How (Not) to Teach Greek

***Please Only Read this Post in Conjunction with This One, Published Shortly Afterward.***

That may seem like an audacious title coming from someone only three weeks into Summer Greek in his first year of seminary, so let me preface: I’m not an expert in Biblical Greek. I don’t presume to be. But I have spent most of the past decade as a professional educator, and am well-enough read in educational theory to know that good/bad teaching practices transcend subject matter. So with (at the very least) my graduate level studies in educational method, and my years of experience practicing it in the field, I think I’m qualified to say that my frustrations in Greek class are with the way in which the subject is being taught.

The general format of the course seems to be a daily dose of vocabulary words and grammatical forms to be memorized, followed by a lecture explaining any intricacies, followed by group and individual practice with various sentence translation exercises, and then an assessment in the form of a daily timed quiz lasting 10-15 minutes, or a weekly exam lasting approximately 1 hour.

I don’t have a problem with the sentence translation exercises. That’s a very constructivist sort of activity I enjoy doing with my precept group, and then on my own each night in the calm, untimed environment of our apartment with my flashcards, textbook, and tools readily available. My problem is with the amount of memorization required, and the added pressure of a “timed-quiz” where all work must be done from memory. This approach is the antithesis of centuries of progressive educational theory from Rousseau to Vygotsky to Dewey.

I do feel obliged to give my professor some credit here — as a teacher he seems passionate about his subject, and compassionate toward his students. These are, in my opinion, the two most important qualities a teacher can have. And I also perceive that he’s at least moving in the direction of progressive/constructivist methodology: He has often told us how much *less* vocabulary we’re required to memorize than previous classes, and that our textbook was specifically chosen because of its emphasis on learning the basic forms, rather than learning each instance or exception.

But the course is still far from a model of good educational practice, and I suspect that its longevity as a subject has entrenched/enshrined much of the current methodology in the quagmire of tradition. When I approached my professor about this, he indicated a firm belief that students had to at least commit to memory some basic things in order for education to move forward, and that all students should be able to perform certain functions of translation in a reasonable amount of time, hence the timed quizzes.

Perhaps. But the way we commit things to memory is by frequency of usage, not by what my department chair in my first year of teaching referred to as “drill and kill” style quizzes. When I am translating sentences at home, I use my tools to look things up. It doesn’t take me an unreasonable amount of time, and after I’ve looked up the same word or construction several times, I find I no longer need to use the tools. Forcing me to do it without the tools in a time-constrained format the next morning just causes stress and encourages me to make hasty, sloppy mistakes.

I’m fairly confident that nowhere in my eventual usage of Greek — be it as a pastor preparing a sermon, a scholar translating texts, or even on my Presbyterian Greek Ordination Exam — will I be barred from using tools and resources. So perhaps a better assessment of my abilities would be a quiz that measured how well (and even how quickly) I am able to use the tools at my disposal, even if they consist of crude flashcards or form charts. At the very least, in any other academic environment I would be given ample time in which to proofread or check my work before submitting it. Translation as an academic field ought to reward slow, meticulous work, rather than encourage the bad habit of rushing through work to meet a deadline. And (as my high school band director was fond of saying) we tend to perform what we practice, so we should practice what we want to perform.

Early in my teaching career, I required students to commit large numbers of vocabulary and literary terms to memory. Thankfully, my peers — veteran educators of many advanced degrees and many years in the field — steered me in a different direction. By the time I left my teaching position, I invariably allowed students to use all of their notes, term cards, and even texts on assessments. This was deep assessment, and it forced me to write my tests and quizzes in a way that ensured they really understood the material, rather than just regurgitating it.

One final critique. We know pretty decisively that different students learn in different ways, at different paces, and best demonstrate their knowledge through a variety of media. Yet all the assessments in our course (quizzes, exams, and a final exam) share a near identical format. Are we assuming that all students are alike here, or rather that in the interest of convenience, those who learn/process/test in different ways or at different paces should best be left behind? I don’t think that’s the intention of the course, and indeed at this point I don’t think anyone is being “left behind.” But as things progress and get more difficult, this is a danger, for myself as well as for others. Sadly, it’s a danger that would be pretty easy to remedy. And since one of the things I learned as a teacher was to never point out a problem without also offering a solution, here’s what I would do as a progressive educator, were I back on the other side of the desk:

  1. I would place the quizzes at the end of our 1st morning precept sessions, rather than at the beginning. Seeing as they are followed by a 30 minute break, this would give those who need it more time. It also has the advantage of allowing students and preceptors to go over the homework (i.e. more practice which breeds more understanding) before the quiz.
  2. I would allow/encourage the usage of flashcards, the textbook, and/or class handouts during quizzes and exams. Then I might feel free to make the quizzes more “tricky” or challenging — it would teach students to use resources better, think more critically, and more meticulously. And *that* will serve them best in the worlds of ministry AND academia.
  3. I would encourage students who feel that the tests/quizzes don’t reflect their actual knowledge of the subject matter to propose alternative strategies for themselves — I could then accept, reject, or modify these based on my own evaluation of the student’s needs, using my judgment as a professional educator. I might even be surprised with some of the ideas that result.

Actually that’s just a start — I’d probably overhaul the entire class to make it truly constructivist, which would require a different seminary with a different approach to education altogether. Nevertheless, any of these things alone would go a long way toward improving the course. All of them together would be outstanding.

Today, our professor cited our uniform high grades on the last exam, accompanied by the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, I think the high grades are more reflective of the intense pressure of this particular competitive academic environment. Broken things are sometimes not evident from surface level assessments. For example:

  • Do we want students to merely “ace the class,” or do we want them to build habits for the future?
  • Which habits, and what are we doing in our methodology to encourage those habits?
  • Even if all the students excel in the class, how much is the educational methodology doing to foster a lifelong love and use for the subject material?

I find that it’s quickly killing off what was an initial excitement and interest for me (and I love languages, as well as Ancient Greek culture and literature, so that’s pretty hard to do). In the future, I will most likely associate Greek with having to recall things quickly under pressure. I guess if someone holds a gun to my head someday and asks me to translate a passage from the New Testament, I’ll be well prepared!

***Please Only Read this Post in Conjunction with This One, Published Shortly Afterward.***


Comments

How (Not) to Teach Greek — 19 Comments

  1. As a pastor, I agree with your critique. Habits for what future? An awareness of the tools needed for a deep exegesis of a particularly troubling text is helpful, but the skill set required to engage in timed translation of a text…from memory…is of marginal use outside of an academic context. Sometimes in my Bible studies, textual or translation questions have surfaced, and that’s why I’ve got Bibleworks and a smattering of residual awareness of my seminary Greek. For those of us whose call is pastoral ministry, I’m just not sure how the tested skillsets relate to the actual telos of our calling.

  2. Wow, that sounds a good bit like Navy flight school – though we didn’t have group discussions so much. I guess that method of teaching made sense for a cockpit – remembering things quickly under pressure. I left that behind once already…

  3. I have found that some of the best and worst teachers I have had have been professors. Without any type of training in the field of education, having a professor that teaches well is “luck of the draw”. I propose that universities continue to hire professors who are authorities in their fields of interest, but also instate the requirement that they take classes in the field of education during the summer (similar to the program in Texas for primary and secondary teachers with degrees other than in the field of education). Also, after obtaining teaching credentials, continuing education requirements should be mandatory for professors. This is a requirement for most other professionals. Professors would then be up-to-date in the latest developments in their fields of practice, as well as their field of interest.

  4. Matthew — Alas, my expertise (such as it may be) lies in the field of education, not Greek textbooks and resources.

    Anyone else on here want to tackle this one? Mark?

    I do think that the text we’re using (by N. Clayton Croy) is a good one, and not at fault for the lack of pedagogy in the class. As I mentioned in the blog, our professor pointed out that its emphasis was on learning basic forms rather than lots of vocabulary (although if this isn’t “lots of vocabulary” I’d hate to have seen what was!).

    One thing we do as part of our class that I really enjoy (although sadly it’s optional and not part of the assessment process) is a “Greek Table” on Friday afternoons in the cafeteria. We’ve begun reading the Gospel of Mark in our Greek New Testaments. We supply what we can in the way of translation from what we’ve learned, and he fills in the gaps. This sort of collaborative and congenial engagement with the language is (in my opinion) a better approach.

    I think if one wanted to teach Greek (or any language) in an alternative fashion — and I can mostly only speak to a progressive, constructivist sort of alternative here — one would have to spend a lot of time allowing students to encounter and explore Greek texts. The role of a good facilitator/teacher is to lead them toward their own conclusions. Sometimes this seems like “reinventing the wheel” but that’s where teaching them to use tools comes in handy (and then reinforcing that by encouraging or even requiring their use).

    Also, “repetition” (not as in “rote” but more like familiarity through frequent encounters of words and forms in context) is at the other end of the spectrum from memorization, and is actually how most native speakers of any language assimilate vocabulary in their formative years. My 3-year-old son developed a basic English vocabulary in less than a year, as most children do, without ever being forced to memorize anything. He did it because he wanted to communicate with us. Harnessing the power of the teachable moment, and finding where a teacher’s expertise intersects with a student’s interest — those are the points at which education of any sort is most likely to happen.

  5. Neal,

    I think your critique regarding how biblical languages are taught at PTS are, for the most part, valid. However, I also think these classes are designed as best as they can be for what they are: a triage version of learning two very specific ancient languages well enough to competently read ancient biblical texts. The memorization is necessary to achieve a basic vocabulary level so that students aren’t looking up words that occur the most frequently throughout the text. I’m sure your educational experience makes it hard to “go along” with pedagogical models that don’t seem to make sense. That being said, I think three or four weeks is a little too soon to pull the trigger on an overall assessment of the class. Once you move beyond beginner’s Koine Greek and into exegesis classes, I think you’ll understand the value of those particular things that may seem annoying right now.

    May God bless the rest of your summer experience.

  6. Jason,

    While I appreciate your encouragement, and the thought that someday I’ll “understand the value of those particular things,” I don’t agree.

    I’ve heard the argument many times that the *reason* for the methodology is the condensed summer schedule. But I’ve also heard from plenty of people that the methodology is the same in the regular year (memorize, quiz, etc.) — just the pace is slowed.

    And as compelling as that line of thinking may be , I’ve participated in pedagogically sound ESL programs that used constructivist methodology to teach foreign students (with no English background) basic competency in reading, writing, AND speaking English in an equivalent condensed time period. Without relying on rote memorization of vocabulary or timed assessments (which in actuality tend to slow down and stifle deeper language acquisition).

    In fact, rote memorization flies in the face of how we best learn languages at any age and at any pace — contextually. The fear that students will be “looking up words that occur the most frequently throughout the text” is an assumption at best, and a misunderstanding of how individuals assimilate knowledge at worst. If more emphasis is given to translating sentences, with tools and resources (generally referred to as “scaffolding” in educational theory), very soon students no longer need the scaffolding (tools) because they are familiar with the words and forms *in their proper context*. A flash card, for one, is hardly a context.

    I’m not “pulling the trigger” on the class — that would be an overall assessment, and I’ll reserve that for the future. But an experienced educator wouldn’t even require the three or four weeks I’ve taken to assess the methodology. It’s not simply “pedagogical models that don’t make sense to me.” It’s the lack of a pedagogical model at all that disturbs me, or at the very least, one based on tradition rather than current educational research, theory, and practice.

  7. Neal,

    Sorry, but I’m not equipped to recommend Koine textbooks. It sounds like your textbook is far and away better than the two I had. In the early 80’s in college, our textbook was by Eugene Van Ness Goetchius, published in 1965. In seminary in 1990, our textbook was Machen’s 1923 edition. Machen, blech! I used his charts, but I relied on Goetchius for understanding.

    I was taught both Greek and Hebrew, in both college and seminary, using an older style method with LOTS more memorization. I remember night after night when we would drill each other on flash cards and paradigms. Cramming was the only method given to us. Once I had enough crammed in my head to gain a modicum of understanding, I enjoyed working with both languages.

    The trouble came after the classes ended. Unless I continually crammed, I couldn’t hold onto the information. Now, as a pastor, my skills are so rusty they are of little help. That grieves me because it opposes the whole reason for requiring our PC(USA) candidates to have a working knowledge of biblical languages before they can be ordained. If I can’t access the languages years after I’ve learned them, what good was all that hard work? And how does that glorify God and bring joy to God’s Church?

    Neal, perhaps you need to expand the concept of your monastary-microbrewery to include a scriptorium that provides progressive constructivist instruction in biblical languages.

    Hmmm. It seems like the theological concepts might change over time, but the teaching methods don’t. Have fun shaking up the Princeton establishment!

    One rant: what’s with the confirmation letters at the bottom of the page: Half the time I can’t read them. How am I supposed to type them if I can’t read them in the first place?

    In Christ,
    Mark

  8. Neal, what are your precept hours like? I think that my preceptor’s been pretty good at supplementing the lectures with the sort of inductive methodology you’re proposing – or at least, as much as she can in this environment. For example, we’ve been reading through the book of Romans since Day 1; we have next to none of the vocabulary, but we’ve slowly been able to pick out forms as we go along – Aorist Active, Future Middle, etc. – so we’ve been encountering the text from early on. She’s created worksheets for us, too, with somewhat complicated verbal forms and/or sentences where we’re allowed to use the book if needed. Granted, the quiz is still at the beginning, closed book, but the way she’s been using the rest of her time with us has been pretty good, I think. I’ve found a good preceptor can make an oddly taught class better (and, conversely, a bad preceptor can make even the best class awful – that’s experience talking).

    I also wonder how much of this is due to the summer-intensive aspect. I took Hebrew last summer, so I don’t have any experience with year-long languages here, and I wonder if the pedagogy’s any better in a more ‘relaxed’ environment.

  9. Neal,

    As someone who also has a degree in English, has taken foreign language classes, and who’s had the advantage of already going through both the year-long Greek, year-long Hebrew, and exegesis classes, I was just trying to provide a little perspective. But it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind. Either way, I hope the process doesn’t become too frustrating for you. Blessings.

  10. Shamy-

    Woman! how many times do I have to tell you no talk to american man i am your lebanese leopard i tell you when you eat sit walk breathe. american man of god bad. GD greeks plunder our women for a time and times and american man of god read godforsaken language of greeks. we lebanese poop on greeks then eat them.
    come home now to 4T i have jenkem ready we huff tonight for a time and times. first we huff generally, then specifically. remember woman who save you from no sex life? me. i find you in box on finnegans lane talking no sense about census and clowns and i make you shamy. this is your repayment of me? woman why you forget power of my hezbollah rocket? american greek read man “Locke”: no will again speak to Shamy. thank you.

  11. @Mark — Monastery-Microbrewery-Scriptorium? Love the idea, but will have to work on a shorter, less intimidating elevator pitch for that one 😉 Also, the confirmation letters are part of a project called “recaptcha” which digitizes old books in the public domain (while also protecting my blog from spam). But you’ll notice there are always two words, and one of them is always easy to read — that’s the dummy word, and it gets your comment in. The other word is the one they’re trying to figure out (with your help) and if you blow it, then it’ll still let you in.

    @Ryan — yeah, your preceptor does sound like she must have had a much needed dose of educational theory, or else comes to it intuitively. In any case, tell her she’ll make a great teacher someday if she doesn’t let the system conform her too much!

    @Jason — my apologies. I know you were just trying to provide perspective, and I appreciate that. Sometimes I just get on a rant and stay there…but I really am serious about my disapproval of the educational technique. I hope no one takes that personally, though. All of the preceptors and especially the professor are great people and are honestly trying to do their best.

    @Masala Shamy — ummmm….ok. Actually, that might have been the perfect comic diversion from an otherwise intense subject. So. Thanks. I guess.

  12. Hey Katie–thanks for the advice. I've got to find a way to integrate the comments here (on facebook) with the discussion that's going on over at the original post on my blog (www.mrlocke.net). It's been interesting.

    Hey, thanks for the T-shirt! (And Grady is psyched about the birthday party, too).

  13. yay! It'll be good to get kids altogether before summer ends, so a birthday party is the perfect excuse

    I'm glad you can use the t-shirt 🙂

    I saw the discussion over there. Is "Shamy" Jason Santos or a different Jason?

    Don't let your brain explode–you'll need it this fall 🙂

  14. yay! It'll be good to get kids altogether before summer ends, so a birthday party is the perfect excuse

    I'm glad you can use the t-shirt 🙂

    I saw the discussion over there. Is "Shamy" Jason Santos or a different Jason?

    Don't let your brain explode–you'll need it this fall 🙂

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