Ideas/Reasons for Teaching the Bayeux Tapestry 1

I’ve taught a unit on the Bayeux Tapestry now for two years, and I like exploring it more and more each time. The Tapestry can make a great filler when you want to transition between units and try something quick and different! The Latin is easy, so it’s a chance for a lower-level Latin class to see authentic material sooner. How easy? There’s only two deponent words, a smattering of passives, and some easily glossable ut-clauses. The sentence structure is super simple – no complex word order, no periodic sentences, just the basics with some delayed subjects. A fair amount of repetitive vocabulary, too. You can expand the historical sources in an upper-level class to explore the period in greater depth by adding some of William of Malmsbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, selections from the Carmen de Hastingae proelio or the Vita Aedwardi Regis, or even Phaedrus.
The Tapestry is more than a simple embroidery of a famous battle scene with some easy Latin. It’s politicial propaganda, maybe (depending on who you read) with some subversive elements in it. It’s a collection of evidence of medieval dress and customs. It’s awash in references to popes, knights, kings, God, and feudalism. It’s a bestiary with references to Phaedrus’s fables. It has famous buildings still in use today. There’s mystery to explore – who is Aelfryga, for example, and did Harold really take an arrow to the eye, and who promised what to whom when and under what circumstances. It’s ultimately a testament as to why there’s so much Latin to be found within the English language. What’s not to love?
Here are a few things that I’ve done to really dig deep into the Tapestry. Hopefully you can find something here to inspire you!

  • Use the images to practice oral / written Latin! It’s easy to practice noun/adjective agreement, questions (what do you see? how many of x? What kind of x? What is someone doing?), participles (I see knights riding horses, etc.), or purpose clauses (Why are the soldiers cutting trees?)
  • Find the fables hidden in the Tapestry and puzzle out what messages their inclusion might mean. For example, one story, vulpes et corvus, is embroidered three times, each with the cheese in a different place, at significant places.
  • Study the politics between Edward, Harold, and William, and how they led to the war. The archbishops aren’t there for show, either, and indicate much of the power play going on behind the scenes to justify William’s invasion of England.
  • Examine the musical/metrical composition going on in the art. Really! Don’t believe me? Check out this theory of the way figures and scenes are laid out on the Tapestry.
  • Discuss issues of bias and propaganda, and how the Tapestry might have turned out differently under another patron, maybe one more favorable to the Anglo-Saxons.
  • Read related materials in Latin (see above) and compare / contrast with what is seen on the Tapestry.
  • Examine the spelling variations, font style, writing abbreviations, and other typographic features of medieval texts.

Ever done the Tapestry in one of your classes? I’d love to hear about what you did and what you thought about it.

Introducing History Through Debate 1

As a Latin teacher, I’m always eager to expose students to the great political sweep of epic events that is Roman history but stymied by the fact that students aren’t ready to read Suetonius, Livy, or Tacitus (not to mention our Greek sources) at real length and depth. Some textbook series include historical material, of course, but these readings are often basic and/or dry to many students and aren’t nearly as intriguing and inspiring without a lot of structuring by the teacher. At the same time I love rhetoric and persuasive technique, items central to the ancient thrust of education, another subject difficult for students to readily grasp when they’re still struggling with vocabulary, grammar, and the periodic structure, say, of Cicero’s speeches.
All of this was percolating in my head last year about the same time as I learned about the LAPIS Project’s CARD-tamen game decks and saw Kevin Ballestrini’s demonstration at the CANE 2012 conference. I thought struck me – could I use debate and argument as a method to examine the themes and personalities of the Romans?
I started by using the CARD-tamen deck as-is; I gave a pair of cards to each student (if you don’t know, a CARD-tamen deck consists of cards showing a person, place, divinity, etc. with some background information) and one of its debate topics (e.g. “What was more important to the development of Rome?”) Students had a week to research their cards and come back ready to debate in small groups of four students each. I created a basic rubric on which students were to debate and evaluate each other (use of time; relevance of facts; persuasiveness; confidence and body language), and then they’d trade cards for the next debate. Each student spoke for 1-2 minutes followed by a discussion within the group to determine the winner.
This initial structure had a few problems, but the biggest was that, since many students didn’t yet know the details of their peers cards, it was difficult for them to judge the validity of the opponents’ arguments. Students also lost cards occasionally, so my deck got smaller as the year progressed. The students also wanted a chance to rebut the arguments of their opponents, and so we added that into the rubric and the structure. Also, because the debates were peer-reviewed and varied widely between groups, it wasn’t always easy for me to critique individuals on technique or validity of argument. What to do?
I decided to structure a larger, class debate in which the students read Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla, argued over their use of power and propaganda, and ultimately took a side on whom they would support if they’d been a Roman living then. The debate was moderated by myself and judged by the principal and a pair of teachers who had a free period during the class. I used a structure a social studies colleague had suggested – intro statements by each side, rebuttals, and then final statements, with a break in-between each stage for students to formulate responses. This was very successful, and the greater depth allowed us to discuss afterward what kinds of arguments were valid and which weren’t, which informed their own future debates.
As part of the class midterm, students were paired up and given the topic of “Who was the better leader?” They could pick any Roman they wanted, but had to share their choice with their opponent. Each student researched and I evaluated them based on the same criteria I’d used in their peer debates, with the added category of rebuttal, in which I examined how well a student countered specific arguments made by the other side. Students liked this idea so much that I switched by model from random CARD-tamen cards to a pair of figures and a more-specific debate topic that each of the small groups used to debate.
I’ll continue to refine and use debating as a technique to study history. The students have a lot of enthusiasm (who doesn’t enjoy a good debate), and they’ll go to great lengths in research if it means they can one-up a friend or a rival in class. They’re always asking when our next debate is, and students in Latin 2 (I’d conducted the experiment in Latin 3) are already looking forward to it!
Does anyone include debate in their classes? I’d love to hear any experiences, tips, or tricks that you’ve used in your own classes, or how the experience works out for you if you try it for the first time.