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How to Plan and Execute a Plutarch Lesson

February 28, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

I ‘ve asked my oldest son, E-Age-Sixteen, to substitute teach my little Plutarch class at co-op next week so that my students don’t have to miss a week while I’m speaking at GHC Texas. I was trying to think of how best to prepare him to teach when it dawned on me all of this could double as a blog post!

While I’ve been teaching Plutarch, mostly in co-ops, for the past eight years, I still remember the fear and trembling when I first printed one of Anne White’s study guides from the AmblesideOnline website. My fear was unnecessary; Plutarch quickly became one of the great loves of my life.

My hope in this post is to dispel the logistical mysteries so you are able to cut straight to actually teaching it.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Step 1: Gather Supplies

You shouldn’t need much, but what you do need is important. Here’s my usual list:

  • Plutarch Volume by Anne White. If this is your first time doing Plutarch, start with the Primer, which contains the life of Publicola. It really is the perfect life to begin with.
  • Pen or pencil for marginalia. I’ll explain this more below.
  • Map (optional). If you flip through the Life and see a lot of place names and battles, that’s your cue to print off a map of Ancient Greece or the Ancient Roman Empire.
    • Pro tip: make sure the place names in the assigned readings are actually on your map.
  • White board? (If so, you also need to bring at least one marker and something to serve as an eraser.) This, like the map, is optional. For complex lives with many characters, we’ve traced the relationships on a white board (or, in a pinch, on a blank sheet of printer paper) in order to make it all more comprehensible.
  • Dice. This is to help you manage group narration. More on this later.
  • Beanbag. This teaches manners. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.
  • Bible. Some of the discussion questions recommend reading a Scripture passage.

Step 2: Prepare Ahead of Time

For the most part, this just involves reading through the lesson and making sure you know it well enough to teach it. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you know how to pronounce the words? If you look up difficult names or old fashioned words online, there are pronunciation guides and often recordings to make sure you get it right.
  • How will you introduce the lesson? Not everything Anne writes in her introduction necessarily needs to be read to your students, and you don’t want your introduction to last a long time. This takes a little practice, but eventually you’ll get good at preparing your introduction. Some of the bullet points below will give you more ideas on this.
  • Which of the vocabulary words — if any — do you need to introduce? As you get to know your students, you’ll start to recognize which words are going to bring your lesson to a screeching halt. Yes, it’s true most words can be learned from context. BUT — and this is important — you don’t want someone raising their hand to ask what a word means because this can derail the reading, cause your students to lose the story sequence, and even result in poor narrations. Try to anticipate the words that will trip them up and introduce them in advance.
  • Do you need to introduce any people? Sometimes, Plutarch will randomly mention a character as if your students should already know him. You want to make sure, again, that this doesn’t bring about a mid-sentence raised hand with a question. So if Plutarch mentions, for example, Philip of Macedon, in the day’s reading, it’s pretty easy to give a sentence or two about who he is before the reading to prevent that question later on. (I also remind my students who people are if it’s someone who has been MIA for five weeks and I think they may have forgotten him.)
  • Does the reading need to be broken up into smaller chunks? Whenever I have fourth graders, I always break the readings into at least two, if not three, separate readings to promote better narrations. When you’re breaking up a reading, don’t just break it neatly in half. Look for natural stopping points.
  • Are there proper nouns you need to add in for clarity? There are a lot of hes and hims in Plutarch — sometimes too many. At times, I cross them out and write in the proper noun (so, for example, “Pyrrhus” instead of “him” if that’s who him is in that context) so that when I read aloud, I’m sure to say the proper noun. This helps my class better follow the story.
  • Which questions will you ask? The guide itself provides some questions that will lead to good discussion. Do you want to ask all of them? Do you want to ask some of them in the middle, when you’ve stopped for narration, before going on to the rest of the reading? Are there any questions you want to invent that you think will work better for your students? On occasion, I think of a good question on the fly and opt for it, but more often than not, I prepare all my questions in advance.

Don’t feel like you have to keep a separate Plutarch notebook. I write all of my little prep notes right in the margins of the book. If I think of a question, I write it in the footer area. If I break up readings, I note the starts and stops with pen right there in the text. If I choose a couple vocabulary words from the list, I circle them. This book is to teach from; write all over it if you need to.

Step 3: Teach the Lesson

Each of my lessons has these components:

  1. Review the previous lesson.
  2. Introduce the current lesson.
  3. Read the lesson aloud.
  4. Narrate.
  5. Discuss.
  6. Assign homework.
  7. Give a parting thought.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more depth.

1. Review the previous lesson.

I used to ask the simple question, “Who can remind us what happened last time?” but my class quickly got bored with that question. We have 30-45 minutes to spend on Plutarch, so I’m never in a hurry. I decided to start giving a little (gasp!!) homework and make review more fun and more effective.

The “homework” is basically a little project that extends their interest and attention by requiring a bit of additional time and energy. At the beginning of the year, I gave my class a list of options. They can:

  • Draw or paint a scene from the lesson as a picture
  • Draw a diagram, detailed map, or comic strip of what happened
  • Write it as a poem
  • Prepare to act it out (you can do this with a sibling if you wish)
  • Write a song about it
  • Make a model of it with toys/clay/etc.

I tell my students that if they can think of other options, they can talk with me about it to make sure it’s acceptable. If they seem to be stuck in ruts (always turning in the exact same type of project), I tell them to choose something new, or something they haven’t done in a long time.

“Review,” then, becomes show and tell. Usually by the time all six of my students have shared their projects (which only takes a few minutes per student), we’ve covered the important points from the previous lesson. If they missed anything pertinent to the new lesson, I make sure we cover that briefly before moving on.

2. Introduce the day’s lesson.

This is super brief. As I mentioned above, I often focus on avoiding questions that might interrupt our flow. Occasionally, I give them something to watch for. Look for examples of honor, I remember telling them one time. This instruction paved the way for a more thorough discussion later.

3. Read the lesson aloud.

Because we’ve always done this in a group, I’ve always read the lesson aloud to my class. There might be reasons to do it other ways. If I was teaching all high schoolers, I’d make them read — well educated high schoolers should be competent in reading Plutarch aloud, in my opinion. If I was short on time, I might have them read beforehand and just show up with narrations and projects. But this is a longish class with students all the way down to fourth grade, so I read it all aloud.

4. Narrate.

Narration always immediately follows the reading. This is where the dice and beanbag come into play.

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Allow me to introduce you to two essential tools I use in my weekly Plutarch class:⠀ ⠀ 1. The Die of Chance and Decision⠀ 2. The Politeness Beanbag⠀ ⠀ If I am to #makeplutarchgreatagain, I have found these tools to be indispensable additions to the text (I use Anne White for my text *of course*).⠀ ⠀ I will explain these tools.⠀ ⠀ First, the Die of Chance and Decision (henceforth: DoC&D) is an effective and efficient way to manage group narrations and discussion questions. The DoC&D decides for me who will narrate or answer my discussion questions. This means that one or two enthusiastic volunteers are not allowed to dominate the class. Moreover, all students pay attention because they know they all may be called on, depending on which way the dreaded (for some) DoC&D rolls.⠀ ⠀ Second, the Politeness Beanbag (henceforth PB) is how we learn not to interrupt each other. I have had to use this with every class I've ever taught. This is a fantastic way to protect introverted students that need a few seconds to think from being wildly cut off by extroverts before they've gotten a chance to get a word out. @becca_shogren recommend I throw the PB (forcefully!) at the offending interrupters, and I won't say I wasn't tempted, but I find it works well to simply say, "You may not talk unless you are holding the PB." When I roll their number for narration or discussion, I toss them the PB and they begin. Everyone else must listen until they are done. If a student wants to add something, they are not allowed to just start talking — they must wait until the current speaker tosses them the PB.⠀ ⠀ Years ago, when I taught Plutarch to a group of 10 boys, this got a little violent, but typically it works well.⠀ ⠀ #amblesideonline⠀ #charlottemasoncoop⠀ #charlottemason⠀ #plutarch⠀ #charlottemasoneducation⠀ #charlottemasonliving⠀ #charlottemasonirl⠀ #charlottemasonhomeschool⠀ #charlottemasonmama

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Depending on class size, I use one or two dice. This year I only need one because I have six students. I mentally assign each student a number and roll the die to determine who will narrate. Knowing they may be called on to narrate ensures they are all paying attention. Deciding by chance means the most talkative students aren’t allowed to dominate the class.

In order to reinforce proper manners, I also use a beanbag. Only the student holding the beanbag is allowed to talk. My class this year was struggling with manners — interrupting each other, not listening to each other, and basically talking all over each other. I remembered this tool from way back when I taught a class of ten (yes TEN!) boys: The Beanbag of Politeness. I don’t know why I ever stopped using it! It’s amazingly effective.

Whoever is narrating holds the beanbag. When the narrator is done, I roll the die again. It is rare that a narration is so complete that there is not more that could be said. The second narrator I call upon is expected to fill in more of the details. Many times, I roll a third time, or I ask if anyone wants to add anything. Anytime we have a new speaker, the beanbag changes hands.

5. Discuss.

Like I mentioned above, I plan the vast majority of my discussion questions in advance. I ask the question, then roll the die to see who will answer first. Usually, I have many raised hands, but I choose to use the die because it causes all of my students to start mentally preparing answers, knowing that they may be called upon.

If I have broken the reading up, I often ask a discussion question after the first narration, before we go on to the next reading, especially if I have prepared a question that only draws on information from that particular part of the lesson. This keeps interest higher by adding a bit of variety to the lesson.

The beanbag plays the same part here as it does in narration. If you have the beanbag, you can speak. If you do not have the beanbag, you must practice self-control and listen to others.

5. Assign homework.

At the beginning of the year, I printed out lists of homework options on cardstock and gave them to my students. These were meant to be kept and possibly hung up somewhere. Because of this, I don’t have to say much about it. I give a little reminder, challenge them to try something new, and tell them I’ll see them the next week.

Plutarch Model
Lego model created by one of my students illustrating Philopoemen training himself in the ways of soldiering

If you’d like a copy of what I printed out for my students, just fill out this form below and I’ll email it to you as a printable PDF file:

6. Give a parting thought.

I don’t do this every single time, but I do it often. If our discussion centered on something important, I instruct them — ever so briefly — to think about it before our next class. Or I challenge them to live out the lesson in some way. A good example was when we were talking about a soldier’s life and how they were strengthened by self-denial. We talked at length about seeking comfort and how that can make us soft. The challenge I gave them before they ran off to play was, when at some point during the week they felt uncomfortable because they were hungry or tired, to be strong and courageous and not complain, but rather practice being a soldier.

Teaching Plutarch is not that hard.

I don’t say this to make you feel silly if you thought it was hard. Remember: I thought it was hard once, too! But really, Anne’s volumes have laid everything out so nicely that all you really have to do is be diligent and everything else will fall into place.

Teaching Plutarch is like many things that seem hard at first: the act of doing the lesson teaches you how to do it better in the future. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get good at it! (Not that I recommend starting before Charlotte Mason recommends, of course. She said fourth grade was about right.)

Honestly, I can’t think of many lessons that pay such amazing dividends on only 30ish minutes per week!

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18 Comments

  • Reply Claire April 4, 2019 at 10:13 am

    Super helpful, thank you! I’ve found our Plutarch lessons have been a bit muddled and the idea of following this structure (especially with the review homework, dice and beanbag) means I’m actually looking forward to preparing the next one 🙂

  • Reply Lindsey in OK March 28, 2019 at 8:16 pm

    I just last week accidentally volunteered to teach *something* at our co-op. I’ve been considering Plutarch or Shakespeare because my own homeschool is weak in both areas. I figured if we could cover it at co-op that would be a bonus. It will be- a taught-by-me-anyway bonus 😀 This guide is absolutely beautiful and I feel so much better about the possibility of doing this come August. Thanks so much, Brandy!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 29, 2019 at 9:57 am

      You’re welcome! I hope you do it — teaching Plutarch is so much fun once you get the hang of it. ♥

  • Reply Katrina March 20, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Do you print out all of Anne White’s guides or can you buy all of them as books? What have you found to be the most usable format?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 21, 2019 at 8:47 am

      For years, I printed them out — that was all that was available. I tried buying a book once those came out, but I didn’t expect it to feel much different. How wrong I was! I absolutely love having it in book form! The hassle of printing and hole punching — plus carrying around a bulky binder for co-op … I don’t miss any of that.

      It’s totally doable with printed pages, for sure. But having a book has been really nice. ♥

      • Reply Katrina March 21, 2019 at 8:55 am

        Thanks! I partially used a printed version and that felt overwhelming and messy (which is more due to me, not the guide) so we have been reading The Children’s Plutarch instead. When we finish that I want to try Anne’s guides again.

        • Reply Anne White March 21, 2019 at 9:03 am

          Even if you buy the books, you might want to know that you can print out a text-only version of each study for students from the AO website. (For those who like to read along.)

          Not all the Lives we’re doing have study notes yet, and not all the existing notes have been published yet as books. Revising them and making them more consistent in format is an ongoing project.

          • Brandy Vencel March 21, 2019 at 9:07 am

            That’s a great point about the text-only version. I had a class where I had to forbid the books (they could use the text-only only ha) because if I changed anything at all — skipped a vocabulary word (I don’t do them all) or changed the order of the questions — they harassed me to no end and said I was doing it “wrong.” He he. I was so glad when their books were taken away!

  • Reply Lessons from Plutarch: Fake News and Statecraft | Afterthoughts March 20, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    […] my post on planning and executing a Plutarch lesson, I ran across a post on Facebook that was basically a Steven Crowder meme: “I don’t […]

  • Reply MommaHailey March 6, 2019 at 11:31 am

    I’m missing you on social media…but not enough to get back on social media. Lol. Thankful for this post! I love the dice/bean bag tip. Practical! And I appreciate your thoughts, as always.

  • Reply Christina March 2, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    This was so helpful Brandy! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Megan March 1, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    This is our first year with CM and Plutarch. We decided to do it in co-op for accountability and group discussion. I got Anne’s guide to Publicola for use in leading our students, ages 10-15 and all new to it. It has been a highlight of co-op and one of my personal favorites- I look forward to it!

    • Reply Megan March 1, 2019 at 4:46 pm

      Oh! And our co-op is looking forward to hearing you speak at the GHC next week!

      • Reply Brandy Vencel March 1, 2019 at 5:43 pm

        Oh fun! I can’t wait to meet you all! ♥

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 1, 2019 at 5:43 pm

      Isn’t it wonderful? I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, too! ♥

  • Reply Leanne February 28, 2019 at 11:37 am

    Thanks so much. I printed out Anne Whites notes about 9 years ago and haven’t had the courage yet to start Plutarch with my kids. Maybe you younger ones won’t miss out now that I have read this post! Thanks so much

    • Reply Anne White February 28, 2019 at 12:10 pm

      9 years ago? A lot of the studies have been rewritten since then–easier-to-use vocabulary, extra background notes, more consistent style between the studies. (I keep learning too.)

      • Reply Eva March 3, 2019 at 6:30 pm

        I read Plutarch to a couple of my now grown children, but I did not provide enough background or require enough narration I think. I mostly just read, and sometimes explained. Just tonight, one of my daughters told me what a waste reading “that guy with a P, um Plutarch was.”

        I refuse to believe it was a complete waste, but I think doing it in a fashion like you have outlined here would have increased the effectiveness of the lessons at least for that one child.

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