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:
- Review the previous lesson.
- Introduce the current lesson.
- Read the lesson aloud.
- Assign homework.
- 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.
Narration always immediately follows the reading. This is where the dice and beanbag come into play.
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.
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.
6. 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.
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:
7. 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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