Makers’ Grimoire: The Miscellany

Georgics Book IV PageI’ve been working on a couple of cool projects with my students of late, and this is the sample product from one of them.  We’re doing this project in Latin class, which is sixth graders, and it’s a combination of illustration and handwriting training.

What are we doing? We’re producing a miscellany.  It’s a collection of texts — some of which they’re copying out by hand, and some of which they’re writing themselves.   The first section of the book is a bestiary — sixteen animals, which they wrote and illustrated in order to demonstrate familiarity with the four types of Latin sentences presented in the first part of Ecce Romani IA.  That was their first-quarter project, and it resulted in 8 pages of descriptions of animals. Every page had to obey certain characteristics:

  1. It had to be on a piece of paper pre-printed with “medieval margins” and an indication of where the holes went.
  2. It had to have a border that covered over or hid those printed margins with their own designs.
  3. It had to display good handwriting.
  4. It had to have an illustration of the animal named.
  5. It had to use the four types of sentences found in our textbook.
  6. It had to have both a Latin text and an English translation.
  7. It had to be in neat handwriting — readable and legible.

This second-quarter project requires them to wrestle with genuine Latin literature.  They’re looking at a passage by a real Roman author who is normally considered to be way beyond the abilities of first year Latin students.  It’s a selection of lines from Vergil’s Georgics, Book IV — all about bees, and their sleepy and occasionally violent habits. Every kid has his or her own ten-line passage, which they’re responsible for 1) memorizing,  2) doing a word-list with a Latin-English dictionary, 3) creating a recording of them reading it aloud, and 4) making an illustrated page of.    And because I believe in doing the work myself when I can, I produced my own copy of the illustrated page, which you see here.   Here’s also the page I did for the Bestiary section.Corvus

Not all of them are this good.  I’ve got to admit that. I’ve turned myself into a reasonably competent artist over the last few years; and many of my students are just starting out on that road. Even with some time in Latin class devoted not to the study of Latin but to the study of drawing and art, we’re not at the point where kids produce beautiful work on demand.  (Although some are considerably better than mine — and there’s a radical improvement in the work between the first set and the second set, for the most part).

Of course, last year’s Latin class didn’t produce a bestiary, but they did produce a book of Roman gods and goddesses.  Which means when I combine this year’s Bestiary with last year’s gods and goddesses, and this year’s Vergil, and this year’s final project, which will be to write out a description in Latin of one of the signs of Geomancy (we’re producing a neo-Latin textbook on being a geomancer? heh.), the two-year-long development of the Latin Grade-6 Miscellany will consist of about 60 handwritten-and-photocopied pages. And it will keep growing.  I’ll have to keep finding the right combination of Latin authors to copy, and subjects for Latin texts for the students to write (the Hours of the Day? The Months of the Year? The Provinces of the Empire?  The potential list is quite endless.)

Vesta TextVesta Image

One of the hardest parts to get across to kids has been the importance of planning out a pair of pages simultaneously.  I’m guilty of it myself.  When I produce a page alone, I’m not paying attention to what goes on the opposite page. When I produce a pair of pages, as in the Vesta example above (from last year’s Gods and Goddesses project), the result is a pair of pages that go together as a pair (and function as a kind of Latin coloring book), and which are unified in design and form by the amount of landscape they take on the page, and by the arrangement of words (the Vesta pages also have a gloss — side notes in the margins that explain what some of the more unusual words in the text means.  Not sure if I want to continue doing that or not in the future).

Future topics for the Miscellany (in future years):

  • Days of the Week (for a really small class)
  • Minor gods and goddesses from Rome
  • Provinces of the Empire (Gallia, Britannia, Hispania, Italia, Acheaea, Asia Minor, etc.)
  • Hours of the Day and Vigils of the Night
  • Poems of Catullus (the relatively clean ones)
  • The Epigrams of Martial (the relatively clean ones)
  • The Metamorphoses of Ovid (relatively clean ones)
  • The Months of the Year (a good one for this year, in fact)
  • Heroes of the Roman Republic
  • Heroes of the Roman Empir

What would you add to the list?

Tools for Building These Skills

The outline of the pages in the bestiary project have been determined by the Secret Law of Page Harmony, a website I found when I was starting to think about teaching graphic design in the context of Latin classes. Obviously I can’t teach all these rules in the little time I can take away from teaching Latin to teach graphic design, so I don’t.  I teach kids how I found the edges of the pages, and a little bit about laying out lines of text within the box, but that’s about it.

I also make use of the books of Sachiko Umoto, a Japanese illustrator, whose books on teaching quick illustration techniques to children are both delightful and immediate, even if they’re a bit more Ed Emberly than medieval masterpieces.

Zentangle books are good for teaching kids enough patterns and enough border elements to play with in their illustration.  The limitations imposed by the desire to photocopy all the pages the kids produce mean that some of Zentangle’s lessons on color and shading are somewhat less valuable; but usually we take a day after the book is finished to color in our pages.

Finally, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it’s important to teach kids the basics of drawing. You can use Mike Rohde’s five-shape method, or Dave Gray’s Forms, Fields and Flows, but you still need to reconnect kids in middle school with their native drawing skills, and re-awaken that part of their creativity and capacity.

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  1. I know I am repeating myself, and others, but, wow… how I wish I had had a teacher as involved as you obviously are! Not one of my teachers in my entire 12 year (jail sentence) school system had anywhere near the interest and dedication you have.

    • Alas, Christina — I’m sorry that in twelve years you didn’t have one awesome teacher. It’s a sad truth that most teachers can genuinely reach only five or six students a year; although they may have as many as twenty or thirty in hand. We make a difference to many, perhaps, but only a handful in our careers become deep proteges.

      That said, I think… well. I’ll put it this way. I began teaching in 1996. Every year but 2001-02, I’ve had around 60 students. So, that’s what? A 17-year teaching career so far? Call it around 1,000 students who have had me as a teacher, a dorm parent or a coach. I’d be VERY surprised if, in 1000 people, you’d couldn’t find around 80-100 at least who thought I was a bad teacher FOR THEM, a bad teacher generally, or a fraud. Maybe I do better than that, but my guess is that I completely failed to reach about 10% of my students.

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