Questions for Max Gabrielson, Wilton HS

Winner of the 2010 Pre-Collegiate Teaching Award

By Kathleen Coleman

From two students in Greek in 2001, you now have thirty. What inspired you to start offering Greek?

I had a very promising Latin student about a decade ago and she was very, very interested in languages. I had told her that I taught Greek many years before, and so she asked me to teach her Greek through an independent study. That’s how it all started: after school.

How did you then acquire more pupils?

Well she was a senior and she had another friend who was very interested in language who joined her, and they were the first two students to do this. Then I began to talk about it in my Latin classes, and after about two or three years I had younger students taking Greek, freshmen and sophomores, and so it became necessary after teaching them one year to teach them more years, and then it all just began to grow from there.

So are your thirty students spread over all four years?

Right now, yes, I have approximately a dozen in Beginning Greek, about ten or so in Intermediate Greek, and maybe eight in Advanced Level Greek. This year one Level 4 Greek student.


Can you tell me what beginners’ textbook you like using, or do you use your own?

I have used Athenaze the entire time. Within the last several years I have refined Beginning Level Greek to include a switch to Schoder’s Reading Course in Homeric Greek in the fourth quarter. So we get to about chapter 13 in Athenaze, and then students switch to the Homeric Greek text and that positions them for Intermediate Level Greek, where they continue using that book, and so by the second semester, the spring semester of Intermediate Level Greek, students are at about chapter 60, where they’re ready to begin reading all the Homeric passages from Book 9 of the Odyssey.

Is there any gendering of your students in response to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

I chose Books 6 and 22 of the Iliad because of the role of Andromache, and I think that it’s hard to say really. Women tend to prefer domestic scenes, I think, and are more sensitive to that. And the blood and guts of the Iliad is probably something that the boys enjoy more. But when it comes to teaching high school girls, I think Book 6 of the Odyssey with Nausicaa is probably the favorite.

How do you motivate your students to come early to school for Greek or stay late after regular classes have ended?

We talked with our administration about how Greek should be offered, and it was clear for a number of different reasons that offering it during the course of the day would probably create more conflicts with many of the students who wanted to take it, and that they would not be able to take it if it were offered as a regular class. So it boiled down to two choices: you either come in early in the morning or take it after school; otherwise, there’s not going to be any Greek. And also, about seven years ago, our Superintendent decided to have the school day begin an hour later, which was wonderful, because we now begin at 8:20, which is approximately an hour later than many of the area schools. So coming in at 7:45 in the morning doesn’t seem that early to a lot of kids.

But it means the school day ends later, I suppose.

Yes, it does; but they were able to manage this without too many conflicts with sports or anything else, so it’s worked out really well over the years. I don’t think they’re going to change that.

Do you teach Greek every day?

I teach beginning Greek on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning for twenty minutes before the official school day begins, Intermediate Greek on Tuesday and Thursday, and then Advanced Level Greek on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday after school.

I’m assuming that many of those students will go on to take something in the Classics at college, probably.

Yes; a number of my students have done so, and that’s been very gratifying to me, especially to see students coming out of Wilton High School and enrolling in Intermediate or Advanced Level Greek classes at good colleges.

You have managed to get Greek put into the local poetry recitation competition. How does that work?

The Connecticut organization of language teachers has run a poetry recitation contest for a number of years. It’s a wonderful event where about a thousand students converge on a high school in Connecticut each spring and students compete reciting poems in upwards of fourteen different languages. Modern Greek had been involved for a while, and I asked them to include ancient Greek.

And the students do it all from memory, do they?

They have to memorize upwards of about twenty to sometimes thirty lines of Homeric Greek in this contest for the Intermediate and Advanced Level students. Beginning Level students are limited to about fourteen lines, but that’s a lot of Greek to memorize and they really do enjoy that.

I believe you also have Latin in that competition. Which authors do you use for Latin?

Interestingly, Ovid’s Daedalus and Icarus from the Metamorphoses I’ve seen every year that I’ve judged Latin. I selected his version of that story from Book 2 of the Ars Amatoria for one of my students, which I thought would be an interesting variation to recite. Ovid, Catullus, Virgil—those three authors would really seem to be the ones that are most widely represented. Sometimes there are selections from Horace. Students will occasionally memorize one of the odes.

Do you have a preferred textbook for beginners’ Latin and, if so, what do you like about it?

The one that I have used since coming to Wilton is the Cambridge Latin Course, and I have an interesting history with this book. When I first saw it, I was uncertain whether it was going to be the right book for me. I was trained in the grammar translation approach, and the style of the Cambridge Latin Course was one that was new to me. Over the years I have really come to like it enormously. And my students like the stories. With each year that I teach this book I seem to become more intimately familiar with Grumio and Scyphax and Caecilius, all of the characters that the students really do connect with. And I see there’s a genius to the Cambridge Latin Course that pulls kids in during the very first lesson and makes learning Latin a lot more fun than a purely traditional approach.

In teaching beginners, how do you overcome your students’ lack of experience in the skill of memorization?

I am sensitive to that reality. There’s no question that in the lower school it’s just simply not emphasized in the way that it was in other times. I try to explain to students that this is going to be a big part of the class on Day 1. Flashcards, internet sites, making lists of words, I tell them that you have to build a storehouse of working vocabulary in the language in order to have any success. And I tell students what the quiz is going to look like. I’m going to give you the same list of words that are found at the end of each chapter, and all you have to do is write out what those words mean. I quiz kids very consistently on vocabulary and I really do try to emphasize the need for them to engage in this memorization. For some of them it is a new experience as learners, but it’s one that’s fundamental for making any progress in the language.

And what about paradigms? Do you get them reciting declensions in class?

I don’t do that in class so much. Perhaps I should; the verbal paradigms and the noun declension endings are just as crucial as the vocabulary. I create charts, and I allow students to fill in a blank chart with declension endings before they take a test. I’ve noticed that students feel much more comfortable when they’ve actually got those endings in front of them when they take a test or a quiz, so I won’t discourage that and I’ll allow them to do that. But I do try to impress upon them that it’s just absolutely essential to understand what these endings means and how they function and to really have them locked into their memories.

Your home page has a terrific series of “Rags to Riches” quiz games testing Latin grammar and vocabulary. Did you create these? What was your inspiration? Do you know how many hits they have received? Do you get feedback?

Some of them I created. I think there’s even one on Norse mythology there. I did create those on my own. I also imported some from other teachers who made them for the same type of website, so there’s kind of a mish-mash there of my own product and what other teachers have done. I’m able to track the total number of hits that I’ve had over the years, but the individual hits for those particular activities I’ve never actually tracked.

Does the site have a lot of traffic as a whole?

It really does. I have a whole list of quotations from various authors. Things that appeal to me that I read I’ll just include on the website. I also have slideshows from trips that we’ve made to the Metropolitan, and I’ve tried to bring in a lot of different things.

Now those trips to the Metropolitan, is that with your students?

Yes, every spring I take two trips to accommodate the number of students who want to attend, and we go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We take the train down to New York. The Greco-Roman galleries there that were recently renovated are spectacular. Between the pottery and the inscriptions and the statuary, the students are just awed by what they see. And many of the students, despite their proximity to New York City, have not actually seen these galleries.

How do you prepare your students for a visit like that?

I’ll show them slides on my website, previewing the very same objects that they’re going to see when they go to the museum. Other than that, it’s really an adventure of discovery for them. They get to go and see things, often for the very first time, and they’re really blown away by the quality and the huge variety of those galleries.

What do you think is the most appealing object? Where do they linger the longest?

It’s hard to say. There’s just so much there. My own favorite is the Three Graces in the atrium, the sculpture garden in the atrium. I think they do like the statues; I’ll walk them through the Greek art and show them a kouros and explain to them the development, in just very basic terms, of Greek sculpture from the archaic period to the classical period, and I think they’re fascinated by what they see in that. The statuary clearly is most impressive, and there’s just so much of it.

And the restored cubiculum must look very attractive to them as well.

Yes: it looks very similar to things they’re used to seeing in the Cambridge Latin Course.

And the tremendous hit-you-over-the-head of all the paint on the wall—all the decoration—that must impress them.

You know, they are clearly impressed by this, and it’s wonderful—you can see students speaking about it. They’re awed by how similar to their own modern experience the Romans really turn out to be on closer inspection, and so trips like this are so important for being really able to see—I mean, I remember when I was first introduced to the Classics as an undergrad, and Paul Properzio, who was my professor, would show slides of art and architecture a lot, and those visual scenes for me were really very important in developing my own interest in the Classics.

And have you been able to take your students abroad to Italy or Greece?

Not as yet. I have a young family, and my wife works; but that’s my dream, really. I traveled to Greece as an undergrad on a college trip with my professor, and it was a wonderful experience for me. I would love to do something like that.

Which Latin author do your students relate to most immediately?

I’ve had a number of conversations over the years with students, and it’s always fascinating to me how much Virgil is the author that my most serious students connect with. And I’ve had any number of conversations with students who have read Ovid at some length and also Virgil, and somehow Virgil always seems to get through to people in a way that I don’t think Ovid really does. I love Ovid, but the Aeneid is just such a magnificent poem, and the brilliance of Virgil’s artistry and the story that he has to tell affect students in an amazing way.

Do you think it’s a tragic element—the profundity?

Absolutely. There’s no question about it. The Dido episode is one that we spend considerable time with, and I think students are very, very awed by Dido as a character. And the situation Aeneas finds himself in at Carthage—and Dido—is just a wonderful story to have inside of a classroom. There’s no question that that particular episode really resonates with students in so many ways.

You’ve described some of their reactions to the Homeric texts. Is Homer the author who speaks most immediately to your Greek students?

Yes, we do spend quite a bit of time with Homer, preparing to read him. The Schoder text is a wonderful text to get kids ready. I tell them, reading Homer is going to be easier than the exercises that you are doing in this book before you get to Homer. And they really do enjoy his style, his lucidity, his noun-epithet combinations. He’s not that difficult to read. In fact, I’ve had students tell me they find Homer easier to read than Virgil. It’s Homer’s clarity and the way that everything is just described in such an elevated way. It is a magical experience for them to read Homer in Greek.

How do you prepare them for the Homeric language?

We start with Attic. I really try to work very hard on explaining the nature of vowel contractions, and I explain to students they’re going to see many uncontracted forms in Homer. Then, when we get to the augment, I explain how it works in Attic, but in Homer they’re not going to see it that much. So I try to whet their appetites for how Homeric language is different from Attic, and then when we get to Homer I’m always pleased—not surprised, but pleased—with how easily students are able to manage all of the different forms that exist in the Homeric vocabulary. This is one of the really exciting things about reading Homer—the richness of his epic vocabulary and how there is such an extraordinary variety of forms that you don’t find in Attic. I think students really do appreciate this.

We’ve all got a best teaching experience in our memory. What’s yours?

I would have to say the degree to which students have exceeded my expectations ever since I started teaching at Wilton High School. When I started teaching Greek as an independent study, Level 1, I didn’t know where it was going to go. I really did not anticipate it; I had no plans for building a Greek empire at Wilton High School. But, over the years, the way in which the program began to take root and the level of skillfulness that I began to see in students and their ease with the Greek authors—this is not anything that I could have really anticipated. And so, for me, that’s really been a magical experience. That’s been my best experience as a teacher.

And your worst?

I haven’t had a worst. I’m waiting for that—still to come.

Sometimes the classical languages are seen as rivals by teachers trying to promote the study of modern languages in the schools. How can we counter this perception?

I’ve been very fortunate. We have a school and a department that has been very supportive of what I do. We offer both French and Spanish in our middle school. And students come up from the middle school with one of those languages and they continue studying those languages at the high school level. And it’s not at all uncommon for me to have students who will go all the way to AP French or AP Spanish, as well as four years of Latin, both languages together, and sometimes even two or three years of Greek on top of that. And so I talk to students about how I see the languages as being complementary, and in many cases I think students who study Greek and Latin are able to see how the modern languages grew out of those languages, and so I try not to see them in terms of rivals but rather the complementarity of the ancient and the modern languages.

What about oriental languages? Are they offered in your school?

They are not. I would welcome the idea of introducing Mandarin Chinese. I don’t see that as any kind of a threat. I think that the pipeline of students who will be interested in the Classics will continue to be strong, and all of these languages can exist in the same place. I have a Korean student; I have a couple of Chinese students who are studying Greek. And I’ve had some wonderful conversations with them about Chinese poetry, for example, and it’s a mystery to me. I don’t know anything about Chinese, but when I talk to students whose native language this is, I’m very, very intrigued, and I think there’s an opportunity for a lot of connection there. I’ve read a lot of Chinese lyric poetry in translation, which I think is strikingly similar to Greek lyric poetry, and I would like to know more about it, so I would welcome that.

How do you answer the question, “What is the point of learning Greek or Latin?”

I try to answer that every day. I will depart from a lesson and stop and ask students, “Why are we here? What are we doing? What is the point of this lesson?” I think that we have to make the connection between the ancient world and the modern world by showing how well versed the ancients were in all the problems that we’re dealing with today. This is something that I come back to a lot. All of the great themes of human existence—of war, love, conflict, travel, discovering oneself, and having a deeper understanding of the political community in which we all live—all of these subjects were touched upon with so much intelligence and so much insight by the Greek and Roman writers. And they were the master craftsmen. I love language and literature, and so what I try to explain to my students is: when you read the ancient authors, you’re really getting the best of the best. These are the authors who really provide the fundamental basis of an education.

How do you cope with the issue of slavery?

The Historical Society of Wilton and the library are currently putting together a joint program of lectures by distinguished professors on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. There’s a chapter in the Cambridge Latin Course that engages with the issue of slavery—how slaves were freed, the slave trade. In class just the other day we saw a movie, a really well done presentation of Spartacus. I think students are fascinated by this question. It was slavery just as it was in America, but slaves played so many different roles in Antiquity that they did not play in the American South. The first example that I always talk about are the Roman patricians who had Greek slaves who educated their children right within their own homes, as well as any number of other roles that they played. I think it’s also perplexing to look at what Aristotle said about slavery. He got a lot of things right, but he also got some things pretty wrong. I think that was one of them.

Do you ever put on plays or have students acting scenes from any of their readings?

One of the things that we do each year is to go to Greek Day, which is put on by the Classical Association of Connecticut. At Greek Day students engage in making ostraka and ballots for voting in Greek elections, and they dance and eat Greek food and listen to Greek music. Some schools have students give dramatic presentations, short skits that are often based on the Athenaze textbook. It’s clear to me how much the students enjoy participating in these, and dramatizing events from Antiquity can be a wonderful learning device. It’s not one that I’ve used, but it’s certainly one that I’d like to explore.

How long have you been at Wilton?

I’m in my eleventh year.

So you started Greek pretty much right away?

Yes. They hired me to teach Latin, and before I knew it Greek was quickly a part of the deal, and I’m really grateful for the support that the school has shown me. Even though it began as an independent study, they eventually decided that this was something that should be a regular offering. At all of these Greek levels my principal has been very supportive of that.

How many Latin pupils do you have?

I think I have somewhere around eighty these days.


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