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It’s All Greek for Grade Schoolers Learning the Language in Lexington

Twice a week, Washington and Lee University sophomore Samantha Copping sits down with her students at a Lexington, Va., coffee shop for a tutoring session. It’s an unremarkable scene until you consider the subject — ancient Greek — and the students’ ages.

“Yes, I am, in fact, teaching grade-school boys ancient Greek, the language of Homer and Plato,” said Copping, a W&L classics major.

Copping began with second-grader Harry Richter, who had expressed an interest in learning ancient Greek. Then word got around about the lessons. Before she knew it, Copping had five students—all boys—ranging from second to fifth grades. And so the after-school enrichment program in ancient Greek began.

Why boys? Copping surmises that it’s partly because the boys play computer games with Greek warriors, watch television shows with ancient Greek heroes and play with swords. For Harry, it was also a question of being bored in school. His  mother suggested learning a language. He jumped at Greek, the language of his heroes.

When asked why he wanted to learn ancient Greek, third-grader Ben Hansen said he just thought it would be fun. “I wanted to learn a foreign language and I thought Greek would be rewarding because I could read  lots of stories in the original Greek. And Poseidon – the Greek god of water – he’s my favorite god.”

Last semester, Copping started Harry off with the alphabet, putting letters together into words, recognizing words, learning grammar and reading ancient Greek (or Attic Greek, as it’s called) which varies significantly from the Greek spoken today.  “Harry got pretty far into the grammar last semester,” said Copping, “and he was understanding concepts that I thought there was no way an eight-year-old could comprehend—concepts like case, number, gender.”

Copping continued, “Now we’re just starting with some of Harry’s friends, still making sure they have a grasp of the alphabet.” Once, her young students were thinking about a Greek word, trying to spell it in their minds, when Harry chimed in with a clue: “What dessert don’t I like?” The answer was pie; the Greek letter they were searching for was—pi.

“We spend the second half of the class doing a craft or activity—the crafts can come into play with the culture and mythology side of ancient Greek,” Copping said. “For example, when we were talking about Greek theater, we discussed the masks that had big mouth holes to amplify the sound. They wanted to make their own masks. So that was our activity for a few days.”

Copping tailors the program to the boys’ ages. “Being little kids, they have short attention spans,” she said, “so I’ll take them as far as I can with the grammar and words before they get to the point where it’s not fun anymore, and they want to move on to something else.”

“A teacher once told me, you never really know anything until you have to teach it,” said Kevin Crotty, professor of classics at W&L and Copping’s adviser.  “That was my own experience with the ancient Greek grammar, I know.  And so I was very happy that the students in Greek and Latin here are getting the opportunity to teach to others what they are learning in their classes here at Washington and Lee.

“I have been very pleasantly surprised by the avid response from our students when I, sometimes a bit sheepishly, ask if anyone is interested in doing a spot of tutoring,” continued Crotty.  “Moreover, it’s wonderful to have such a vote of confidence in classical studies from the children of Lexington.  I think these kids are very lucky to get an introduction to a fascinating subject at an early age from really bright college students. I’m awfully proud of our students.”

This is not the first time that W&L’s classics department has been asked for their help in tutoring. Middle-schooler Jake Keen, son of W&L English professor Suzanne Keen, started being tutored in fourth grade. Now he is studying ancient Greek with W&L senior Katie Kern and is taking Latin in school.

Jake developed his interest after studying Greek myths and culture in elementary school. Seeing antiquities in the British Museum and the Louvre and having his dad read him “The Odyssey” (in English) inspired him to learn ancient Greek. Kern is his third W&L tutor.

Copping’s interest in Latin began in middle school. When interviewing with W&L’s admissions office, she told them of her interest in Latin, mythology and ancient stories, and they recognized “a perfect classics major.”

Tutoring kids helps Copping with her love of Greek. “In the middle of the night, translating a passage for class can get discouraging, but when you see little kids love it so much, that reawakens that love. Those memories of what it was like in middle school to be captivated by something—that’s something I don’t ever want to lose,” Copping said.