Just got back exhausted but exhilarated from a really successful teaching session about Roman inscriptions with a class of children from both Manchester Grammar School and a Blue Coat School studying Latin and/or Classical Civilisation. The session was led by Dr Andrew Fear from University of Manchester Department of Classics. The idea was to engage schoolchildren with Roman material to help them with their studies and to encourage them to maintain an interest in things Classical.
Earlier this afternoon we divided the class into two groups and one half looked at making impressions from Roman inscriptions using the cliche mould or ‘wet squeeze’ method and the other studied some Roman coins that our Numismatist Keith Sugden had got out in advance for them.
The cliche mould technique involves placing a sheet of blotting paper over an inscription and using a stiff brush to push the softened paper into the incised surface of the piece of stone. This is a very old way of making accurate copies of Greek, Latin and other inscriptions in the field. The practical aspect of making a cliche mould from an inscription really engaged the students, whereas talking to them about epigraphy would almost certainly have left them cold. Fortunately no damage was done to a Roman inscription because we used a piece of marble with an inscription that is a fake. That wasn’t a problem because the whole point of the exercise was getting the students involved in doing something practical.
The other exercise was looking at and understanding Roman coins. We got out a denarius and a sestertius of the emperor Trajan (AD 98-117) and a denarius and a sestertius of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). Armed with a crib sheet from their earlier session with Andy and a magnifying glass and an angle-poise lamp, the students studied each coin, transcribed the inscriptions or legends and translated them. In this way they were able to consolidate what they had learnt earlier about the use of abbreviations such as COS – Consul, or AVG – Augustus, or PP – Pater Patriae for ‘father of his country’. We swapped the coins over half way so they could look at different coins.
The students picked this up remarkably quickly, further evidence, if any were needed, that there really is nothing like the real thing for inspiring and engaging young (and old) minds. The thought of teaching Classics without supporting objects seems to me to do students an injustice, and, of course, we are well-placed at the Museum in being able to draw upon some amazing collections and provide invaluable hands-on experience. If that doesn’t enhance the learning experience, then nothing will. We hear a great deal about digital interpretation and augmented reality, and new technology certainly has a place but I don’t think anything beats tactile interaction with the real thing. My observations of this afternoon suggest that it was a successful session and that the children enjoyed it and were stimulated by it. It’ll be interesting to see the evaluation sheets from the school.
Of course we have to declare an interest. Fewer and fewer students study this type of material. This is hardly surprising given that it used to be government policy to marginalise Classics. Charles Clarke, back in 2003, said he was little concerned were the study of classics ‘to go the way of all flesh’. The number of pupils taking Latin GCSE in the state sector plummeted from about 8500 in 1988 to less than 3500 in 2004. Yet the benefits of teaching Classics have long been known. An Indianapolis survey on the effects of teaching Latin to 6th grade children (1973) showed that after 5 months of Latin, the children had advanced 7 months in maths, 8 months in word knowledge, 9 months in problem solving, one year in reading, AND 13 months in language.
The session was supported by the University’s Widening Participation Department. Thanks to to Cat Lumb, Andy Fear and Irit Narkiss for organising and running the session.