I am about to start a new unit with my Latin IV students and I'm really excited about it. It will heavily involve my favorite Roman author--Pliny the Elder--and will look at Roman science and sources and what they believed was real and why they believed it.
Before we start the unit, however, to try to help them see past their bias of "how could they even BELIEVE that sort of thing?" I put together a quick lesson to put them in the shoes of a culture that had only seen a tiny corner of a much larger world.
To do this, I am using a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien about one of the creatures he created for his Lord of the Rings series: "Oliphaunt." I like this poem because it is clearly an homage to the elephant, but describes the creature as an oddity, something that has only been witnessed rarely and has to be explained to be understood. I read the poem out loud to my students but stopped before the poem names its animal and asked my students to tell me what it was describing.
They of course said "elephant."
We then watched a short clip from Lord of the Rings that shows the Oliphaunt in action.
From there we talked about what an alien creature an elephant was the first time the Romans saw it, the idea of a fully functioning appendage coming out of something's face, a creature four times the size of anything else they had encountered, the strange sounds, the enemy riding in on MONSTERS and how terrifying that would be. How limited the Roman scope of the world was, and the sense of wonder that would accompany the introduction of any new creature or culture, and how possible the impossible would have seemed. Why wouldn't anything at all exist, if there were giant gray monsters with arms for noses and horns in their mouths?
Finally, I challenged them. Students got into groups, chose animals for themselves, and created descriptions that both referenced their animals and kept the identity mysterious. Those who wanted to were welcome to write in poetic form--and a surprising number did! Then groups read their descriptions to the class for the other students to guess. Usually they guessed, although sometimes they were tricky.
Lots of laughs, lots of joy, and my students feel ready to move on with open minds.
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Rachel Ash is a teacher, author, seamstress, mother, wife, and overdescriber. She also loves a good list.