More than 100 local and not-so-local schoolchildren, teachers, and parents came to Reading on November 19th, 2014 for Experiencing Ancient Education, an event in which research by Reading Classicists on how ancient schools functioned was presented in action by creating a replica ancient schoolroom for a day.
Roman clothes were produced specially for the event by copying the garments on an ancient picture of a school (below), and all participants dressed in these costumes and learned in a room decorated as a replica of a real ancient schoolroom recently excavated in Egypt.
Windows looking out on the Nile river were contributed by an artist connected to the department (below), and the walls were painted by enthusiastic students and staff.
Participants practiced reading from a scroll of papyrus written in ancient fashion (i.e. no spaces between the words or other reading aids), writing on wax tablets, copying poetry onto ostraca (pieces of broken pottery), and doing mathematical calculations in Roman numerals.
The event also included a visit from the Classics Kitchen, which served delicious Roman food and sold beautiful recipe booklets as well as providing an opportunity to handle and learn about the different grain crops on which the Roman diet was based.
The Roman Shop, the source of much of the replica equipment used in the event, also had a stand displaying some of their beautiful and amazingly affordable merchandise, and the Ure museum offered participants an opportunity to handle real ancient objects and learn about their history.
Participants have expressed gratitude and enthusiasm for the event, along with hopes that we will repeat it. Their reflections on the value of the experience and how much could be learned from it are illuminating not only about the ancient world but also about our own. Here is a selection of comments from both the department’s own volunteers and the parents and teachers who brought children to our schoolroom:
“The whole day in all its aspects provided an interesting and enjoyable experience for both the public and the staff members involved, but certain things struck me particularly forcibly. The first was how easy it is, in fact, to exclude the outward signs of modernity: a few bolts of painted cloth and paper, and some straw, created a real sense of separation from the rest of the HumSS building and from the campus outside. As a result of this, and of their own enthusiasm, the ‘pupils’ in the ancient schoolroom behaved quite differently as they stepped through the door-curtain, leaving behind them the usual twenty-first century mannerisms and showing an amazing willingness to embrace the new experience of writing and learning in a different environment. It was eye-opening to have to grapple with the technical challenges of ancient writing materials, though – at risk of sounding patronising towards the ancients – it was immediately apparent that these had advantages quite as strong as their restrictiveness, especially in terms of sustainability, a quality pertinent to our present-day concerns: the re-use of ostraka and the smoothing out of wax tablets to receive the next set of text showed how in antiquity scarce and pricey resources were husbanded with inspiring care.” — Emma Aston, head teacher.
“Being a late antique headteacher was great fun and not much like any teaching I’ve done in any other context. We were all transported, through the smells (straw & sandals & later sweat) into another world in which you could barely tell the difference between boys/girls and children/adults … since we were all dressed identically (only we teachers were set apart by our majesterial chairs) and pupils & their usual teachers were crouched on the haystacks & ground together, sharing inkwells, all talking out loud! I particularly enjoyed the one-on-one aspect of the teaching, so that we could take each person on his or her own terms, helping her or him with whatever s/he wanted to do and whatever previous knowledge s/he may or may not have brought into the room.” — Amy Smith, head teacher.
“What terrific fun it was!” — Rachel Mairs, head teacher.
“The ancient school room was a fantastic experience to be a part of. I appreciate it was a great experience for the children – sitting in straw writing on all sorts of ancient materials. However, I can’t help but marvel at what I’ve been able to do and learn from the experience. In preparing the materials I was able to indulge in, what it is for us, an unusual and poetic translation of the start of the Iliad as well as some really interesting poems from our own British poets. Also, it is often difficult to visualise the things you are told in lectures. Being told they wrote on wax tablets, you think ‘but how does that work?’ Well, I enjoyed playing with the materials as much as the children did (especially the wax tablets). Of course it was also lovely to engage with the wider community and bring them into our marvellous world of Classics. It challenged my skills to teach as I had to adapt to the varying abilities of the students and varying knowledge that they had. Indeed ancient teachers would have clearly had to deal with this also! I would thoroughly recommend, if the Classics department do such an activity again, that any student get involved in any way they can.” — Rachael Hopley, student volunteer.
“Being involved in the ‘Ancient Schoolroom’ event was just as much of an education for me as it was for our visitors. In immersing myself through role-playing a teacher in an ancient schoolroom, I learnt a great deal about methods of ancient education. Our visitors also clearly enjoyed their time in the schoolroom, likely due to their fascination with the activities that are so far removed from any modern experience of school; indeed all the visitors that I spoke with were very quick to offer praise to both Eleanor and the department as a whole (I heard no criticism all day!). The schoolroom itself was unrecognisably transformed into an ancient schoolroom and the costumes were impressive. I believe that Eleanor’s attention to detail in the pursuit of authenticity was the primary reason for the success of the event.” — Chris Pritchard, student volunteer.
“It was such a great experience, and the atmosphere in the classroom was just magical!” — Bethan White, student volunteer.
“This opportunity to experience ancient life is one I wish I had as a child, especially as the schoolroom was impressively put together with amazing attention to detail. My favourite part was speaking to people of all ages about the objects and the Ure Museum during the handling sessions- it was lovely to see both the students and parents enjoying them.” — Rebecca MacRae, Ure Museum.
“You could see that the children that took part in the event enjoyed dressing up as Roman children and made excellent pupils in the classroom – I’ve never seen children more engaged – concentrating hard on the exercises they were given and queuing up to ask the teachers for more work! It became difficult to get the children to leave the class so that others could have their turn. I personally enjoyed checking whether the children knew that they should greet the teacher and other children when they entered the classroom, and was blown away when some children very naturally told me the greetings in Latin! An enjoyable day and wonderful opportunity for children to step back in time.” — Katie Mitchell, staff volunteer.
“The children clearly enjoyed every moment of it and it was so good to hear them come out saying ‘that was really fun’ or ‘that was fantastic’ which I heard more than once. The fact that they remained in the classroom for at least an hour despite it being really so hot in the morning indicates how much they were enjoying it. It was interesting that some of the younger ones were particularly taken with learning by heart and became quite competitive. So often we hear of learning by heart being dismissed by teachers and competition being thought of as a really bad thing! Maybe not….” — Jackie Baines, staff volunteer.
“I really enjoyed learning to calculate using Roman numerals. It isn’t as difficult as one might think: some calculations are actually easier than they are with our own numerals. What was much more challenging than I expected was writing on an ostracon with a reed pen. I’m looking forward to using an abacus next time!” — Philomen Probert, maths teacher.
“Thank you for letting me participate in such a brilliant event!” — from an outside volunteer.
“I totally loved the whole experience.” — from an outside volunteer.
“Just wanted to thank you for a superb time yesterday. … The girls absolutely loved the morning and were also raving about the handling session given to them in the Museum.” — from a teacher who brought her class.
“Thank you so much for organising a wonderful event. The girls and I thoroughly enjoyed it and they certainly took a lot away which will inform their learning once we study the topic later in the year. … The school room itself was wonderfully prepared and I loved the rushes on the floor … Please please do it again next year!” — from a teacher who brought her class.
“It was a big success and the students loved the whole experience.” — from a teacher who brought her class.
“Would just like to extend our thanks for the University making us feel so welcome and included in the project. I have received lots of positive feedback of how much they all enjoyed the day. Thank you again – they are already looking forward to next year.” — from the organizer of a group of homeschooling parents who brought their children to the event.
“I just wanted to thank you for being so helpful and accommodating regarding [child’s name] yesterday. She really enjoyed the event and didn’t want to leave! Bethan was really lovely with her – I wish that everybody [child’s name] comes across was so good with her! I have to say both [child’s name] and I preferred the Roman style of education to the modern “everyone learning the same” model! Setting up the schoolroom clearly involved an awful lot of work so many thanks for all of your efforts putting on such a great event.” — from a parent who brought a child with special needs.
“My two children really enjoyed the Roman school yesterday and both felt it was fun and educational. We would definitely recommend the day to others.” — from a parent.
“It was a fantastic experience for my daughter. The Roman alphabets copied by her on a piece of pottery was used by classmates to write their names. She also took a loaf a spelt bread to share with her class. A big thank you to all involved. Look forward to more events like this.” — from a parent.
“I really enjoyed the trip to Reading university, as I had a lot of fun and learnt lots about ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. My favourite part of the trip was learning about the genuine artefacts and handling them. It was amazing to see the miniature pots and jugs, that were used as toys. I was a bit nervous before I went into the ancient classroom but everyone was so relaxed and nice, that I had a great time. I particularly liked reading the extract from Homer’s Iliad, and writing on the wax tablets, which was actually quite hard to rub out. Overall I had a brilliant time and would recommend it to anyone interested in Classics, Latin or Greek.” — from a pupil named Emily.
“It was a really fun experience because we got to learn about the Romans first hand, in a way we’ve never been able to before.” — from pupils named Imogen and Josie.
“I really enjoyed the ancient classroom as it was fascinating to see how we would have been taught if we had been alive all those years ago.” — from a pupil named Ellie.
“I found it a highly enjoyable experience and realistic! I really liked the Classics kitchen! The exercises were really interesting and the schoolroom experience was a complete change to what we are used to. I am extremely lucky that I was able to go on this trip – and I am so glad that I did!” — from a pupil named Kim.
“The children were so full of enthusiasm and so careful and considerate (not a single prop was lost at the end of the day, and no one even spilled any ink!) that it was a great pleasure to welcome them to our department. Having spent years researching ancient education in the abstract, I found it tremendously exciting to try out in practice the teaching methods I have painstakingly reconstructed from the ancient sources — and it was wonderful to see how well those methods work! Since whipping recalcitrant children is a well-known feature of ancient education (though not one found in the materials I have been editing, since those materials were written by teachers and it is normally former students who mention whippings), we had many discussions beforehand about how to handle misbehaviour and whether to have any sham whippings. We decided it would be better not to risk frightening anyone by even an obviously fake whipping, but the really striking thing was that on the day itself it would have made no difference what we decided, since there was no misbehaviour at all. What a lovely set of participants!” — Eleanor Dickey, main organizer (for relevant publications see https://reading.academia.edu/EleanorDickey and http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/classical-studies/classical-languages/colloquia-hermeneumata-pseudodositheana).
We post below the report about the event in Reading’s Midweek Chronicle; see also the descriptions written by students from Farnborough Hill School, and by the Classics Kitchen.