Like most people, you might consider the “Iliad” a serious and intimidating piece of classic literature—a cornerstone meant to be read in high school and studied at the university level. But Maia Lee-Chin ’21, the 2020-2021 Fenwick Scholar, would say that a high school introduction to the “Iliad” is a decade too late—and that you’re underestimating elementary school students’ ability to understand and even personally relate to the text.
As the Fenwick Scholar, Lee-Chin has spent the past year at Holy Cross working on a graduate-level project developing and teaching a curriculum on the epic Greek poem to elementary school students in Worcester. Here, she shares what inspired her work and what she’s learned from her students.
As this year’s Fenwick Scholar, I worked on developing a curriculum for ages 6 through 8 to introduce students to the “Iliad” in the Worcester public school district, to see how they reacted to and engaged with classics.
My project has changed a lot because of COVID. So right now, instead of presenting on student outcomes of how the introduction of classics might change how marginalized students test on standardized tests, I’m more focused on student input and what they actually think is valuable in their own education, and if classics fits into that narrative somehow.
I have a 9-year-old brother, and when he was in the first grade, he had to do this project where he had to say what he wanted to do when he grew up. My little brother said he wanted to learn Latin and Greek like his big sister. That was a huge moment for me, where I felt like I had some sort of impact on children. That impassioned me to bring what I thought was important in my life to other people and share my passion with other people, especially marginalized communities who might not have access normally to engagement with classics. I think that trying to engage with marginalized communities also is a huge part of the Holy Cross mission.
Throughout my time at Holy Cross, I took many education classes, which I felt really connected to my experience as a classics major, and I got into the isolation that I felt as one of the only Black people that I knew in the field of classics. I saw a connection between what the field of classics was lacking and what kinds of solutions I could provide with my expertise in both classics and education. So this project came from thinking about what marginalized students don’t have access to and how that ultimately fails them in the education system, and how classics can be a part of that solution, providing them the background knowledge that they need in order to be successful in increasing their literacy rates and reading comprehension.
I spent the fall semester mostly working on developing the curriculum and doing research on specific aspects of the “Iliad,” really condensing themes and topics that I wanted to talk to the children about and what was developmentally appropriate for them. I ultimately decided to work with Recreation Worcester, which is an organization that offers after school programs for students at the Worcester public school district.
I spent the spring semester actually teaching in a classroom. I worked with students in the after-school program for about a month and a half, teaching them about the “Iliad” and ancient Greek culture. They really took to it, and I was so impressed with how they responded to it. Even with how long I’ve spent with the “Iliad,” I learned so much from them, which is really what the core of my project was; centering students as experts in their own lives and also as potential experts in the field, and having them teach scholars who have been doing this for their whole lives more about what is unexpected and interesting about the “Iliad” and other topics within classics.
At the end of every lesson, I would do reflections with the students. I would ask three questions: ‘What was too easy about this? What was interesting about this, and what was too challenging?’ This was so I could gauge engagement and interest in the material. It was kind of hard to do that because I had such a wide age range, ages 7 to 11, but getting those reflections was very important to the data that I collected. I think that the field of classics ignores early elementary education and assumes that children don’t have enough knowledge, skills or brainpower to be able to think about these complex texts, issues and scholarly questions. But the data that I’ve collected says that’s not true at all. Students are smart enough and intellectual enough, and are able to develop inferencing skills in order to answer these complex questions about humanity. They’re very smart and very capable of adding to this scholarly discussion of what the “Iliad” is about and how access to classics can really change someone’s life and what they think about the world.
I’ve been participating in research with the Manuscripts, Inscriptions and Documents Club since my first year at Holy Cross. I’ve also been working with the Homer Multitext since my first year, and that project has a huge emphasis on open access scholarship and making sure that the work that we do is accessible to not just people who have spent their whole lives studying the “Iliad” and its manuscripts, but also undergraduate students. I think Holy Cross is very good about offering research experience to undergraduates. I’ve done summer research several times, and I’ll be doing summer research this year after graduation.
Also, the faculty in the classics department are really invested in your success as a student. I’ve had so many mentors throughout the year, most of which I have never had as professors, but the community is super integral to what I think it means to be a Holy Cross classics major. I meet at least once a week with faculty advisors to discuss those scholarly questions one-on-one, which I think was really beneficial to my intellectual development at Holy Cross. My final project is really a culmination of all of our personalities and research interests and combined experiences, which is a really cool thing to see.
I’m going to be teaching at Boston College High School next year as a classics teacher—very related to what I’ve done this whole year. I think my experience teaching elementary school students will help me a lot teaching high school students, whether that’s in classroom control or being able to explain things at many different levels of expertise and complexity. I’m very excited to be a real, full-fledged teacher.
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