Barbarians: who knew?

What does a teacher do when a student calls another a name that is just plain wrong?

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Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.

So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.

The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.

It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?

Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.

Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised.  Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.

Barbarians
The Barbarians. https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/416794140495615038/

Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?) 

The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.

The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth”  was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf,  as told in the oldest English poem in existence.

Scandinavia at the time of Beowulf.
Map Prepared by Louis Henwood for ‘The History of English’ podcast, episode 42

They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.

Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.

It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way.  Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.

By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.

 

If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing. 

Alternate ed.

While in Detroit staying with my cousins, I spent a day visiting the school where my cousin David teaches.  It’s an alternate ed school on the same campus as a regular high school in the suburb of Birmingham. Classes are open age and not organised by grade level. 

I’ve had some interaction with one of the Hunanities teachers here before, as we have set up some interaction and communication between our history classes. It was great for our students to share their experiences and perspectives, and to find out their similarities and differences in the ways they view and understand world events and the ways in which they enjoy recreation, sports and entertainment. It was wonderful to meet with Mallory and continue our collaboration in person. 

I took the opportunity to share with several classes about the similarities and differences between the USA and Australia. Geography, politics, government, food, popular culture, flora and fauna, and history have all been topics of conversation. The students have been really interested and keen to discuss things, so I’ve really had a lot of fun. Talking with teens comes naturally to me, so I have been very blessed to have these opportunities. 

I also had the chance to watch my cousin teach geometry to a student who hates math. In his words, “Every moment of this is agony for her.” By the end of this one-on-one instruction time, she is mentally exhausted but she has achieved two learning goals and shown that she is making progress. She takes a nap for the remainder of the session: this is both her reward and essential recovery time after a lesson in which she has fought to achieve mastery of skills and knowledge that many students might take for granted as “basic”. 

I can understand where she is coming from. I hated math too: I found it very difficult, and my teacher was neither patient nor understanding of my weaknesses. I have to say that if my math teacher had been as gentle and encouraging as my cousin is with his students, I might have leaned more. There really is a art to teaching “math as a foreign language”, as David so neatly puts it. Other students in the room are more self-driven and work quietly in the relaxed learning environment where there’s blues music playing and the communication is casual and comfortable, even though the expectations and academic standards are maintained.  

I am so impressed. The students here are getting a chance to succeed and graduate where the regular classroom did not work for them. The staff are very proactive and constructive in their communication. In that, they are very much like the teachers with whom I work and, I’m sure, most teachers the world over.  It’s not really a unique thing that we do, but each of us has incredible opportunities to impact every student’s day, every student’s willingness to learn, and the outcomes of that in every student’s life. Here, where the kids face other issues in addition to those generally faced by teens in regular schools, there’s some powerful work being done to engage and mentor young people who are at very real risk of otherwise “falling through the cracks” or dropping out altogether. 

As David and I walked out at the end of the day, I was struck by the difference in appearance between his school and the one upstairs, which clearly gets more funding and attention than the other. It may look nicer up there, but I have developed a very soft spot for the students and the staff at Lincoln St Alternate Ed. What happens there is very, very special indeed. 

The perils of report writing.

After being a teacher for twenty-six-and-a-half years, I’m surprised that it has only just occurred to me that the effect of report writing on the body is much like pregnancy cravings.

I’m working away, absorbed in the delicate task of crafting a finely constructed, highly expressive report of the achievements and needs of each student when all of a sudden, my body speaks to me.
“Sugar. I need sugar.”
I think of ice cream, then of oreos. Ice cream with oreos. Awesome.

I’m about to get out of my chair and go foraging, but then I remember that I have an enormous amount of work to do and I don’t want to get too distracted. Instead, I look for sweets in the drawers beside my chair. An almost-empty packet yields two licorice allsorts which are consumed in quick succession, shortly after which I decide that this may not have been a good idea, even if the choice of licorice did seem healthier than the unholy amount of chocolate consumed while writing Year 10 English until 1.45 am. Feeling a little queasy, I continue working.

“Mmmm. Pickles. I’d love a pickle.”
Subsequent investigation in the kitchen leads to the conclusion that there are no pickles in the house and then to the discovery that a couple of large slices of tinned beetroot makes a fabulous substitute. Who knew?

Feeling surprisingly sated, I return to my work and let my creative juices flow.
The industry with which the words flow from my mind to my fingertips and onto the screen is impressive. This lasts for at least fifteen minutes, until the dilemma of how to write about young Miss Elsie Whosiewhich’s failure to submit any work at all for the entire semester leaves one wondering if there are any cheese and onion flavoured potato chips in the house.
These thoughts are set aside with determination to at least finish writing half of the Year 10 history reports before I take another break, but before long the jar of coffee on the counter is calling out to me and I’m powerless to resist. Caffeine will keep me alert and help me concentrate, right?

I walk into the kitchen to make coffee but get distracted by thoughts of a peanut butter sandwich. Suddenly it’s all too much work, so I pour another glass of Coke Zero and head back to my study. It occurs to me just how freaking awesome cold coke tastes and feels. Delicious, ice-cold bubbly goodness delivering caffeine to my brain with every sip. Then I realise that I am a bit hungry and I should have grabbed that peanut butter sandwich while I was up. Dammit. I hunt for one of my Reese’s cups that I’ve hoarded in case of an emergency, and almost cry with happiness when I find it. Oh, that delicious peanut-buttery goodness…

Oh, wait. The caffeine was supposed to help me concentrate, wasn’t it?
Right. Back to it then.