clear that it enhances their literacy because of the links between ancient Greek and English,” she says. “It helps them understand the building blocks of English.”
As part of their immersion in Greek culture, next term the children will start rehearsals for a theatre performance of two Greek plays - The Frogs and The Wasps, both by Aristophanes. Mr Kirby, who is also a playwright, is now busy translating the plays for Year 6.
After two terms it is unlikely the pupils will come away with much more than a rudimentary knowledge of Greek. But Dr Robinson believes that even this will stand them in good stead. For one thing, not only does Greek - along with Latin - provide the basis for many modern European languages, but its regularity, tenses and declensions, come in handy for learning other languages.
“Latin and Greek are almost the master key: if you learn those, you can pick up other languages more easily,” she says. She puts her ability to learn Spanish “within weeks” down to her knowledge of classical languages and it is also helping her with her latest project, which is learning Arabic.
And the response from pupils seems to dispel the myth that children and languages do not mix, at least not in this country. Take-up of French and German - the two most commonly studied modern languages in UK schools - has fallen sharply at GCSE since 2004 when languages ceased to be compulsory at post-14 level. But Dr Robinson has no truck with any defeatist talk about this decline.
“The assumption is children don’t want to learn languages but I have never found that at the level we are teaching,” she says.
Turning over a replica Greek plate, Jacob, 10, seems to agree. “It is really interesting learning different languages,” he says. Megan, 11, is keen to share what she can remember about the ancient Greeks from last week’s lesson. “They have two ‘O’s,” she says. “One called omicron and another one called omega.”
Chances are that once they leave Bayards Hill, most of these pupils will never study ancient Greek again. But for Dr Robinson, that does not matter. “Lots of people say, ‘What is the point?’,” she says. “But even if they never go on to do anything else with it, this knowledge is life enriching.”
The Iris Project has launched a magazine for primary children. Go to www.irismagazine.org for details
GREEK TO ENGLISH
idiotes - idiot
theatron - theatre
demos - democracy
anthrowpos - anthropology
theos - theology
polis - politics
barbaros - barbarian/ic
chronos - chronology
sophos - philosophy
bios - biology
logos - logic
mythos - myth
strategos - strategy
Source: The Iris Project.