Why is tutoring so effective?

As a teacher of 21 years as I have spent my day job teaching groups of 25, 30 or even more. I remain fascinated by the different dynamics of the one-to-one setting in comparison to the mainstream model.

One-to-one tutoring is remarkably powerful compared to what teachers can achieve in the mainstream classroom. As a tutor, I have taken students from the bottom of their class to the top; I have also witnessed other tutors do exactly the same for students who were at the bottom of my own classes. So what is it about what tutors do that can make us so effective?

The overwhelming benefit comes – in my opinion – from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. I usually uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I imagine a student’s developing knowledge of a subject as like a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. This is where tutoring comes in: repointing, replacing and reinforcing the bricks as required.

During the process, a tutor can build a real relationship of trust. Some of these students are so convinced that they’re “rubbish” or simply can’t do it that the revelation that they can understand the concepts in front of them is remarkably powerful. It is not that a tutor necessarily knows their subject and better than the classroom teacher – it is the fact that a tutor has one-to=one time dedicated solely to one child’s needs; it is also that the tutor is (or should be) skilled in identifying and resolving a host of minor misconceptions or gaps in a child’s knowledge that are holding them back. The result can seem like a miracle.

There’s a lot of talk in education that teachers can and should be doing this – that through the right kind of differentiation every single child’s needs can be met by their classroom teacher. The truth? This is absolute nonsense. Of course classroom teachers can’t do that, as anyone who has been one will tell you. Of course children with particular needs can fall behind in the mainstream classroom – those who have missed a large amount of the curriculum through absence, those with SEND, those who have fallen behand for whatever reason and indeed those who are ahead of their peers.

Students who often suffer the most are the quiet ones – they can fall behind without being noticed; yet they can have enormous potential in a subject – again without being noticed. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In tutoring, that’s the moment to pause and rewind: it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only do I not have time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality is I am more than likely to miss the majority of them in the sea of 30 faces.

Like anything, there are of course downsides to the one to one setting as well as benefits. Tutoring can be at risk of lacking direction – you’re potentially not following a set curriculum, rather tailoring each session to the child, and as a result the sessions can seem to lack direction and it can be hard for inexperienced tutors to assess where to go next in terms of content. Similarly, how does one pitch one’s expectations and also how does one manage those of a client who’s paying for our services? Some parents see a tutor as the panacea for everything, not realising that what their child needs is – for example – some basic but regular help with learning their vocabulary. Of course, tutors can and should advise on the methodology, and there is definitely a place for a skilled subject-expert working on vocabulary with a child as part of their time together; but parents sometimes need to invest a little of their own time in their children’s progress too. Vocabulary learning should be done little and often (ideally in short bursts every single day); so unless you can afford to employ a full-time live-in tutor (and believe me, there are some families who actually do so!) then you need to spend some time on supporting your child with their learning.

One of the biggest issues to consider in the one-to -one setting is the risk of cognitive overload, especially in sessions lasting an hour. (I counsel clients against the hour-long model for this very reason). One-to-one tutoring is remarkably intense, both for the student and for the tutor, so we really do need to consider how to pace our sessions to mitigate against this. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and can make students even more anxious and overwhelmed; tutors need to consider how not to over-burden students’ working memory during the session whilst still keeping the level of challenge high.

I have enjoyed my 21 years at the chalkface immensely and my time in the mainstream classroom has gifted me with what I hope will be a long-lasting insight into the problems that my clients are facing when they come to me; it also grants me an insight into the challenges faced by teachers and my aim will always be to support them in the almost insurmountable challenges they face. Tutors should never undermine the classroom teacher, nor use resources that could ruin their lesson: there is nothing worse for a classroom teacher than handing out a resource and then hearing a child pipe up “I did this with my tutor at the weekend!” So don’t do that, please! In an ideal world, a tutor should be able to communicate with the classroom teacher to enable a powerful support network to form around a child who is struggling – I think we are a long way off teachers reaching that level of trust just yet (something I might explored in another post), but I hope to see it happen before the end of my career.

Summer term: and the teaching is not easy

It never fails to depress me just how much curriculum time goes out of the window in the second half of the summer term. This yearly saga is not simply the inevitable result of the students (not to mention the staff) being frankly desperate to begin their summer holidays; the atmosphere is facilitated – even promoted – by our school systems and by the people who organise them. Boy, do we make life difficult for ourselves in the summer term.

The run-down to the summer holiday has always been punctuated by events that disrupt the calendar. Year 10 Work Experience, that hilarious misnomer “curriculum week”, sports day, reward events and summer camps of various guises; one of my clients talked about an ominous-sounding “bush week” – something I am very glad to say I have never been forced to endure in my career. To some extent, these events in themselves send a message to students that we’re in summer festival mode and it’s time to wind down. Yet some of them (perhaps – dare I say it – even the bush week) have unquestionable value and I acknowledge that they have to happen sometime. So why not now?

One of the things I have thought about the most in my final year at the chalkface is the messaging we send out to our students: not just in what we say but in what we do. There is much talk about how important it is to model good behaviour, to show students what “good” looks like by demonstrating excellence, good manners and commitment at all times. So what message are we sending them, do we think, when things start winding down three weeks prior to the end of term? Three weeks is around 8% of the curriculum time we have with them. That’s 8% of curriculum time that is so disrupted that the only way to manage it as a classroom teacher is basically to write it off; I’ve always said that if you haven’t finished the overwhelming majority of what you need to teach by May half term then you’re going to struggle to finish it at all, as the second half of the summer term is a total bun-fight. My worry, however, is that this messaging leads to one inevitable conclusion for our students: that the curriculum doesn’t really matter that much after all.

Beyond the realities of curriculum time, we also create quite a problem for ourselves when it comes to behaviour. Children thrive on routines and boundaries and when those routines and boundaries become disrupted then behaviour gets worse. We all know this. Yet in some schools, just one day’s hot weather apparently means that students can’t possibly wear their (summer) uniform and are instead allowed to attend school in their PE kit – a concession that puzzles me given that at least one of the purposes of school is to prepare them for adult working life; last time I checked, most employers don’t allow their workforce to come into the office in a pair of loose-fitting boxers just because the thermometer has hit 30 degrees for a day or two. By all means, encourage students to remove blazers, loosen ties, remove garters or adjust whatever other crazy form of attire the school has chosen as its marker; this would happen in most adult settings – even the most formal – in extreme weather conditions. However, if schools choose to have a uniform (and most schools do) then the messaging has to be that the wearing of that uniform not only matters but matters a great deal. Why? Because otherwise the subliminal message that you’re sending out is this: we have rules, but they don’t always get enforced and so in the grand scheme of things they don’t actually matter.

Incidentally, uniform and how it is worn is something I have completely changed my mind about over the years. When I first entered the profession I saw no no reason whatsoever to sanction students for not tucking in their shirts or doing up their ties. “What does it matter?” I thought. “I want them to be thinking about the learning, not fussing about their clothes.” Correcting a child’s uniform seemed to me to be part of the gradgrindian system that I – a liberal educationalist- was dead set against. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I now believe that if we are in the business of preparing young people for all walks of life then that applies to everything: the fact that they may have to dress and act a certain way in certain circumstances, the fact that institutions have rules that they will be expected to respect if they want to be part that institution (their choice either way – that’s part of the gift we impart to them). Beyond this, and perhaps even more crucially, it simply isn’t fair to expect children to understand that adults mean what they say but only in certain circumstances; that some rules matter but others don’t; that I mean what I say when I tell students not to talk over each other, or not to run in the corridors, but not when I ask them to correct their uniform. My view would be that if you can’t get on board with being strict on uniform then get rid of it.

This final summer in school has felt like the hardest. Schools have been under immense pressure to cram in all the activities that our students have missed out on in the last couple of years. We feel like we owe them and in many ways I believe that we do. Society owes a great debt to its youth, whose lives have been curtailed and controlled to a degree that – in any normal circumstances – we would consider completely unacceptable. And not only that, they have been curtailed for the sake of the oldest and most vulnerable members of society. In all honesty I have been truly stunned at how they have taken it with such extraordinary good grace: we all owe them a great deal of gratitude. Yet – in my view – that debt is not paid by pandering to their every whim and by punching yet more holes in a curriculum that has already been eviscerated. Indeed no. We offer them that payback by being our most consistent, most loving, most insistent best. By believing that they can handle it.

Show me your best is now my mantra: for I believe that we can and should expect more of our young people: that they can do so much better than most adults expect them to do.

10-mark literature questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

Last week I examined style questions in the set text examination, including the 8-mark question. Such questions are without doubt the most challenging element of the literature exam. The 10-marker, by contrast is remarkably easy, yet students – if not given specific guidance and a good deal of practice – tend not to score as highly as they could.

It took me a while to realise that students needed a good deal more preparation for this element of the exam than I had been giving them. At first I assumed that because the question seemed so straightforward, I only had to tell students what to do and they’d smash it out of the park. The reality, of course, is that students actually need a great deal of modelling as well as practice before they can achieve top marks in any extended answer. The process is definitely worth it, not least because this question is worth a whopping 20% of the student’s performance in that paper.

A key thing to remember about the 10-mark question is that the examiner is using it to test the student’s knowledge of the whole prescription, going beyond the small handful of passages that can be included on the paper. This means that – in order to score highly – students must reference the whole prescription. Students should quote the text in English translation (not in Latin – this will only waste their time and risk errors). Students do not (of course) have to quote the translation word for word – how would this be possible when the examiner will not be privy to the particular translation that they or their teacher has produced? Rather, a clear reference to the text is enough: the rule of thumb is that if the examiner can recognise the line or lines of the text being referred to then it counts as a reference. For example, from Sagae Thessalae I might mention the moment when the weasel appears and stares Thelyphron straight in the eye; this is not a quotation from the text but it will be very clear to the examiner which section of the text I am referring to.

Students need to make as many such references to the text as they can for their answer to qualify as “wide-ranging” enough for a high mark. They should make sure to quote from the beginning, the middle and the end of the text for the same reason – answers that focus on just one part of the text will be capped. Other than that, so long as they write in paragraphs and address the question, the process is very simple.

Below is a video from my YouTube channel in which I explore the 10-mark question in detail:

It is crucial to get students to practise this style of question from early on and the process of doing so can be a really useful way of reminding them that they should be revisiting sections of the text that they have already learned. My methodology in recent years has been to include a question of this style at the end of every test I give them; in the early stages, when they have only learned one or two sections, I might make it worth fewer marks, but I still train them in the process of how to approach this kind of question. As they progress further through the text the questions can become full 10-markers. This method has worked really well and has enabled students to practise until they find the process as straightforward as it should be – there really is nothing difficult about this kind of question, but it’s amazing how many good students miss out on the marks because they’re not sure what’s required of them.

Like with the style questions, it will be necessary to remind students not to use the same approach as they have been prepared for in their English literature examinations; they are not expected to explore individual quotations in detail (arguably, what would be the point of doing this in translation anyway?) and they should remember that the examiner’s goal is to check their knowledge and understanding of the text as a whole. In addition, it is also crucial to keep reminding them that the examiner is looking for volume – he cannot reward an answer that gives only three or four textual references that are explored in detail, no matter how well-argued the answer is: he needs evidence that the student knows the whole of the text and knows it really well.

More than one examiner has expressed frustration that they are sometimes presented with highly intelligent and extremely well-argued answers that they cannot reward with a top-band mark because the student’s answer does not fit the mark scheme. This is, of course, the eternal problem with examinations at this level, and the only way to give our students the best fighting chance of success is to inform ourselves by reading the examiners’ reports and attending the training sessions put on by OCR or by Keynote, whose courses are run by examiners – sometimes the Chief Examiner – and which I have found invaluable in the past. I would also highly recommend to any teacher that they apply at least once to be a professional marker, as the best way to have a mark scheme properly demystified for you is to attend the training laid on for the examiners themselves.

Literature style questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

The questions that students struggle with the most in the OCR literature examinations are the style questions. In each literature examination, students will face a variety of short-answer questions that focus on style. Most challengingly, they will need to answer an 8-mark question on one selected passage, which will direct them to “refer to the Latin and discuss a range of stylistic features such as choice, sound and position of words.” By “refer to the Latin” the examiner means that they must quote it in their answer – it might seem strange to labour that point but students don’t always understand that this is actually what it means. In addition, it is important for the examiner to have evidence that the student understands the meaning of the word or words that they have quoted, so including a translation in brackets afterwards is a useful habit for them to develop.

One of the reasons that students struggle with style questions is – in my opinion – an excessive reluctance to develop their own response to the text and an over-zealous reliance on style notes provided by the teacher. For this reason, I radically changed my approach. In recent years, I have resisted all pleas to provide printed, written style notes to students. There are many reasons for this and none of them relate to workload; style notes are actually pretty easy to churn out and many teachers (including myself in the past) have always used them as a simple solution to ensuring that students have everything they need to prepare for the examination. Printed style notes can form a kind of security blanket both for us and for them – we feel we’ve given them every possible detail, they feel like they’ve got the information at their fingertips. But have they really got what they need?

In my experience, printed style notes are used poorly and students can often have a very limited understanding of the contents within them. Furthermore, they are nigh-on impossible to learn off by heart. This statement may surprise followers who are aware of my recommendation that GCSE students do learn the translation of the set text off by heart and it is true to say that I am a huge fan of learning by rote in the right context. Learning things off by heart – so long as you use the right techniques – is something any student can do, and it can provide them with a huge sense of advantage in the examination. However, whilst this process is easily done for the translation of a text using the first-letter technique and electronic flashcards (for advice on this see a previous blog post), it is a Sisyphean task to learn all the style notes. Whilst it’s what students say they want to do, in reality I’ve never had a student manage it successfully; there is simply too much material of too abstract a nature, so I do not believe that rote-learning is the best approach in this instance.

So what do I do instead? Well, I model the process of looking at a passage of Latin (one which they have already learned) and finding something to say off the top of my head. I then make students do this themselves on a regular basis, to mimic the kind of situation in which they will find themselves in the examination. Not only does this put the onus on them to be taking notes as they prepare and practise, it makes them much better prepared for the same process at A level.

It is worth remembering that students at GCSE level do not need to know a single piece of stylistic terminology in order to get top marks in the literature examination. Personally, I quite like technical terms, but a lot of students are put off by words like metonymy and polyptoton. I do teach them the terms as I go but I reassure them again and again that recalling the definitions of those terms and regurgitating them in the examination is not necessary – for this reason, again, I have stopped printing off a lexicon of stylistic terms, which some students find nothing but intimidating. Instead of this, I teach them some basic principles of things to look out for, using a ludicrously straightforward acronym: MRS VP:

Vivid (historic) present

Below is a video from my YouTube channel detailing what I mean by these different terms and how they can be applied to the 8-mark question in the OCR examination:

The advice in the video is based on more than one training course I have been to, at which examiners explained how the 8-mark questions are judged. Equally challenging are the shorter-answer style questions, which often demand the same kind of quality points; however, these do specify clearly how many points are required and much of a student’s answer can be based on the meaning of the Latin in front of them, so long as they say something insightful about it.

Teaching students the MRS VP acronym is the first step. You then need to model the process for them by putting a passage of the text up onto the board using a projector or a visualiser and showing them how to use those basic principles to find things to say. I usually make it clear to students that I have not “prepared” the passage beforehand, i.e. that I am relying on my skills to think of things to say on the spot – this is, after all, what they will have to do in the examination. Likewise, I teach them other simple tricks such as running their finger down the first word in every line of a piece of verse and considering whether they could say something about it – an immediate guaranteed style point because it will focus on the position of words.

I have found these kinds of methods much more effective in the long-term and I cling to the fact that this part of the examination requires students to have developed some skills rather than acquired lots of knowledge: let’s face it, there is quite enough content in the literature examination that relies on rote-learning and we really don’t need to add to it.

A final point that few teachers realise is that it is extremely important to acknowledge to students that the way they must write about literature in their Latin examination will differ from how they are being trained to write about it in their English lessons. I am at a slight advantage here having taught English up to GCSE level for several years during my career. In my experience, it is important to teach them explicitly not to mention punctuation, which they will be in the habit of remarking upon in their English literature, especially in the process of studying modern poetry. However, this is not the only area of caution. In English literature, students are taught to “say a lot about a little” – in other words, to unpack and explore each individual quotation in enormous detail before moving on to the next one. In the Latin examination, by contrast, the examiner is looking for volume, so students really don’t need to explore the quotation in anything like as much depth: quote the Latin, tell the examiner what it means, say something reasonably intelligent about it (e.g. the verb is promoted to the beginning of the line and in the historic present, making its meaning vivid) then move on. Latin examiners may believe that they are asking students to write “in depth” but the reality is that they are not required to develop their ideas in the same level of detail as they need to in order to gain top marks in an English literature examination; this seems only right and fair given that they are being tested on similar skills but applying them to a text in an ancient language rather than their own.

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep is the nickname given to a sonnet by Petronius in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. Petronius was a poet, an author and a courtier during the reign of the emperor Nero and is widely believed to have been the author of the Satyricon during the 1st century AD. He seems to have been the author of numerous short poems, including this one. We have around 30 of hia surviving.

lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
‘tu famulus meus’, inquit, ‘ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?’
exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter impedio, nullum iter expedio.
nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus turbaque fida canum:
ego solus ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.

“Settled on my bed, I was beginning to enjoy the first silence of the night scarcely yet begun, and was yielding my drooping eyes to sleep, when fierce Love laid hold of me, and hauled [me] up by the hair and ordered [me], shattered [as I was] to wake up. He said, ‘can you, my servant, when you love a thousand girls, lie alone – hey! – alone! [and] hard?’ I leapt up and, with bare feet and dishevelled robe, started on my journey, yet never accomplished it. Now I hurry forward, now am loathe to go; and again I regret that I have returned, and it shames [me] to stand in the middle of the street. So the voices of men and the hum of the streets and the song of birds, and the trusty crowd of watchdogs all are silent: I alone out of all [of them] dread both sleep and the couch and follow your command, great Cupid.”

Let us take a closer look at this wonderful poem in a little more detail, examining some of the sorts of stylistic features which students should be taught to look out for. (I will be examining the process of how to go about teaching them to do this in next week’s blog post).

In the first line, sibilance creates a sense of night-time and the juxtaposition of vix prima (“scarcely” and “first”) stresses that the poet is only just at the point of dozing off. In the second line, sound play of the letters m and n continues the soporific tone and we have the metaphor of lumina victa – a metaphor for the poet’s eyes becoming heavy (lumina – literally “lights” or “lamps” was often used in poetry to represent the eyes). The framing of that line with two imperfect verbs carpebamdabam completes a clear picture of the poet just easing into sleep and justifies the translation of “beginning to …”. A sudden change of pace occurs in the third line, which is packed with a greater number of syllables, creating a sense of sudden shock as if jerking awake. The sibillance this time creates a threatening tone, with the oxymoron of saevus Amor (fierce Love) emphasised by the juxtaposition.

In lines 3-4 Petronius switches into the vivid or historic present and uses a tricolon of three verbs in quick succession, adding to the sudden sense of action after the imperfect verbs and soporific tone of the previous lines. The aggresive shift in tone is notable in Petronius’ violent choice of words: saevus (“fierce” or “savage”), prensat (laid hold of me), lacerum (“shattered” or “lacerated”).

The use of the word famulus in line 5 is also deliberate. The word was used of a slave whose role was as a personal attendant, suggesting that Petronius must fulfil Cupid’s every whim. In lines 5-6 the assonance of the letter u, sibilance, and the emphatic placement of cum (usually the first word in clause), the hyperbolic mille puellas (a thousand girls) placed at the end of the line and the soundplay of the repeated -ll– which draws attention to it, the repetition of solus, the exclamation io and the humorous use of dure (hard) to describe the author and his predicament all create a tone of exasperation on the part of Cupid and craft an amusing image of the poet rudely awakened by his desires.

The use of the vivid present and the placement of exsilio at the start of line 7 show the author’s instant reaction and obedience to Cupid. The fact that he sets out pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta (with bare feet and dishevelled robe) paints a vivid and comical picture of the unkempt author roaming the streets in his night attire. In lines 7-8, three elisions in two lines add to the sense of haste and in line 8 the use of the opposites omne and nullum, the repetition of iter and the use of figura etymologica (two words which share the same root i.e. impedio and expedio) all stress that the author has explored every place and means possible of finding a girl. omne iter impedio can be interpreted as the author’s clumsy and desperate attempts to accost girls in the street, quite literally blocking their way. By the same token, nullum iter expedio (literally “I free up no route”) can also be interpreted as a double entendre referring to his lack of success.

In lines 9-10 the use of plosives and rolling r sounds add to the image of the stumbling and vacillating poet, rushing one minute to find a girl, then feeling confused, exhausted and ashamed of himself the next. The ascending tricolon of nuncnuncrursum portrays the author’s turmoil, dismay and increasing despair. The tricolon of plosive negatives in line 10 highlight his regret: piget paenitetpudor est.

At the start of line 11 the use of the emphatic imperatives ecce and tace, further emphasised by the allieration of k sounds along with voces, redirect our attention from the disordered author to his surroundings and the lateness of the hour. The jumbled word order of lines 11-12 mimics the confused sounds which they describe as being notable by their absence. In line 13 the use of the opposites solus and cunctis along with the emphatic placement of solus at the start of the line, juxtaposed with ego, all highlight the absurdity of the poet finding himself here alone in the street in the middle of the night when he should be in bed and asleep.

In line 13 we return to soporific soundplay emphasising the pleonasm of somnumque torumque (sleep … bed), all of which stresses author’s insomnia, as does use of the strong verb paveo (dread). Any insominiac will understand the poet’s torturous relationship with his bed, which he both craves and fears in equal measure. The vocabulary of the last line takes us back to the imagery of the poet as the slave to Cupid’s mastery, with sequor imperium … tuum (I follow your command). The prayerlike address to magne Cupido (great Cupid) and the emphatic postponement of tuum to the end of the line again stresses the author’s complete obedience to Cupid’s command.

Conflicting Emotions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Conflicting Emotionas is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 85 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. At only two lines long it is quite remarkable how influential this short elegiac couplet has been. It is a masterpiece in brevity and exceptionally effective

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you enquire?
I have no idea, but I sense it happening and I am in torment.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

odi et amo is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. The tone is quite different from How Many Kisses? which I discussed in last week’s blog post, and where Catullus appears to enjoy being at the mercy of his lover. There is an underlying rage in this bitter, terse two-liner that bubbles with unanaswered questions.

Whilst I provide a translation above for the uninitiated, it is best to forget about translating it word for word. The structure of the poem is almost as important as the words themselves. Noting how and where certain words are placed allows you to see what the poet was trying to achieve. In a language where poetry doesn’t rhyme and where word order is more flexible than English, these are some of the elements that separate mundane writing from the truly exceptional.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The first word is a verb, the second a conjunction, the third a verb. Go to the end of the couplet to see the same construction. Now note the meanings of these four verbs: (odi) hate, (amo) love, (sentio) feel, and (excrucior) – which literally means “I am being crucified”: two negatives and two positive emotions. Not only are there two very strong negative emotions, but they’re competing for prominence in this poem by taking first and ultimate place. This forms a cross-shape called a chiasmus.

The chiasmus is much easier to construct in Latin, but it can be used to good effect in English. The method involves using a simple ABBA structure and can be created through the repetition of individual words or types of words. Here is a famous example:

“It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” (Mae West).
Here the words men-life-life-men are used in a chiastic structure.

In Catullus’ poem, he uses different words and a more complex structure to create a pattern of conflicting emotions: negative-positive-positive-negative. It encapsulates the whole conceit of the poem.

It is worth mentioning Catullus’ use of the word excrucior, since the Romans were very much in the business of crucifixion, something which I have discussed in detail before. It was arguably the cruelest punishment used by the Romans, who were experts in torture and death. The length of time it took to die ranged from a matter of hours to a number of days, depending on exact methods, the health of the crucified person and environmental circumstances. The Latin words for crucifixion are the origin of our adjective “excruciating”, the full meaning of which is the idea that Catullus is trying to capture here. He is being metaphorically crucified by the state of his emotions and is in extreme agony; the fact that crucifixion involved stretching out and stringing up the body develops the image, since Catullus wants us to imagine him beiing pulled in all directions against his will.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The word patterns continue with the verbs of doing, faciam and fieri. In the first doing verb (faciam), Catullus is doing it, and in the second (fieri), it is being done to him: just like the active verb odi vs. the passive excrucior. There is also a third parallel construction. requiris (you ask) matched by the answer nescio (I don’t know).

The poem is usually nicknamed odi et amo and this minimalist opening in many ways sums up Catullus’ entire condition. He hates and he loves, in equal measure. His decision to place odi first overshadows the tone of the poem, which opens with the fact of his hatred and closes with the excruciating pain being inflicted upon him by his affair with Lesbia.

Students tend to respond well to this poem and it is a good, manageable opportunity to teach them the very limits of translation and to develop their understanding of how much more can be gained from studying a work in the original language. Thanks to its extreme brevity, students can quickly get used to working on this poem without the prop of an English translation underneath; this is a great way to teach them how to engage with the Latin as a language in its own right. By the same token, the poem is also a great place to start in order to teach students about the critical importance of word placement when it comes to all Latin literature, but particularly verse. If they can grasp this, it will really help then to engage with the style questions at GCSE and then with the whole approach to literature at A level, when reliance on a word-for-word translation will become less and less important or indeed an effective method of preparation for the examinations.

In next week’s blog post I will be examining the final short poem included in the 2023 and 2024 selections, which is an extract of Petronius nicknamed Love Will Not let the Poet Sleep. It will then be time to take a closer look at approaches to style – just how do we teach it effectively help students to engage with the process rather than rely entirely on trying to learn hundreds of individual style notes off by heart?

How Many Kisses?

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

quaeris quot mihi bastiones
tua Lesbia sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aetuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulchrum;
aut quam sidera multa cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

“You ask, Lesbia, how many [of] your kisses are enough and more than enough for me. As great a number as [the grains of] Libyan sand [that] lie in silphium-producing Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus. Or as many as the stars [which], when night is still, observe the secret love-affairs of men. To give you this many kisses is enough and more than enough for a feverish Catullus: so many that prying people cannot count them, and wicked tongues cannot bewitch them.”

How Many Kisses is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 7 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. It is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. Catullus’s style was deliberately personal and avant-garde, in stark contrast to traditional poetry in the grand style; he wrote passionate, irreverent and sometimes lewd dedications to a string of lovers but most famously to Lesbia. His work is highly individualistic, humorous and emotive.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

Unlike the GCSE set texts that I have examined in my three previous blog posts, Catullus 7 is extremely short, which means that we have the space to examine it in some considerable detail.

Catullus addresses Lesbia directly, purpotedly in answer to a flippant question on her behalf. Is Catullus insatiable? So it seems. Catullus’ tone in the whole poem places Lesbia firmly in control: he is at the mercy of her charms and his desire for them is prodigious. This is a theme that is repeated across much of his poetry.

Catullus invents the word basationes for humorous effect: the 2nd declension neuter noun basium (picked up again in line 9) was the colloquial term for a kiss, but here he adjusts its composition to mimic the more formal 3rd declension noun osculatio (plural osculationes). So how many of these basationes will satisfy Catullus?

This kind of hyperbole is a poetic feature that students may have met before; many of them will have studied To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, as it is included in the AQA Anthology for English literature, and if they are familiar with it this should make an excellent point of comparison since it uses both Classical imagery and hyperbole in the same way that Catullus is doing here. The first half of Marvell’s poem is a classic example of this kind of hyperbolic conceit:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

The metaphysical poets such as Marvell aped a similar style to that of Catullus; their works were both humorous and intellectual, designed to tease and cajole the object of their affections into bed. In our poem, Catullus exaggerates the number of basationes that he requires from Lesbia by comparing them to uncountables: the fact that the sand is Libyan and lies between the two famous sites of the tomb of Battus and the oracle of Jupiter in Cyrene adds colour and vibrancy and is an acknowledgement of Lesbia’s education and culture: she is a docta puella, a girl of education and discernment.

Silphium is somewhat mysterious to us. We know it was a strongly-flavoured and highly-prized herb that was sought-after in Roman times but we have failed to identify exactly what it was: we do not even know whether it still exists. We do know, however, that it was used either as an aphrodisiac or as a form of contraception, hence it is an appropriate reference for Catullus to use in his sexually-charged address to his mistress.

Catullus continues his hyperbole. Having compared the number of kisses he craves to grains of sand, he now compares them to the number of stars in the sky, then enriches this with the image of those same stars silently watching lovers in the silence of the night. Note that these liaisons are illicit (furtivos), all adding to the atmosphere of highly-charged excitement.

In line 9 Catullus uses both the noun basia and the verb basiare, overwhelming us with this vocabulary in the same way as he wishes to overhwlem Lesbia with his kisses. The word pernumerare is a compound verb, exaggerating the imagined difficulty with counting the kisses. vesano, which I have translated as “feverish” can also be translated “mad” or “insane” – it acknowledges Catullus’ apparent lack of control in Lesbia’s presence. There is a nod towards traditional beliefs in the close of the poem, as it was a common superstition that to count one’s blessings was bad luck; Catullus and Lesbia are safe, however, because Catullus is so passionate that no-one will ever be able to count up the number of their kisses. In this way, Catullus concludes his poem with an amusing argument as to why Lesbia should be happy to put up with his voracious appetite for her affections.

Echo and Narcissus

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Echo et Narcissus is an extract from the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Transformations), published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The Metamorphoses was a complex and unusual epic poem, which chronicled more than 200 myths from the ancient world. Many scholars argue that it defies classification altogether, since it does not really fit in to the usual parameters of a traditional epic. The Metamorphoses was written at the start of the 1st century AD and its central theme – as the title suggests – is change and transformation.

The tales of both Echo and Narcissus resonate throughout Western art and literature and indeed Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a whole was a huge influence on key literary figures such as Keats, Dante and Shakespeare. It has also inspired numerous 19th and 20th-century works of art and music.

Painting by John William Waterhouse (1903), viewable at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Echo was a nymph who endured Juno’s wrath for a trick she played on her. Juno’s husband Jupiter, the king of the gods, enjoyed regular visits to the beautiful nymphs down on earth. Eventually, the ever-jealous Juno becomes suspicious and follows him in an attempt to catch him in the act. Echo (at the behest of Jupiter) keeps Juno talking, flattering her and drawing the goddess away from her fellow-nymphs, thus allowing Jupiter to slip away from the scene of the crime. Enraged that her revenge has been thwarted by the talkative nymph, Juno curses Echo by rendering her able only to repeat the final words of another’s sentences; Echo, completely unable to say anything further on her own, suffers a harsh but apt fate in return for her loquaciousness.

Sometime after she is cursed by the queen of the gods, Echo catches sight of the beautiful young Narcissus while he is out hunting with his companions. Immediately infatuated, she follows him quietly, for of course she is unable to speak. During the hunt, Narcissus becomes separated from his companions and calls out. Hearing his words repeated back to him, as Echo is cursed to do, Narcissus is startled and calls out again, several times. Echo can only repeat what he says yet again. Eventually, she rushes towards her beloved but he rejects her on sight. All Echo can do is repeat his final words one last time before she flees in shame. Despite the harshness of his dismissal, Echo’s love for Narcissus continues to grow. Heartbroken, she spends the rest of her life wandering the hills until nothing but her echoing sound remains of her.

But Nemesis, goddess of revenge, decides to punish Narcissus, for Echo was not the only individual that had been rejected by this remarkably beautiful youth. Narcissus went through all of his life spurning the numerous advances of others, all hypnotised by his beauty. His fate was foreshadowed by the prophet Teiresias, who predicted at his birth that Narcissus would only live to a ripe old age if he never discovered own reflection. This is how Nemesis ensures his punishment: she lures him to a pool, where he leans in to drink the water and – upon seeing his own remarkably beautiful face – he at once falls deeply in love with it. Unable to tear himself away from the enchantment of his own image, Narcissus slowly wastes away, a fire of unrequited passion burning inside him. Echo laments his passing. At last, he turns into a flower with white petals surrounding a golden centre. Even in the Underworld, his spirit is doomed to gaze at himself in the Stygian waters.

The OCR set-text prescription consists of 82 lines published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology, plus a section of the text in translation between lines 57 and 58, which students will also need to study so that they understand what happens in the section of the text that has been redacted. As ever, the way the text is presented in the Anthology is entirely and infuriatingly unsuitable for teaching and therefore the classroom teacher is left with the usual challenge of how to present the work to their students. I sometimes feel quite dizzy at the thought of so many Latin teachers across the country, all spending hours producing their own workable versions of the text.

Last time I taught this text, which was many moons ago, I was still making use of the numbered method and found this in my archives:

I have the whole 82 lines presented in this way, which will prove useful should any of my clients who approach me find themselves studying this prescription. Personally, I have almost always chosen to teach the Virgil selection and this remains the more popular choice in most schools; with a text as lengthy as Echo and Narcissus, you also lose one of the advantages of choosing the verse selections over the Virgil, which is that the shorter poems can prove more manageable for students to learn.

Students generally respond very well to the story of Echo and Narcissus and indeed I have found that most of then love mythological stories that seek to explain natural phenomena such as the tale of Ceres and Proserpina (or Demeter and Persephone). The story of Narcissus should also spark considerable discussion in relation to the modern definition of narcissism (both the medical definition of the personality disorder and the one used in common parlance). It will also be great fun to explore with students the modern trend of filtered selfies and how they feel this relates to the myth.

Prehistoric Mojo on Twitter: "Good old one - Oh no, not again! It's another  selfie from Narcissus! #joke #Greeks #selfie #firstselfie #Narcissus  https://t.co/5Lsjx2t9KD" / Twitter

Cartoon by Bill Whitehead.

Echo and Narcissus is not the only text that makes up the Verse Literature A selections for 2023 and 2024, as the board have also included three much shorter texts from the section of the Anthology named “Amor“: two poems by Catullus: How Many kisses? and Conflicting Emotions, plus a fragment of Petronius named Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep. I shall look those in three separate blog posts over the next three weeks and that will involve some serious frisking of the archives! As the poems are very short, it will also be an opportunity to look more closely at the texts, which has not been possible with the longer texts.