Nu School Classics—Teaching the Greek Alphabet to Preschoolers

The day had come for the Omega Party. My daughter had told everyone in her class—the Eagles, a symbol meant to evoke greatness in the Ancients and preschoolers alike apparently—that I was coming to teach Greek letters that morning. Not just any letters but psi and omega—the last two letters of the alphabet, the culmination of a year of Greek letter learning. What had started as a offhand suggestion to get parents involved in the classroom had grown into a year-long project. I had taught the Greek alphabet to my daughter’s preschool class.

Lambda

Coloring Greek letters at Amazing Magic Beans

The idea sprouted from a conversation with the school’s director right before my daughter started there. She was looking for parent volunteers to “share their passion” with the students. Several suggestions emerged—cook a family recipe in the school kitchen, read your child’s favorite story, play an instrument or sing some songs with the children, etc. It was one of those unexpected moments of self-reflection and existential crisis—what was my passion? At the time, I was studying for my Greek comprehensive exams. I was waking up at 5am each day to sneak in a few hundred lines of Greek before my wife and daughter woke up. My momentary passion was Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, kai ta loipa. I was reading Demosthenes, not much of a hook for kids. I was reading the Bacchae. What does Dionysus have to do with pre-K?

And yet the spark came quickly. These three- and four-year-olds were absorbing the basics of English. They thought nothing of stopping what they were doing and breaking into a round of the Alphabet Song. What if I could channel just a fraction of that A-B-C enthusiasm into Alpha-Beta-Gamma? How exciting! A plan of action popped into my head. I could teach them two letters a month: 2 Greek letters @ 12 months = Alpha to Omega. The whole alphabet in one year. I could begin in January and wrap up before the new year. I mentioned the idea to the school director. She seemed even more excited than I was. Greek Letters at Amazing Magic Beans Learning Center was born. I called the program Nu School Classics.

Bulletin board at Amazing Magic Beans with student drawings.

Bulletin board at Amazing Magic Beans with student drawings.

The gig booked, I now had to seriously think about the obvious question: What would a preschool Greek class even look like? I could show up on the first Tuesday in January and tell them that alpha was the first letter and beta was the second letter, but how would I fill the remaining 29 minutes. I thought about the rest of their day—they like learning new things, but they also like to hear stories and they like to do arts and crafts. I came up with the idea to introduce the new letters—assigning one letter to the Eagles and another to the slightly younger group, the Penguins. I would then read them a story from Greek mythology, and finish up by drawing and coloring the letters. It wound up being a good enough format to use for the rest of the year. It had it all: a bit of elementary Greek, a bit of storytelling, a bit of visual stimulation. It had enough variety and, what turned out to be more important than originally expected, it had something they could take home.

Our textbook was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. For our first class, I read them stories about alpha-is-for-Ἀφροδίτη and beta-is-for-Βελλεροφῶν. (The beta options were limited—but what kid doesn’t want to hear about a flying horse.) As it turned out, I sort of read them parts of stories. The attention span, especially of the younger group, was a bit too short for two stories—one would suffice in future months. Also, it turns out—something Xenophanes and Plato had adequately prepared me for—the stories, even in the toned-down versions offered in D’Aulaire’s, were occasionally a bit, how shall I say, inappropriate for four-year-olds, with the gods behaving badly and the heroes finding themselves in dire straits and scary situations. Often the “reading” time turned into wonderful conversations about the book’s beautiful illustrations. Kids ask the darnedest questions and I found myself genuinely have to draw ex tempore on my Classics training to bring the Greek world alive and help it make some semblance of sense to them. (BTW—if I did this again, I would probably use Therese Sellers and Lucy Bell Jarka-Sellers’s wonderfully illustrated abecedarium Alpha is for Anthropos for some of the activities.)

Paper-plate tragic masks for our tau-is-for-τραγῳδία activity.

Paper-plate tragic masks for our tau-is-for-τραγῳδία activity.

The reading was followed by art and crafts. I would make handouts with the outline of that day’s letters and invite the children to trace the letter or draw it themselves. I would invite them to draw scenes from that morning’s myth reading. I experimented with the arts and crafts on a few occasions. For nu-is-for-νεώς, we made construction paper temples. For tau-is-for-τραγοιδια, we made tragic masks. When we worked on the handouts, I would write out Ἀφροδίτη or Βελλεροφῶν on their sheets, but unsurprisingly the kids were much more interested in seeing their own names in the Greek script. Sheets were in no time filled with Ιουλιετ, Δυλαν, Σοφια, Ιακοβ, κτλ. This quickly became the unexpected hit of Greek Letters at AMB. I could see the kids becoming excited about seeing their name in a form in turns familiar and strange, connecting the shapes of the Greek alphabet to English, even connecting sounds. They would proudly file these handouts away in their cubbies, an unexpected gift for mom and dad.

As I mentioned above, this wound up being an unexpectedly important part of the activity—these handouts found their way into rest of the homeward-bound art. Among the usual crayon drawings of animals and construction-paper collages were worksheets about the Greek alphabet. Classical paideia was being smuggled into their homes hidden among the art and crafts. I was soon something of a local celebrity. Ok, maybe that is overstating the case a bit. Still, I was stopped on the street on the way to the local park by one of my μαθήται. She yelled “Hey, Alpha Beta!” in my direction as if it were my name. (I’ll admit that I like the ring of it—a sobriquet ripped from the pages of Borges or something.) Parents would meet me throughout the year, make the connection, and say something like, “So, you’re the one doing Greek!”

Reading about the Minotaur from D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths

Reading about the Minotaur from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths

Did the children learn the Greek alphabet? Probably not. Sigma made a big impression, but it had more to do with Sisyphus story—a story that it turns out can be bawdlerized with relative ease into a relatable-for-children tale of what happens when you don’t listen—than the letter itself. (Cf. also phi is for Phaethon.) I fear that some of the children think that zeta-eta-theta is one letter, but that’s not really any worse than all of the kids who believe in the superletter el-em-en-oh-pee. Alpha and beta stuck, perhaps because I would review our progress each month and I had their deepest attention for the first 30 seconds. Xi sounded funny, so that stuck; I was also regularly informed that it looked like a snake which was a selling point for many of the kids.

Nu School Classics at Amazing Magic Beans was one of the most fun “classes” I have ever taught. As my son approaches preschool age, I increasingly look forward to bringing Greek Letters back to the school. When we think of classics outreach, our first thoughts are probably not 3- and 4-year-olds. Still there’s something to be said for planting the seed, for fostering curiosity, no matter how young.

Diploma earned by each high school students for learning the Greek alphabet.

Diploma earned by each high school students for learning the Greek alphabet.

NB: I’ve created a repository of all the letter sheets on Github for anyone who wants to do this at home or at their child’s school.—PJB

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