What’s in my teaching bag: Roman Carbohydrates

Food is a great vehicle for learning. In addition to the fact that students tend to enjoy creating and consuming it, food is vitally important; it has sustained us as a species and defined our societies. It stands at the crossroads of history, language, culture, biological and agricultural science, and economics. In short, as a focus of study, it has a great deal of potential. However, in terms of bringing food studies into the Latin classroom, the Roman palate offers certain impediments. Romans commonly favored dishes like baked mackerel, grain mush, and liquified, fermented fish guts (liquamen or garum). While you can titillate a few students by describing black fish juices and porridge, ultimately, as a teacher in Middle School I needed a recipe or type of food that would pull the whole class’s interest and make them all clamor for more. 

Several years ago, after learning about the ancient loaves of bread preserved in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius, I realized that this might be just the ticket: an appealing, familiar, tasty cornerstone of Roman cuisine with direct links to our modern diet. Every so often I would come across a resource–a helpful tutorial from the British museum, the website Pass the Garum, as well as plenty of other sites–and at last I came to the conclusion that Ceres was on my side. It was time to bring this idea to the classroom. Why let French class have all the fun?

I picked out helpful terms and ideas from the resources available on Roman bread-making, double checked with my school’s kitchen to ensure that baking could take place, designated a day for the project on our calendar, and we were ready to go. I also created a post-project reflection to punctuate our work and to give students a chance to delve back into their materials and consider the significance of what they had done. In addition to complementing our unit on Pompeii and daily life for this quarter, the project provided ample opportunity to cross the border into other areas of study, as we discussed the amazing properties of yeast and gluten and the processes of refining grains, in addition to Roman farmers, the horrea where grain was stored, the bakeries in Pompeii, the Roman diet, and the derivatives of panis in English and Romance languages. It was an experiential project and led to some pretty interesting lines of inquiry.

For the purposes of time and space, instead of detailing the project in its entirety, I will include a few take-aways for me from this project:

I. dē fermentō: Yeast is fascinating. When I started this project, I knew that yeast was responsible for leavening bread and I wondered where Romans got it. The only bread yeast I used came in packets or jars at the grocery store. I soon found out that this perky little fungus is so plentiful in the environment that in order to create a bread starter, the Romans had to do no more than mix flour and water and wait. They probably did it by mistake. When the bubbles appear, you know your yeast is alive and you feed it until it is highly active. For the sourdough starter, I had my class make one sample of the initial starter and I cultivated it until it was time to use. There are myriad recipes for sourdough starter online, all of which I’m sure will work. I have tried making starter with different types of flour (white unbleached, white bleached, and rye) and water (both filtered and chlorinated from the tap) and the yeast have never failed to spring to life. The yeast industrial complex apparently has us all fooled.     

II. dē gaudiō: Students do indeed love making and eating food. It was a field trip within the confines of the school. They enjoyed the messy work of mixing, kneading, and shaping their loaves, and they couldn’t get enough of the baked product, which turned out to be beyond delicious. Fluffy, warm, and nutty. The room smelled like a million denariī:


III. dē cibō: If you’re not into baking, this might not be the project for you. In the process of tailoring the recipe and designing the activity, I made a half dozen different loaves of bread and babied sourdough starter for days. As a lover of food–and bread in particular–I enjoyed the process, but it may not be your cup of tea.

IV. dē labore: As an addition to our unit on Pompeii, this was a lovely project. Students were invested in the process of making bread and learning about it along the way. This said, it took hours of planning, shopping, coordination, and a day of dedicated class time. If you are already running short on time, it might not be your first choice. Nonetheless, it could be a fun activity for a Latin or History club at your school.

V. dē faciendō: Here is the recipe I used (dē faciendō panem). I adapted and simplified it somewhat from several recipes for Roman bread and sourdough bread. I hope you can try it out and let me know what happens!


L.A.R.P. in the Classroom

L.A.R.P. stands for “Live Action Role Playing.” It may sound odd, but chances are good that if you’ve ever run a classroom you have asked students to dress like, write like, act like, or argue in the mindset of a historical figure or fictional character. These active, imaginative modes of imitation speak to the essence of L.A.R.P. A few years ago I decided to implement some L.A.R.P. tactics in my middle school classroom.

I learned about extended classroom role playing projects at a teaching seminar in the summer of 2014; we discussed RTTP (Reacting to the Past) pedagogy embraced and developed at Barnard College in which students take on roles of historical figures and engage in debates about events as they are revealed by the “Gamemaster” (i.e., the professor). Students use primary and secondary sources in order to inform their discussions. In the seminar, we talked about potential benefits of this kind of activity. Some suggested that taking on a role in history would increase level of student interest and engagement with the important questions of history. Students might learn to feel more empathy for others. The activity could also promote independent thinking and curiosity, provide practice with communication, and promote literacy skills involved in interpreting primary and secondary sources. With hopes set high, a colleague and I decided to implement a version of RTTP at the middle school level in our own classrooms.

Inspired by one of the Barnard programs, we assigned each student a role in the Roman senate and played out debates in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. I won’t go into the nitty gritty here, but ultimately, many of our desired results were achieved. Students became excited about the classical history and the class. They dove into primary sources and historical events. They sought out their own answers for questions and discoursed with their peers. They understood key points about the history. I was even able to rope in some language content and concepts using “graffiti” projects and short Latin compositions.

The challenges of this activity had to do with planning and implementing a project of this size in the time allotted. A protracted game with complex characters took many steps to set up. Scaffolding was key and takes time. Three years now using a similar project has resulted in my cutting down what students need to know to the most important points, reformatting all of the primary source materials, and focusing in on how to best “debrief” debates in order to avoid anyone going away with the impression that Caesar’s body was dumped into the Tiber. It took ample preparation to maintain continuity between debates, try to create meaningful assessments and assess students’ work, and role play during class time.

After discussing this project at length with my colleague from the seminar and with other teachers at school, I have come to a couple of conclusions about this level of role playing in the classroom. These may already be quite obvious to you!

  • It’s worth it. Most students enjoy role playing. They get into the ideas and they like to be empowered in their roles.
  • Students don’t always understand the activity. They need resources that clearly show them how to become this other person and frequent review of how to engage with their peers. A fishbowl framework will be my strategy this year.
  • The activity should either be everything you do in class, encompassing language learning and cultural units, or downsized to be a much smaller learning activity to spice up your classroom like a Saturnalia celebration. Balancing a sizable role playing agenda with separately language learning is a difficult task.

I would be excited to hear about your experiences, strategies, and opinions concerning classroom role playing in the comments or at C.A.N.E. this year.

The Epic History Timeline 1

For some reason, I have found that whenever I get my upper level students, they have no historical context for what we are reading.  This year, I worked very hard on giving my Latin 2 students that context, so that they would have it for Latin 3.  But how to make them retain it?

This is where I came up with the Epic History Timeline.  You will need:  three rolls of that wide Bulletin Board Paper (Colors make it look awesome!), Colored pencils/Markers (Markers stand out more!), and devices that can access the internet.

I gave my students these instructions:

“Working in groups of 3, your mission, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to outline a period of Roman history on a Timeline.  You must find 20 or more events for your time period.

Your group will select this time period by chance.  Working in your group of three, you will each need to choose a role:

*Exquisitor—You will be researching the chosen time period on your phone and will be in charge of describing the event to the Scriptor and the Pictor.

*Scriptor—You will, on the description of the Exquisitor, put the event on the timeline, and write a concise description of the event.

*Pictor—You will draw a picture of the event on the timeline.

Once you have put together your piece of the timeline, you will present it to the class, discussing your events and their significance to Roman History.  Then, add your timeline piece to the timeline.

Don’t forget to put your names on your section!”

They then drew their time periods out of a hat.  I had seven groups, so I split the time periods up like this:

The Monarchy (753 BC to 509 BC)

Early Republic (510 BC to 367 BC)

Mid Republic (366 BC to 132 BC)

Late Republic (133 BC to 31 BC)

Early Empire (30 BC to 68 AD)

Mid Empire (68 AD to 96 AD)

Mid Empire 2 (96 AD to 180 AD)

Each group was instructed to cut 4 feet of bulletin board paper, and get started.  The results were spectacular!  This project took two to three 1.5 hour classes, from start to finish.  (Three classes for most of my classes!)  Each group presented their section to the class and talked about why the events in their section were important to Roman history.  We then pieced the timelines together and hung them up All over the school.  These things are a work of art!

(And, yes, I did give them a quiz about it, with fantastic results.)

I love this project because there is something for everyone.  Those who would rather research can do so; those who have the gift of neat handwriting can make use of that talent; and, of course, the ones who like to draw can do that too.  The students need to internalize and own the historical events so that they can explain them clearly to their peers. This project worked extremely well for my students and I hope yours enjoy it too!