Skyping and Classical Education

Our feature article this week comes from Charlie Bradshaw, the CANE President-elect, who teaches at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, Massachusetts.

Sometimes the incredibly friendly nature of CANE members, and the camaraderie among both its longest and newest members can translate into wonderful things for the kids we hope will follow our collective footsteps as lovers of all things classical. Last month on 10 April my Latin IV Honors class of 25 seniors experienced one of its best academic sessions of the year. I owe it to the kindness and accommodating spirit of Professor Margaret Graver who has taught for many years in the Classics Department at Dartmouth College. Margaret has many areas of expertise in the classics, and philosophy is prominent among them.
I have taught the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius for many years to seniors. It is a work that can have a profound effect on students when they wrap their arms around its enormous offering of ideas that by their very nature prompt them to get their critical thinking juices flowing. I was perusing the web for more Lucretius offerings when I spotted an interview of Margaret by a Dartmouth physics professor, part of an effort to encourage academic sharing across the college’s many disciplines. It’s an engaging thirty-two minute YouTube video about Lucretius worth its time in gold to enhance an understanding of this prolific, if not mysterious Roman author. ( I have known Margaret a long time, especially through the Cane Summer Institutes held at Dartmouth for nearly thirty years. She is a consummate professional, but also is approachable and supportive for those of us in secondary education. It doesn’t get any better than having such a solid connection with colleagues in CANE like Margaret. I contacted her to see if she had time, and would be willing to share an hour with my seniors via the medium of Skype. Margaret’s almost immediate response (despite my knowledge that the semester and end of year business would be facing her) was a cheerful “can-do.” The result was a Monday afternoon Latin IV Honors class channeling the knowledge and experience of someone in Hanover, New Hampshire with a group of young men and women in the Massachusetts Berkshires about to step into the next phase of their lives, something at once both daunting and exhilarating.
Each of the kids was asked to prepare beforehand a question emanating from a passage chosen earlier as a class exit project. The questions covered many of the topics found in this amazing first century BCE work, from the constant swerve of atoms, to life on other worlds, to human sexuality, abusive treatment of the planet, and the outbreak of the deadly plague in Athens centuries earlier. The genius of Lucretius’s dactylic hexameter and beautiful Latin alone are strong reasons to include it in an advanced level’s curriculum. There is such a treasure trove of topics—I could teach it all year long, for that matter. One by one students stood in front of the live camera, and I was proud of their poise. My principal attended the session (a former four-year student of mine), and remarked to me after the hour-long interaction, that Margaret answered their questions in a very professional and polished way, making them feel entirely comfortable. He also said that there was a feeling upon its conclusion, that the Skype could have lasted much longer, because the kids were energized both by Margaret’s respect for them and their questions, and for their feeling, for this hour at least, they really did” get out of high school.” I am sharing this with the CANE web site because I truly believe that this is the kind of reaching out in both directions we in classical education will have to do if we are to remain a vibrant and highly subscribed core academic discipline in the decades ahead. Don’t underestimate the importance and helpfulness of this kind of activity in your classroom, and of sharing your own classrooms with colleagues across the aisle via technology such as Skype. The rewards have both an immediate and potentially long-term effect both for students and their teachers.

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