Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had lived her whole life just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “lived her whole life just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Nobody said it would be this hard

Why does Latin have the reputation of being so difficult? Everybody thinks that it’s difficult and to some extent it is – but so is any language, once you get past, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emma”.

Grammar is tricky and it’s still not taught in our own language to the degree that it is in most other countries. To listen to educators, writers and commentators report on the increased level of rigour in the teaching of literacy in primary schools, you’d think that the problem was solved. In truth, the level to which grammar is taught discretely in English schools is still woeful by comparison with schools in other countries. To a certain extent, this is a self-perpetuating problem caused by failures in the system over the last couple of generations. Many current teachers admit that they struggle to teach concepts that they themselves were never taught in school, and if I had a £1 for every English teacher that has come to me for help with basic English grammar, I’d have enough for a slap-up meal.

Let’s take a closer look at why some children struggle so much with Latin over and above their other subjects and – specifically – more than any other language they might be learning in school. One obvious reason, I think, is the unfamiliar territory which this dead language presents to family and friends. Many parents and guardians feel able to offer support to their children in other subjects, certainly in the early years. I work with many families who are really involved with their children’s homework and study and children certainly do benefit from this kind of proactive and interested support at home. Lots of families employ me because they care about their children’s studies but they themselves feel ill-equipped to support them in Latin due to their own lack of knowledge; with only around 2.5% of state schools currently offering Latin on their timetable, I don’t anticipate that situation changing in a hurry. As a result of the fact that so few people have experience of Latin as a subject, it maintains a kind of mystique, and that all feeds into its reputation as an inaccessible and challenging subject.

Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Latin is an ancient lanaguage and a dead one. What does it mean that the language is dead? Quite simply, that nobody speaks it any more. As a result, the content of what children are asked to translate will often seem very obscure. The ancient world was very different from ours and much of what went on – even in the most mundane aspects of daily life – can seem unfamiliar or even bizarre. Add to this the fact that a lot of the time students will be looking at stories from ancient myths or founding legends and we’re then into a whole new world of weirdness. The thing is, children generally like the weirdness – and indeed the darkness – of these ancient tales; if you think that children don’t appreciate the darkness of the world then explain the thundering success of a children’s author such as Patrick Ness. Children are not necessarily put off by the puzzling nature of what they are translating, but it can certainly contribute to their belief that the material is obscure.

The realities of learning an ancient language compared to a modern one are summed up by this absolutely hilarious snippet which has been doing the rounds on the internet for donkey’s years:

So, we’ve dealt with Latin’s reputation and we’ve explored the inherent fact of it being an ancient, dead language that may make it potentially difficult to access. On top of that lies the truth that Latin as a language is very different from our own and indeed from any others we are likely to be taught in UK schools.

The most important thing to understand is that Latin is a heavily inflected language. What that means is that word-formation matters: we’re not just talking about spelling here, because if you look at a word that is wrongly spelled in English, you will still more than likely be able to recognise it in context and thus understand the sentence. However, in inflected languages, words are modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, voice, number, gender and mood. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation and this will be familiar to students of all languages, but in Latin (and in other heavily-inflected languages such as German) nouns are inflected too (as are adjectives, participles, pronouns and some numerals). So, words change and therefore become difficult to recognise. What blows students’ minds most in my experience is how this inflection translates into English and how the rendering of that translation can be confusing. For example, ad feminam in Latin means “to the woman” in the sense of “towards the woman”, so I might use the phrase in a sentence such as “the boy ran over to the woman”. However, as well as ad feminam, the word feminae, with that different ending and no preposition, can also mean “to the woman”, but this time in the sense of “giving something to”. I would therefore use feminae in a sentence such as “I gave a gift to the woman”. Using ad feminam in that context would be completely wrong. Trying to unpick why two grammatically different phrases sound the same in English is just one tiny example of myriad of misconceptions and misunderstandings that children can acquire and that can cause problems later down the line. What’s great about one-to-one tutoring, of course, is that these kinds of misconceptions can be uncovered, unpicked and rectified.

Due to its inflection, many Latin words become extremely difficult to recognise as they decline or conjugate. This brings us to what many students find the most disheartening thing about the subject, which is vocabulary learning. If a student has worked hard to learn the meaning of a list of words, imagine their disappointment and frustration when this effort bears no fruit for them when it comes to translating. A child may have learned that do means “give” but will they recognise dant, dabamus or dederunt, which are all versions of that same verb? Well, without explicit instruction, lots of practice and a huge amount of support, probably not. This can be really depressing for students and can lead to them wanting to give up altogether, which is where a tutor comes in.

Another consequence of the fact that Latin is inflected is that a Latin sentence has to be decoded – you can’t just read it from left to right. Breaking the habit of reading from left to right is one of the biggest challenges that we face when trying to teach students how to succeed in Latin. Even when a child has worked hard to learn all of their noun endings and all of their verb endings, they still need a huge amount of support and scaffolding to show them how to process these and map them onto the sentences in front of them. Most Latin teachers really underestimate the amount of time, effort and repetition that it takes to help them to break this habit. Once again, this is where one-to-one tuition can be really powerful: working with a child to model the process is key.

The reluctant Luddite

I am anything but a Luddite. Technology is remarkable and wonderful and I could not be luckier to have been born in the late 20th century and have the privilege of seeing our access to the written word proliferate thanks to the digital world.

As someone cursed with poor (and increasingly deteriorating) eyesight, I thank my lucky stars on a daily basis for the advent of smart screens, giving me the power to choose the nature, size and resolution of fonts, not to mention the simply glorious dawn of the audiobook. The younger among you will not recall, but the reading options for people with poor eyesight even just 20 years ago were dismal: a vanishingly small number of books were put onto audio CD and very few places stocked them. These days, the best actors are squabbling over the reading rights to books. Not long ago, I listened to a simply perfect narration of The Dutch House by Ann Pratchett, read by some chap called Tom Hanks. In a world where current research seems to indicate a worrying downturn in children reading for pleasure, I support any and all routes for them to access stories and tales, by whatever means.

As a result of all this, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when I find myself making a case against digital technology. I am the last person to criticise for I acknowledge and appreciate the huge benefits that the advent of the internet and digital technology have brought to me. Not only could I not do my job without them, my life would be infinitely poorer and less diverse. Yet one must always be cautious of what one is throwing away, and when it comes to children’s development of literacy we should be particularly so. First and foremost, we should be hyper-focused on the best ways of helping children to learn to read and write.

In January, the Guardian highlighted that “a ground-breaking study shows kids learn better on paper than on screen,” but the truth is that this information has been out there for at least two decades. Modern cognitive science evidences that motor and sensory aspects of our behaviour have a far-reaching impact on our knowledge and recall. Of course it does. Our brain is an embodied phenomenon that makes sense of the world through the physical data it receives. In a study carried out way back in 2005, subjects were shown a series of words and asked to indicate whether each word was positive or negative by moving a joystick. Half of the subjects were told to indicate that a word was positive or “good” by pulling the joystick towards their bodies, while the other half were told to indicate “good” by pushing it away. A consistent correlation was observed between meaning and movement: the quickest, most accurate and most confident responses were produced by the subjects who were told to indicate “good” by pulling the joystick towards themselves, and to indicate “bad” by pushing it away. The hypothesis is that this relates to our natural embodied state – what’s “good” feels natural drawn physically towards us, what’s “bad” feels like something we should naturally push away. This direct and inherent involvement of the body and senses in our cognitive processes helps to explain how writing by hand (as opposed to on a keyboard or a tablet) helps us to learn letters and words most efficiently. The fact that forming letters by hand is superior to doing so with the use of technology is well accepted among cognitive scientists and literacy specialists.

Furthermore, it is not just the early-years essentials of learning to write that are supported by the process of hand-writing. A study in 2021 compared subjects’ recall of words learned either by typing or writing by hand and found that recall was better when words had been learned using a pen and paper. In another study, a small group of adults learned symbols from an unfamiliar language that they then had to reproduce with either a pen or a keyboard. When they had finished learning the symbols, there were no differences in recall between the two methods, but the keyboard users forgot a significant amount of what they had learned as time passed. In other words, the process of handwriting the symbols was much more effective for long-term recall. Evidence for the effectiveness of handwriting over typing when it comes to learning is now pretty overwhelming and neuroscientists suggest that learning with a pen and paper is better because it is more “embodied,” meaning that it involves more complex sensory-motor feedback for each letter as it is written down. This complexity leaves a more distinctive blueprint in our memories and hence makes things easier to memorise and recall.

I have written before on a methodology I teach to help students to learn their set texts off by heart. The process involves writing down the first letter of each word and works only if students do so by hand. The effectiveness of the method is increased hugely if the student can be persuaded to say the whole word aloud as they write the letter. So, to learn the opening line of Portia’s speech to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, students would say out loud “The quality of mercy is not strained” while writing the letters “T q o m i n s” in time with their articulation of the words. The physicality of the process and the immersive nature of writing, saying and repeating is quite remarkably powerful and I have never had a student fail to learn the texts using this method.

The data and current research on the importance of physical texts and handwriting have not gone unnoticed. Sweden, a country often cited as superior to ours when it comes to education, experienced a downtrend in literacy levels from 2016 onwards and is back-peddling wildly on their roll-out of digital technology in schools, returning to a focus on physical books and handwriting. What’s worrying for me is that the trend may be going in the opposite direction in the UK. Perhaps most worrying of all, the major examination boards have all indicated their desire to move towards digital examinations, despite the overwhelming chorus of dismay from Headteachers across the country who know that they simply do not have the infrastructure to support such a move. It is unsurprising that examination boards want to push the digital model, as the current process of collecting and digitising examination scripts no doubt costs them a fortune; but beyond the logistical nightmare for schools that the digitisation of examinations will present, I genuinely fear for the impact on students’ literacy and understanding. A move towards digital examinations will push schools further down the road of letting students do everything on screen (many private schools and well-funded academies are already there) and the effect on their learning will be catastrophic. Some of the students I work with are already in this position and their grasp of the texts they are learning is woeful; their teachers allow them access to a simply overwhelming number of documents, all of which they are expected to have the skills to access and draw information from, when in reality they have little to no idea what’s actually in front of them and how that relates to what they need to commit to memory.

So I find myself a somewhat reluctant Luddite, telling my students to reach for a notepad and pen and encouraging them to form letters on a page by hand. The irony in the fact that I am doing so over Zoom is not lost on me, but here’s the thing: technology is incredible, it is life-changing, it is illuminating, it is wonderfully democratic and a great leveller for those of us with physical disabilities. We must, however, be circumspect with how we use it and thus ensure that we do not unwittingly lose more than we gain.

Casual misogyny: Love and Marriage (WJEC/Eduqas)

I’m no expert when it comes to the Roman view of women. My specialist area was neoplatonic philosophy, so I would never lay claim to having a thorough and intimate grasp of this field, nor did I take any particular interest in feminist readings of ancient literature (indeed, I recall being specifically warned off it as a research area – by men, it may not surprise you to know). All of that said, as a trained Classicist I have read a fair number of sources that discuss women and/or their behaviour – for better or for worse. The current prescription for the WJEC/Eduqas GCSE specification includes a group of texts to which they have given the title “Love and Marriage” and I am working with a few students who are studying them.

One of the most important things to grasp as a Classicist, in my opinion, is that women were broadly considered to be inferior to men in the ancient world. I think we all need to get over that casual misogyny, if we’re not going to spend every moment of study being triggered. There is no point having a panic attack every time this inescapable fact comes back on our radar, just as there is no point in doing so when we are reminded that in the ancient world the existence of slavery was considered to be completely acceptable. What we must do, on the other hand, is address these facts head-on. Never let anyone tell you that Roman society was advanced and civilised; when compared to our own, their society was cruel and grossly unfair, and those who would seek to say so are utterly deluded. One does not have to admire something to be fascinated by it.

The first thing to note about the collection of texts selected by WJEC – and indeed, about the overwhelming majority of sources that discuss women in our possession – is that they were written by men, and (largely) for men. Hearing women’s voices is extremely difficult, although I find it disappointing that WJEC did not even try to do so. They have included some visual source material as part of the “Love and Marriage” prescription, but they did not elect to include the graffiti and politicised slogans penned by women, which would have been a nice nod towards the fact that we do, at least, have those as direct evidence of women’s opinions. What we do have in the prescription is a collection of paintings and sculptures depicting the marriage ceremony. And yes, I know the prescription is called “Love and Marriage”, but given that the rest of the sources are fundamentally about women, it wouldn’t have taken much of a stretch of the imagination to make it considerably more interesting and inclusive.

The first text in the collection pretty much encapsulates the nature of a wealthy woman’s expected ideal life in the Roman world. It is an epitaph, so necessarily idealised, and sums up the manner in which women were expected to conduct themselves and their lives:

hospes, quod dico paulum est; asta ac perlege.
hic est sepulcrum haud pulchrum pulchrae feminae:
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam.
suum maritum corde dilexit suo.
natos duos creavit: horum alterum
in terra linquit, alium sub terra locat.
sermone lepido, tum autem incessu commodo,
domum servavit, lanam fecit. dixi. abi

Stranger, what I have to say is brief; stand still and read it through.
Here is the not very beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman:
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband with all her heart.
She bore two sons, one of which
She leaves on this earth, the other she placed beneath the earth.
Of charming conversation, and indeed of elegant step,
She looked after the home, she spun wool. I have spoken. Now go on your way.

It is surprising how hard one has to push young students to articulate how and why this epitaph is perhaps (to use modern parlance) problematic in terms of what modern women might expect for themselves, their lives and their legacy. I don’t know what the kids are into these days, but unless I am very out of touch then I am guessing that housekeeping and wool-spinning is not necessarily top of a 21st century girl’s list of ambitions (that said, crochet is apparently making a comeback). What is most notable to me about the epitaph is its coldness: Claudia’s achievements are those expected of a good wife and mother: nothing more, nothing less. She loved her husband with all her heart – there is no mention of that being reciprocated. The only personal attributes mentioned are those of the ideal desirable woman – she looked good, she conducted herself appropriately and made polite conversation. As my mother legendarily said to some considerable awkwardness at a dinner party in the 1970s, “women have been making intelligent conversation at these kinds of dinner parties for centuries, and look where it’s got us”. Indeed.

The other texts in the collection which discuss marital relations fall very simply into two categories: marriages in which the woman behaves herself in the correct manner, and marriages in which she doesn’t. Pliny’s Letter to Calpurnia Hispulla is a simply toe-curling account of his successful match with the 15-year-old Calpurnia the Younger, who is by all reports simply delighted to be married off to Pliny, who was in his mid 40s. (This, I am happy to report, does get something of a reaction from students). In addition to keeping the household in order as one might expect, Pliny reports that his young (indeed, by modern standards, child) bride is learning his speeches off by heart and even setting them to music on the lyre. We are also told that she “sits hidden behind a curtain” so she can hear him perform in front of his friends. Lord knows what this youngster truly thought of her marriage – we have some letters (not included in the prescription) from Pliny directly to her but none (of course) from her to him. Not that she wouldn’t have written them, you understand, but nobody would have considered them worth publishing or preserving for the future.

Cicero’s report of his brother Quintus’ marriage, by contrast, gives the picture of a most unsuccessful match, with the wife portrayed as a thoroughly unreasonable and difficult woman. Quintus is – of course – an absolute model of decency and Cicero is dismayed at the behaviour of his sister-in-law. Not as dismayed as Seneca, mind you, who in the text nicknamed Changing Morals makes it clear that pretty much all the women in Rome are loose and immoral, hell-bent on taking as many lovers as they can possibly fit into their day and totally lacking in any kind of decency:

num iam ulla repudio erubescit, postquam feminae quaedam illustres ac nobiles non consulum numero sed maritorum annos suos computant? …  num iam ullus adulterii pudor est, postquam eo ventum est ut nulla virum habeat nisi ut adulterum irritet? pudicitia argumentum est deformitatis. quam invenies tam miseram, tam sordidam, ut illi satis sit unum adulterorum par?

Is any woman today ashamed of divorce, now that some distinguished and noble ladies count their age, not by the number of the consuls but of their husbands? …  Is there no longer any shame in adultery, now that things have reached the point that no woman keeps a husband except to frustrate her lover? Chastity is now a sign of ugliness. What woman will you find so wretched, so undesirable, that for her a single pair of lovers is sufficient?

According to Seneca, Roman women were frankly rampant and if Catullus’s account of his lover, Lesbia, is anything to go by, then he’s not wrong. It is always worth telling students that the poems included in the selection are amongst Catullus’ tamest works, many of which would not make it onto the A level syllabus, never mind the GCSE. I’ll never forget being frankly agog at a lecture on Catullus during my first year at university – I wasn’t aware that university lecturers knew about those kinds of things or indeed used that kind of vocabulary. The very fact that Catullus’ lewd works appear to give us glimpses of undeniably empowered, liberated women in Rome only serves to make our inability to connect with their true voices all the more frustrating.

Passionate love affairs do not always run smoothly, and the WJEC collection also includes a poem by Catullus about being rejected by his lover, plus another by Horace in the same vein. They both speak of the pain of rejection and the account by Horace includes a possible reference to a desire for violent revenge upon his ex. Two extremely short poems, one by Catullus and one by Martial, both describe feelings of both love and hate for one woman and explore the idea that the poets can both love and despise their female partners at the same time.

difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te.

Unbearable, agreeable, you are pleasant and repulsive just the same:
I can live neither with you, nor without you.

The WJEC selections make an interesting collection, albeit with the disappointing omission of any kind of female voice. What we are left with is the male perception of women, which is without doubt of interest in itself. How men perceive women and set out to control them is the scenery that forms the backdrop to so many societies, including our own. One of the things that makes the study of the ancient world so interesting and so worthwhile is the opportunity to look at this frankly and from a position of relative progress.

The Wedding Ceremony, State Hermitage Museum, S.Petersburg

How long does tutoring take?

A friend asked me this question while we were out on a walk this week. How long does it take to make a concrete, observable difference to a child’s performance? The answer is not simple, but it is interesting.

Some students require or benefit from longterm support, others only need a short burst of intervention. This, however, does not always match with the child’s (or the parent’s) desires or expectations. I have tutees that, in terms of performance, would manage perfectly well without me but have gained so much confidence from the weekly sesssions that they elect to continue longterm and refine their performance; I am always at pains to make this clear to the person paying the bill, but as a rule they are desperate for me to continue in order to preserve their child’s newfound confidence and success. Many students are so blown away by the impact that tutoring intervention has upon them that they don’t want to let it go.

Others have a different response. Some students I have worked with are quite happy when their performance improves and decide that they no longer need the support of a tutor. Often these are students who hit a wall very suddenly and needed intervention to identify some misconceptions and resolve some misunderstandings. Once this has been done, many of them are happy to continue with the subject without one-to-one support.

For students who find the subject harder or take longer to grasp certain concepts, longterm support is definitely the anwer. I have worked with dyslexic students who have ended up with an extremely high grade in this challenging, heavily-inflected language. Dyslexia does not prevent children from succeeding in Latin, but it undeniably makes the subject infinitely more challenging. Dyslexic students can really benefit from longterm support and guidance with vocabulary learning. Due to heavy inflection, Latin words change their endings and often their root, making the words difficult to recognise in multiple forms; expert support in the process of vocabulary learning is therefore essential for students who find this more difficult to cope with.

One of the skills required in tutoring is the ability to assess and make the most of the time you have with a student, either in total or between one day and a particular event – a Mock exam, for example. This week, a student whom I supporting with the literature element of the exam requested one session on language prior to their Mock. While there is little that can be done in half an hour to assess, evaluate and intervene in a child’s overall performance in the language element of the exam, 10% of the exam is dedicated to short-answer grammar questions and the examiner is very repetitive. I therefore elected to show the student only the grammar questions from five specimen papers in quick succession, demonstrating how repetitive the examiner is and demystifying his expectations when it comes to the answers. By the end of the session, my student could confidently answer every single grammar question I showed to him. That will make a concrete, tangible difference to their performance in the exam by ensuring that he has a good chance of achieving full marks in the grammar section: 10% is more than a grade’s difference.

These are the kinds of decisions that tutors make (or should be making) constantly. Teachers do so as well, but they are not blessed with the opporunities for flexibility that we are – teachers how to plough through the curriculum come what may and they have to make decisions based on the requirements of the majority. It is all too easy, as a result, to leave some students behind. I am grateful every day for the sheer joy of being able to spend one-to-one time with a student and make a difference to their performance in ways that would be impossible in the mainstream classroom.

Last academic year I worked with several Year 11 students who only came to me in the final few weeks before their exam. While it is always impossible to know how things would have worked out for them without me, I was assured that their performance in the exams ended up being a minimum of two grades above where they were expected to be. Much of this was down to tactical decision-making as outlined above: in six to eight weeks it is impossible to unpick and restitch a child’s understanding of an entire subject. What can be done is tactical intervention in some key areas, and a tutor with an in-depth knowledge of both the curriculum and the examination can therefore make a tangible difference to how a child copes in the final papers. While it is always preferable to seek help from a tutor sooner rather than later, this only goes to prove that it’s never too late; we can’t work miracles, but we can make a noticeable difference.

The tutees that come to me are often in a state of despair. More than one parent has described terrible waves of anxiety and bouts of tears as a child finds themselves getting further and further behind their peers and their grades start slipping. This situation takes on a whole new level of pressure as the exams loom into view, and this why I tend to get a flurry of requests in April. As one parent put it to me: “He was predicated a 5. He achieved a 7!! You absolutely turned Latin around for him.” I have just checked my records and I had 9 sessions with this particular student. That’s four and a half hours. I’ll admit to being a little bit chuffed about that one.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Embracing your Latin roots

On my reading list for some time has been Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Quigley is an English teacher, a blogger and the author of several books on how schools should go about closing the literacy gap between “word rich” and “word poor” students – those with high levels of literacy and a huge mental word bank compared to those without. His work ties in with other reading I have done about the literacy crisis in the USA and the debates that have raged in this country and in America about how we teach children to read.

I didn’t necessarily expect to find an empassioned defence of my subject embedded in a modern book about the wider and more fundamental issue of children’s literacy, but find it I did. Quigley, it seems, is a believer in Latin (and Greek!) for all. In the third chapter of his book he outlines precisely the ways in which children who already struggle with reading are further impoverished by the difficulties that they face when presented with texts of an increasingly academic nature. He explores the fact that technical and scientific terminology is so dominated by Latinate words that there really does become a case for teaching these word-patterns explicitly in the classroom: “teaching with etymology in mind is therefore a reliable and helpful tool, not just for English teachers, but also for every classroom teacher. In fact, it may prove more valuable for teachers of maths, science and geography, given the narrower roots of their subject specific language.” To find the case for this being made in such a book was exciting enough, but I nearly fell out of my chair when I read the next paragraph:

“You could rightly ask, why aren’t ancient languages like Latin on the curriculum for all? Why do we still perceive the powerful roots of our language as exclusive to the few who already prove word rich? Here, we could also speculate about how useful it would prove for English teachers to learn an ancient language as part of their professional development and enrichment.”

Not only is Quigley suggesting that ancient languages have a valuable place in a modern curriculum, he is even suggesting that teachers of English would all benefit from studying an ancient language. This is music to my ears and if I’m honest (sorry, English teachers) I have never understood how anyone goes on to study English literature at a higher level without such knowledge. I’ll take just one example: if you think you understand Milton, but you haven’t read Virgil in the original Latin, then – I hate to break this to you – but you don’t fully understand Milton; you’re missing out on the richness of what he is attempting to do, because you lack that frame of reference.

Quigley goes on to argue that children who are not taught explicitly about etymology are being shut out of “a wealth of intriguing knowledge”. He also points out that the kind of cultural capital afforded to children with a knowledge of Latin and Greek is one of the fundamental divides between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

This is genuinely exciting. It is widely accepted (and not incorrect) that the traditional arguments from the past that “Latin makes you clever” are simply not evidence-based; studying Latin and Greek makes you good at Latin and Greek, it doesn’t necessarily gift you with transferrable skills beyond that knowledge-base. However, Quigley presents the case for ancient languages by highlighting the importance of the academic vocabulary which is required in order to access all subjects beyond the very basics; it is something of a clincher for those of us who still believe in the value of ancient languages, and really does make the case for the academic advantage that Latin and Greek affords its students.

Quigley explores further the fact that Latin remains the preserve of the elite and is still considered by many to be appropriate only for high-attaining students, despite the evidence gathered by Arlene Holmes-Henderson from Classics for All that an exposure to Latin in fact has a greater impact on students with low literacy levels than it does on those who are already highly literate. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Children who are already highly literate, who are exposed to a wide range of reading at home and who have articulate discussion modelled for them from a young age will always be fine; it is for those students for whom this is not the norm that we should be concerned, and the teaching of Latin absolutely has a place in our quest to close this advantage gap.

I picked up Quigley’s book with the intention of enriching and updating my knowledge of how children acquire vocabulary, and I still expect to learn much in this area as I work through the second half. It has been a lovely surprise and an added bonus to find the case for Latin as a subject made so clearly in a book that has been hailed as essential in education’s work towards opening the doors of opportunity for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students. I am very glad to have spent 21 years in the state sector, building up the numbers of students for whom an exposure to this valuable subject was an opportunity and a right. Until Latin is a normalised part of the curriculum in a greater number of state schools than the current dismal figures, it and all of its advantages will remain the preserve of the elite.

Is it really too easy?

One of the many joys of tutoring is the time and space it affords you to check out whether a student understands basic concepts. This does not only mean basic academic concepts, such as the differnce between the subject and the object; it also means looking at some of the ostensibly simplest sorts of questions on the exam papers and making sure that they know how to go about them.

Teachers of Latin GCSE are under enormous pressure to get through the syllabus content in the time they have available. Latin classes – certainly in state schools – often start from a position of disadvantage, having already had a limited number of teaching hours at Key Stage 3; some GCSE classes even start ab initio. The exam board then demands that a huge amount of complex material is covered, including a ludicrous amount of real Latin literature. The reality of this means that class minutes are at a premium, and teachers will move rapidly over basic concepts and may even assume that simple questions are understood and do not require practice. Often, as a direct result of this, key marks are lost due to small misconceptions or a lack of clarity in a student’s mind when it comes to how to approach such questions.

This week I finally got around to reading the Examiners’ Report from 2023 and their comment on the derivatives question really leapt out at me. It said, “this question is designed to be accessible to candidates of all abilities, and most scored at least 2 marks.” Personally, I find this utterly delusional on the part of the examiners. How, pray tell, is a question accessible to all candidates when it relies on a breadth of literacy and general knowledge not covered in the syllabus itself? And how is a score by many of 50% on this question indicative that it was indeed accessible? The comment is simply astonishing and I’m afraid it betrays yet again how out of touch the world of Classics is with reality. I have worked with a variety of students who have been scuppered by the derivatives question and their struggle is due to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Students do not know their Latin vocabulary well enough to be able to access the question. You can’t come up with a viable derivative if you don’t know what the Latin word means. This is more complex than it perhaps sounds, as the word is often presented in a form that is different from the one they have learnt e.g. dabat from the verb do), meaning that candidates who find the subject challenging will probably struggle to recognise it.
  2. Students are EAL (English as an Acquired Language) and lack the breadth of English necessary to succeed in this question. They may be performing outstandingly well in the subject, but they have not yet come across the word regal or sedentary.
  3. Students do have English as their first language but are not widely read, meaning that they struggle to come up with derivatives; they might recognise one when it’s pointed out to them, but they find it difficult to reach for one. This means that students for whom reading is modelled and encouraged at home are at a huge advantage, which is one of the main reasons why the examiners’ assertion that this question is “accessible” really grinds my gears.
  4. Students have simply not been taught how to approach this question, or if they have been shown how they have not practised it at length. Teachers rarely spend a significant amount of time doing so because they assume (like the examiners do) that the question is easy. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it may be time they do not have. In my experience to date, the best schools practise deivations from the very beginning of Key Stage 3, and this is certainly the best way to embed the knowledge for GCSE.

Some students really do have no problem with the derivatives question, and when that’s the case I leave them to it. These students are always highly literate and usually well-read. Unlike them, many students need to be shown multiple examples of derivatives and time needs to be invested in guiding them through the vocabulary list looking for such derivatives – the examiners even recommend this in their notes, yet still cling to the delusion that this question is highly accessible. Believe me, any question that cannot be done without detailed, explicit, one-to-one guidance from an expert is not accessible; teachers do not have time on the curriculum to prep for this question adequately.

Another question that many teachers lack the time to focus on and tend to assume the students will cope with just fine is the 10-marker in the literature papers. Because the question is open-ended and requires no knowledge of the Latin, this question really is accessible in the sense that even students who have struggled with the material should be able to do it; I say “should” because once again there is some guidance required. Students tend to apply what they have been taught about answering other types of questions (even in other subjects) to the 10-marker and this can lead them down the wrong path; answers need to be full of quotations/references but not to the Latin, to the text in translation. There is also no requirement for detailed analysis. I have written about this in more detail here. The 10-mark question makes up 20% of each literature exam: that means it makes up 10% of a student’s entire result – way more than the difference between two grades. It’s definitely worth spending some time on!

It’s a real joy as a tutor to be able to dive into the basics and make sure that students are well-prepared for what they face when it comes to exam time. Questions that the examiners and teachers assume are easy usually are so once you know how to approach them, but it’s that assumed knowledge that I’m interested in. Once a student has been gifted with said knowledge, that’s when they can start to fly.

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