by Heidi Saleh, Near Eastern Studies
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
Teaching Letters and Science 44, “Origins of Western Civilization,” can be extremely challenging due to the fact that there are approximately twenty texts that the GSI is responsible for covering over the semester. In addition, sections meet twice a week, so I really had to come up with a variety of strategies to analyze and explore the texts we were studying. After a couple of weeks into the class, I found that coming up with fresh ways to discuss and interpret texts that have been studied for hundreds of years such as The Odyssey was becoming a problem. The students were getting tired of straight literary analysis, and quite frankly, so was I.
So, I began to think of activities that would help remedy our seemingly mechanical analysis of each text. When it came time to study the Old Testament, I divided the class into four small groups of about five students, and I asked them to compose and perform a modern version of the books that we were covering. The class came up with poignant, contemporary versions of the Tale of Jonah and the Book of Ester. The class was filled with laughter and enjoyment, and every group really captured the essence of the story and powerfully delivered the major themes of the texts.
A few weeks later, we began to study Euripides’ Medea. Again, I was looking for an original method to tackle the major themes and problems addressed in the text. I decided that the class would have a talk-show-like discussion of the play. So, I assigned each student to a character in the play, one student as the talk-show hostess, and some students were audience members. I sat back and watched in amazement as Jason, Medea, and their families sat at the front of the class facing the student audience and defended their own positions in the play. The experience was invigorating for everyone. The questions and comments were endless; I had never seen such an animated discussion session. In addition, everyone had the chance to participate in an extremely relaxed environment; even my shiest students were quite outspoken.
In both these discussion sessions, the students were quite involved with the material. The hour went by in a flash. Many of them lingered on after class and told me how much they enjoyed that session, and many students explained to me that thinking about these ancient masterpieces in modern terms helped them understand some of the timelessness aspects of these texts. Many of the students also mentioned in the GSI evaluations how much they enjoyed activities that contemporized the texts and, thereby, made them more relevant. Most importantly, though, my students were able to answer all the questions on the final that dealt with Medea, Jonah, or Ester with flying colors. They remembered the plots of the stories vividly, and the themes and main ideas of these texts were ingrained into the students.