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The Arts

It’s Greek to them

BAMS students get immersed in ancient culture at humanities camp

BRATTLEBORO—The narrator began.

“And so King Agamemnon went to war,” Brattleboro Area Middle School student Julius Jensen said. “And Paris taunted him... and they began a bloody fight.”

As Jensen read these lines, his classmates stood frozen in poses illustrating the ancient Greek tale.

Breaking out of character, Caleb Reale announced to the narrator, “Julius, don’t worry, I won’t wear these pants tomorrow.”

Reale’s pants were printed with a colorful, Jackson Pollock–inspired red, black, and gray print — not exactly historically accurate.

Next, Layla Martel and Hannah Lane took their turn practicing their tableaux vivants.

Lane, dressed in an elegant lilac toga, admitted she “mostly” made the costume herself. In one scene, she played the narrator; in another, King Menelaus, when the king gets hit with a spear.

Martel told a visitor, “I’m Hector,” a Trojan prince, “not Hank!”

As they rehearsed, one of Reale’s classmates lay “injured” on the floor, and he reminded another, “He’s a god, he should be comfortable!”

A deep dive into ancient Greek culture

On a recent afternoon, the four performers, along with their fellow soon-to-be seventh and eighth graders, were in upstairs classrooms at the Brattleboro Area Middle School practicing their tableaux vivants, interpreting scenes taken from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” or “Black Ships Before Troy,” Rosemary Sutcliff’s adaptation of “The Iliad,” written for a younger audience.

Their dress rehearsal, complete with togas, was in preparation for the next day’s field trip to Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., which finished off a full week of immersive ancient Greek studies at the Vermont Humanities Council Humanities Camp.

During their trip, the campers would explore the home, studios, and gardens of Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and learn about and discuss the influence of ancient Greece on his work.

This year, the Vermont Humanities Council awarded a humanities camp to BAMS, one of “about a dozen” such programs funded annually. Two of the school’s English teachers, Julianne Eagan and Liz Scanlon, signed up to lead the kids.

The council funds the entire program, including camp counselors’ wages, books that the teachers and kids can keep, meals, and expenses related to field trips. Students’ families pay nothing.

The council’s website promotes a variety of benefits to attendees, including introducing them to the “world of literature and ideas, fostering self-expression in a safe, nurturing environment [and] provid[ing] opportunities for students to discover more about themselves.”

Students “experience the satisfaction that accompanies insight and self-discovery while developing reading skills and a love of learning,” and they “think critically about the world around them,” according to the website. The VHC points out that the program leads to students’ increased self-confidence and self-esteem.

A taste of the Olympics

Each year, the council offers two options camp leaders can choose. This year, BAMS chose to study ancient Greece, in honor of the summer’s Olympic games.

To give the campers a taste of some of the original Greek games, Brattleboro Union High School Coach Kevin Freitas took the kids onto the field for a session of shot put, javelin, and the long jump.

“A lot of kids who didn’t see themselves as athletes, because maybe they aren’t runners, were excited” by the games, Scanlon said, noting some started seeing themselves as athletes in the field sports.

“Maybe they’re throwers,” she said.

The campers also got to make hand-painted T-shirts using design elements inspired by those found on ancient Greek soldiers’ shields. They went on a scavenger hunt, they picked Greek gods and goddesses with whom they identify, and they baked Greek butter cookies in the BAMS kitchen.

“For many kids, it was the first time they ever used an oven,” Scanlon said, noting the attendees also practiced working together to follow the recipe.

The campers weren’t the only ones building and reinforcing relationships that week.

“I get to work with these kids,” Eagan said, adding, “I’ll be teaching some of them for the next two years.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #369 (Wednesday, August 10, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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