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Learning About Teaching Ancient History

Teaching ancient history so students will learn

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Dionysus holding a cup. Red-figure Amphora, by the Berlin Painter, c. 490-480 B.C.

Dionysus holding a wine cup (kantharos). Red-figure Amphora, by the Berlin Painter, c. 490-480 B.C.

Bibi Saint-Pol
Not all students want to learn about history, but if you're a homeschooling parent or a history teacher and believe that those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, it's incumbent on you to find a way to gain the interest of those students.

The Problem: Ancient History Limitations

Teaching ancient history has certain limitations compared with modern history. We don't have photographs of the ancient people. Our knowledge of their daily life is limited. In most cases we know only about a small group of upper class men and virtually nothing about the life of the common man or woman. Wars are usually recorded by the victors. Values, religion, and language are substantially different. Terms -- like faction and democracy -- that we take for granted today meant entirely different things to the people who coined them. The list could go on.

Surprise: Ancient History Can Be More Fun

On the other hand, many resources for ancient history are less pedantic than modern documents. Viewing a performance of a risque comedy by Aristophanes or reading the myth of Cupid and Psyche, from "The Golden Ass," by Apuleius, entertains while conveying information about Classical times.

Making Ancient History Palatable

How do you convey information about this long, important period in human history so as to engage the attention of your captive audience? For some, there will be no challenge: the relevance will be obvious. For others, unfortunately, history is more like a horse pill the student is unwilling or unable to swallow. Here are some ideas from teachers of history about the problems and solutions to the problems of engaging students' attention when teaching about history.

Ask: About Daily Life

On Ancient Tablets, Ancient Graves: Accessing Women's Lives in Mesopotamia, the author says that women's "roles, contributions and lives" are hard to detect on the pages of most history textbooks. In the lesson plan, the author provides samples of Mesopotamian proverbs, with leading questions, serving the dual purpose of making the student gain enough familiarity with the material to be able to refer and quote from it and coaxing the student to think about how different life must have been back in ancient Mesopotamia.

Apply Modern Techniques to Teaching Ancient History

In Bring Women's History to Life in the Classroom!, a lesson planning article, Linda Starr makes a suggestion that can be converted from modern U.S. to ancient history. (I'm replacing her "first ladies" with "ancient queens.") The parent or teacher writes down the names of famous ancient queens on index cards and distributes them to the people in the class. On the back of the card each student writes a brief description and then reads the description aloud to see who can guess the identity. Obviously, this would only work after the queens had already been introduced. A related idea is to have each student write a longer biography of a famous ancient woman.
Other pages from the same site (Education World) suggest activities including:

  • "Publish a newspaper that includes articles, and perhaps even advertising or cartoons, related to the ancient civilizations being studied."
  • "Create a timeline of events related to the unit of study. Construct a relief map of the region being studied."
  • "Design travel brochures that might have been used to promote tourism in an ancient world."

Next Page: Sage Advice From George Mason University Teachers.

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