I’m now in something like my tenth year reading these two poems with seventh graders (the same number of years the Trojan War lasted), and I am happy to pass on some of the more important lessons I’ve learned along the way, a way which has sometimes felt like an Odyssean journey and sometimes like a plains-of-Troy battle, the latter made entirely possible by my faults. Here are seven tips for teaching Homer to seventh graders:
- Start. The best way to get through something daunting is to start. If you think about it too long, if you map it all out before you get started, you would never start. Marriage is like this. Raising children is like this. Be a Bilbo. With Homer you have some of the greatest literature in your hands. Open it and begin. Long before I give long and flowing lectures on Homer to seventh graders, I open the poem and begin reading on the first day. Let the text do the work. That is one of the greatest tricks (and explanations for the happiness) of classical educators: we let the text do the work, authors and literature far more superior than us. So don’t make an academic spectacle of the thing, and don’t consider the ever-increasing depth of your own ignorance on the matter. Just start.
- Persevere. When you start, you’ll find it’s a little chewy, especially if it’s your first time. That’s okay. Again, if it were not then it would not be worth it. I typically do not give a reading quiz until book four or five of the Iliad. That gives students plenty of time to get used to the language and to consider both the Homeric literary landscape and the literary features of the text: main characters, setting, plot, etc. Great literature requires commitment. It is not cheap. It is like Penelope; it does not give itself to just any ole suitor. It waits for its king, the one willing to endure the journey. Teach the students to persevere with you. Teach them to read in the same way Odysseus journeys: with tact, focus, piety, courage, and perseverance.
- Be quick and careful. In reading these two poems, I want students to better learn the art of reading, and that means knowing that not all reading is created equal, and neither all books nor all chapters are created equal. There are many different ways to read. Because I have taught both poems many times, I’m well aware which chapters are less substantial than others, which can be read quickly and which ought to be read carefully, perhaps very carefully or even read twice. When I assign reading to the students, I usually assign two or three books (chapters) at a time. But that ends up being 50-90 pages of reading. Right, but it’s always spread over two to five days (because of how Sequitur’s school schedule works). And I typically assign books in sets where one must be read slowly and one can be read a little faster, while the students still get the main idea and follow the movements of the poem. A whole lot is sticking to them. As it turns out, the students will be allowed to read 20-30% of each poem at a faster rate, picking up less from those chapters than they do the others, and I teach this way as well. It takes us approximately six months of their seventh grade year to get through both poems. That’s about 2/3 of the year. But what better thing to say than they spent 2/3 of their seventh grade Ancient Greek Humanities class soaked in Homer, as if they were Ancient Greece themselves? This means we get through 48 books (24 per poem) in six months, and because not every book is created equal, so not all reading and in-class explanation should be equal.
- Read. One of my favorite things to do in class, in every grade and at every level, is to read to the students. This is one of the reasons it takes a bit longer to get through the two poems. To read, to stop and explain, to have them read, to have them read, stop, and explain. For us to read to one another. For them to read to me. It’s a poem. It should wash over us more than we explicate, chop, and scalpel it. And when I read, I want their “eyes to be on the text.” Part of this is the importance of them learning to emulate my reading, which is more mature than their reading. I can use inflexion, speed up, slow down, and employ all kinds of rhetorical tools to make the text come alive. I can also choose even those parts of a book which take greater focus, the portions which are full of truth, goodness, beauty, and meaning, and I can read those aloud to the class, letting the ideas and the language was over us all. Because there ought to be a high priority to reading aloud, it’s important students know they have the option at home of listening to the poem read aloud to them, either recorded or by a parent. Let students listen to it on audio as much as they’d like, but encourage them to read as well.
- Explain. Seventh graders need explanation. They still need, like Grammar students, to narrate the text back to you and discuss it for a deeper understanding. This happens organically in class. Sometimes I explain while I read. Sometimes I take a whole class period and deliver a formal lecture on a theme or important idea. Sometimes I show them a piece of art and explain the text by the art, or explain the art by the text. Sometimes I pull out a DVD with a professor explaining a book or two. Sometimes I have them explain the text to me and to one another, seeing the relationships and literary rubies as it comes together during the in-class dialogue. Either way, ex plain: bring them out of the plains of Troy and level it all in their minds.
- Act it out. I have no greater fear than to find out that there has been a camera all along in my seventh grade Humanities classes, during the times when I taught Homer, because it gets a little crazy. I’ve picked up students, stood on chairs, used four different British accents (unknowingly), and brought in a few costumes and props when the thing could be told no other way. The imagination is still so soft and fresh at seventh grade, and there is no better way to humble and beautify them into the text than to act it out, to tell the story like a bard, as it was meant to be told. This includes pregnant pauses, moving about the room, drawing quick and messy sketches on the board, changes accents, and being exhausted after class. Act it out. They won’t forget, for better and for worse.
- Major on the majors. I have taught these poems for ten years now, watched hours of lectures, read analyses, and even taken a few classes on Homer, and I still learn something new each year. I see greater truths, more beautiful poetic elements, and deeper consequences to the themes in both poems. It is easy (and possible) to go too deep; avoid that. Teach the poem faithfully, but don’t expect to teach it perfectly. With any piece of literature I’ve taught, I have never taught them the same way twice. This is especially true with these two poems, but I have taught them in a similar way, and I have made sure there are things I don’t leave out, even if I brought something new in this year which I had not brought in during previous years. Major on the majors, and require a good and proper understanding of the text; give the students the freedom to dive deeper into any of the parts that intrigue them personally. These poems are more than cathedrals; they are whole civilizations, and that means they are complex. Organize the most important components for the students: person, place, plot, poetic elements, and themes. And then give assignments which allow the students to deep dive where their interests guide. This does not mean make the poem an object of their adolescent subjectivism. It means do not make the poem an object of your dogmatism.