Blog Post #26: Creative Classics with Nathalie Roy

May is “New Projects Month” at Peopling the Past, where we feature interviews with educators and researchers who have founded amazing new projects dedicated to making history, archaeology, and related subjects more inclusive.

What was the inspiration behind Creative Classics? How did this project come about?

As a secondary school Latin teacher for decades, I always found myself wanting more time for hands-on projects that would engage my students more deeply with ancient material culture. However, since my school’s Latin curriculum was geared toward success on the language-based Advanced Placement exam, there was never enough time for projects which presented historical or cultural information about the ancient Romans. Inspired by the STEM focus at my school, I proposed an elective class called Roman Technology (Fig. 1) in which students recreate the products and processes of ancient Roman daily life through experimental archaeology and hands-on STEM labs. The class, which centers material culture rather than language study, can be taken by any student interested in the STEM of the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Creative Classics Website details many of those lessons and is the answer to the many requests I’ve gotten about the class. A few favorite lessons are designing, building, and testing small catapult models based on Vitruvius’ scorpion (Book X of his De Architectura), weaving on cardboard looms after reading the story of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, and cutting stone to design and create mosaic sundials, but there are many, many others (Fig. 2).

T-shirt design with image of Hephaestus
Fig. 1. Our t-shirt design by graphic artist and classics super-fan, Flora Kirk.
Image displaying the hands of a student trying out a cardboard loom
Fig. 2. Cardboard looms are a great way to learn about ancient weaving.
Who is this project geared towards? Which audiences would benefit most from this platform?

All lessons on my Website are for students, aged 9 to 99. The activities in the lessons address the questions, “How did ancient classical craftspeople do that?” and “What was that job like for the person who did it?” Teachers of ancient languages and cultures who are interested in adding hands-on engagement to their lessons should definitely check out the lessons and videos linked here.

What was most challenging about designing this project?

The most challenging aspect of designing hands-on lessons is the cost, but because my program boasts a STEM component, grants have been readily available. I’ve partnered with Lowe’s, ExxonMobil, and local companies who are looking to boost engagement in STEM for students of color and Title I schools. We have earned more than $10,000 in grant money over the past three years. One local water conservation company gives us a renewing grant of $2,500 per year with the understanding that we’ll teach the students about the local aquifer. With our hands-on aqueduct STEM challenge, that is an easy promise to make. Just this past month, our students have learned about and built shadufs and aquifer models as well as designed inverted siphons and open channel aqueducts.

Another challenge this past year has been the pandemic shutdown of schools. In our area, students have the option of learning from home while others choose to learn in person. And because many of our at-home students are living in poverty, they do not have the needed supplies to build models and compete in the building challenges. The grant money has allowed us to assemble elaborate kits that are picked up for use at home. In addition, because the students aren’t allowed to work in teams, more supplies have to be readily available for individual use. Our most expensive kit this year was dedicated to ancient writing and contained a piece of papyrus, a stylus, a container of squid sac ink, a pumice stone for sanding the papyrus, a small sponge for erasing, a piece of heavy aluminum for recreating a Roman curse tablet, and a nail to seal it (Fig. 3). Despite the cost and the assembly time, the kits bring such a sense of wonder to the students. It’s a challenge, but one well worth it for the engagement they produce.

Image of student writing with squid ink on papyrus.
Fig. 3. Learning to write the ancient Roman way with squid sac ink on papyrus. Erase with a sponge!
What impacts have you made or do you hope to make with this project?

My school district limits participation in second language classes (like Latin) based on students’ standardized test scores in math and language arts. The Roman technology class does not have a language component and accepts any and all students who want to study the classical world. Rather than limiting access to this world through the lens of language, our Roman technology class has allowed hundreds of students to study the classical world through the lens of material culture. In most secondary school curricula, the classical world is studied only in 6th grade social studies during a larger unit on ancient cultures.

Mini-catapult shooting competition
Fig. 4. It’s a mini-catapult shooting competition.

Since the pandemic shutdowns of spring 2020, I’ve been regularly presenting hands-on classical STEM lessons to students from all over the USA and some other countries through Excellence Through Classics Live, a subcommittee of the American Classical League. The lessons have covered the STEM of classical Roman games, makeup, volcanoes, catapults, wine making, bathing, writing, and other topics (Fig. 4). Normally, we ask students to find the materials at their own homes ahead of time, but for our most recent event, All STEM Leads to Rome, I mailed STEM kits to over 100 students thanks to outreach grants from the Classical Association of the Middle West and South and ETC Live.

How would you like people to engage with your project more generally?

STEM is found in all kinds of jobs related to the ancient world: archaeology, paleography, Egyptology, numismatics, etc. Would you be interested in talking to my students about what you do and how you integrate STEM and classical studies in your daily life? We would LOVE to have you as a guest!

Likewise, if you’d like me to talk to you or your students about how to integrate STEM with the classical world, I’d be glad to help. If we want kids to continue studying classics, we can’t expect them all to become ancient language experts. Surely some of them will use their knowledge in future STEM or other careers (Fig. 5). Partnerships between secondary teachers and the professional world are important in growing the next generation of scholars AND STEM professionals.

Student trying to launch a mini ball from a mini-catapult into a bowl.
Fig. 5. Testing a mini-catapult.
 How does this project help shed light on real people, either those in the past, or those in the present?

In a traditional ancient language classroom, students generally read the writings of elite males who were in positions of wealth and power. This perspective is a narrow one. Many of the quintessential landmarks of the ancient classical world which still stand today were built by soldiers, craftspeople, or enslaved people (Figs 6 and 7). When students look at the ancient world through the lens of material culture, their view is broadened to reflect the lives of the marginalized masses who kept empires running. When learning to arrange hair like a skilled hairdresser, students learn about the lives of women who served as hairdressers. They reflect on how they were treated and the lives they led, a perspective rarely considered. When students learn to build bread kilns and practice baking bread, they consider the lives of ancient bakers who provided daily subsistence to millions of people. These jobs, and countless others, are still relevant today and deserve respect and understanding for the skill involved in doing them.

A collection of mosaics produced by the students.
Fig. 6. Due to the pandemic, mosaic hammers were shelved, but paper is the perfect medium to send home in a kit for creating the Solomon’s knot, a Roman mosaic favorite.
A scorpion made by one of the students.
Fig. 7. It’s easy to learn about scorpions when all the supplies are provided in a take-home kit.
How can people learn more about your project?

The easiest way to learn more is to follow me on Twitter @MagistraRoy. You can watch a short paper on my Roman technology class which I presented recently at a panel on STEM in classics here:

Headshot of the auhor
Nathalie Roy-Mitchell

Nathalie Roy teaches Latin, Roman Technology, and Classical Myth Makers to young teens at Glasgow Middle School in Baton Rouge, LA. In her Roman Technology class, students reproduce the products and processes of ancient Roman daily life through experimental archaeology and STEM labs – knowing an ancient language is not required. Nathalie had been teaching classical STEM and material culture for the past four years and believes it to be an effective way to broaden the scope of classics education and break down barriers that prevent some kids from learning about the ancient world. She is National Board Certified Teacher and is currently serving as the 2021 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year.

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