Why Plutarch is the Funnest Part of Our School Morning

Who ever would have thought that a first-century historian would make for the rip-roaring-est experience of the school day?

Thanks to A Delectable Education's scheduling cards, this past school year has included subjects that I always aspired to, but could never quite fit it - things like Shakespeare, daily poetry, appreciating paintings from the masters and enjoying music by great composers. But there was one subject recommendation I was scared to venture into: Plutarch.

My idea of The Classics are a big stack by Dickens, Bronte, Dostoyevsky, Hugo; voices echoing from the far reaches of the 19th century. Attempting anything older than that (sans religious literature, obviously) has ended up being an abandoned attempt. I once got really ambitious and tried something super old and foreign - Don Quixote (Spain, 1605) - but after a year of plodding, I gave up. The suggestion that I should include the study of Plutarch, a first century Greco-Roman biographer and essayist, made me almost immediately want to throw up a white flag of surrender. This was not a battle I was prepared to fight. My eleven-year-old would balk - and yes, if I was going to attempt this at all, I would only inflict it on the eleven-year-old.

What can it hurt to try? You don't really know until you try. This has become a theme for me this past year when I was inundated with so many ideas and ideals and I knew I had to come up with something better than I've-never-done-that-so-I-never-will-do-that. So, I penciled Plutarch in for one thirty-minute slot once per week. At the appointed hour on the appointed day, I sat in the dining room with Blue. This is how it would go: We'd start with the life of Julius Caesar since that was someone he had at least heard of before. I would read a paragraph or two and he would tell back to me, in his own words, what I'd just read.

I read one paragraph.

He responded with "Uh. Um. This guy...uh..." He was fidgety, he was halfway-checked-out. I knew it! Too hard! But then, an idea: I retrieved a box of Roman Playmobil characters - left over from last year's Rome obsession. Dumping it out on the table, I said, "Maybe these could help."

He sat up straighter. He thought for a second. He ran to the playroom and grabbed a little boat from the toy box and brought it back, loaded it up with figurines and gave them voice. "Arg! We've come to kidnap you, Julius Caesar!"

"You really want to take that risk? You'll be sorry you did this when I execute you later." "Execute us! Blarg! You're nothing but a puny wimp!"

"Let's hear you say that while you'e being crucified..."

By the time he was finished with the scene, I was rolling on the floor laughing. He'd transposed Plutarch's first-century dialogue into a modern trash-talk battle and it was hilarious. We finished that first half-an-hour and Blue went running to 10-year-old-Green to inform him - "You missed it. That was the best ever..."

Green begged to get in on the action next time. So, I included him the following week and the two of them listened to paragraph after paragraph, reenacting each scene with gusto.

Eventually, eight-year-old Orange had to sneak away from whatever assignments he was supposed to be occupied with during the Plutarch reading. And even two-year-old Pinkie knows that when the box of Playmobil Romans comes out, it's time to gather around the table, grab a little figurine and start battling the rest of them.

You never know until you try...

A recent theme that seems to be cropping up in my recent reading and podcast listening is this: moderate amounts of stress (i.e. the introduction of new and unfamiliar stimuli or situations) improves brain function and prompts forward strides in memory and cognitive performance. Taking the initiative to purposefully expose yourself to moderate stress leads to the brain literally creating new stem cells, which go on to form neurons or brain cells.

In that vein, tackle a challenging and unfamiliar topic of study, dare yourself physically with a new posture or skill, shake up your routine by trading out an hour or two of early morning sleep for an afternoon power nap.

For my kids, I think this whole venture into Plutarch has been successful thanks to these two factors: the neural jolt of something new combined with the delight of play.

So, if anybody has any ideas for how I can apply that magic to grammar... :)


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