As I’ve said before, we like to watch documentaries in my History class. There are two very unlikely texts that go together so well. One is a series of bombastic thrill rides from the History Channel, and the other is a few chapters from an old book by an old fart. I love them both.
First we watch Cities of the Underworld: Rome, the Rise. The idea is that you can dig down a few feet and see the actual structures of the Roman world. It is fascinating! I got to do a very little bit of that on a trip to Jerusalem, and man, it brings the history home. And, for my students who have read Terry Pratchett, there is the connection with Ankh-Morpork and the underground chases in Men at Arms.
There are a few issues I have with these films. The music just about knocks you over. It’s loud, sometimes so much so that my students complain that they can’t hear the historians, and my copies do not have Closed Captioning for some reason. (Grrr.) And there is always the perennial problem of superlative abuse. My students have gotten to the point that they shout out when they hear them. Also, hosts Erik Geller and Don Wildman in their individual shows both have something of a potty mouth (tsk, tsk, tsk). Thank goodness for bleeps.
But you get to see the old architecture, the building materials, left over bones, and artifacts. You get to walk with them where the old Romans were. Students can see CGI reproductions of the buildings and how they changed over time. The directors and writers picked well in terms of showing the different elements of Roman architecture as well as finding historians who are very interesting.
Students take Cornell Notes on the information learned and will later study them for the test.
The text I pair with this video is The Greek and Roman World, chapter 7, by W.G. Hardy, published in 1960.* Woo-hoo, is this man nerdy! But he wrote great essays. His word choice is fantastic. Almost every paragraph has either a hook or a transition, and almost all paragraphs have a clear topic sentence. In groups of three, students look up any words they don’t know as they read the chapter together, highlighting topic sentences, which they will later transfer into their notes.
Hardy puts the entirety of the Roman world in perspective, and helps students to see the big picture. He clothes the world for students in a way that helps them to see it in color. Even more so after they view the videos.
We will then turn back to the videos, this time watching Cities of the Underworld: Hidden Empire. This installment has more on the major constructions and a real look at the Roman arch. This one is also with Erik Geller.
Then we turn to chapter 8 of Hardy, “The Romans at Work and Play.” This essay is probably my favorite. It takes the students inside the homes and workplaces of the Romans. It gives rules for behavior and walks you down the street. A great companion for the videos.
Finally, we will watch Gladiators: Blood Sport. This one is with Wildman (an alumnus of my alma mater, Earlham College. Hee!). He takes you under the Coliseum for a look at the sport from the competitors’ point of view. It takes a little editing because of some sexual content, but there are so many questions from students about the sport and this video answers a lot of them.
And so we turn back to Hardy and his chapter 9, an essay on the excesses of the Roman world. After seeing the gladiator video, students are primed to take in this text.
By the time we are done, students have a pretty clear picture of the depth and breadth of the lives lived by the ancients. Gone are the cardboard cutouts and marble busts of the history books, and in walk the rich, the poor, the women, the children, the gladiators (both men and women) and slaves in the neighborhoods, the necropolises, the palaces, and the communal spaces they inhabited.
I’m so excited that I can hardly wait for them to finish the first chapter!
* Special thanks go to my mentor teacher for History, Jeff Day. He introduced me to awesome history texts that have helped me up my teaching game! Thanks, Yoda!