Have you ever wondered if Mythology could overlap with other subject areas—perhaps those that fall into the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) subjects? For Nathalie Roy, 2021 Louisiana State Techer of the Year, this isn’t mere musing; it’s a reality! In her course called Myth Makers, Nathalie takes a true hands-on approach to mythology! After reading the myth of Athena and Arachne, her students try their hand at weaving on cardboard looms. After reading “Jason and the Argonauts,” they complete a challenge to build a cardboard boat powered only by human breath! After reading about the Greek underworld, her students create a Hades-inspired haunted house for non-mythology students to visit!
Nathalie is a 28-year veteran of teaching and currently teaches at Glasgow Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a child, Nathalie dreamed of being a paleontologist—even sleeping with a human femur (a hand-me-down from a medical doctor ancestor). Her dream was to dig up dinosaurs, but when her mother told her that others had already dug up most of the dinosaurs, she had to find new ways to dig up the past—leading to her love of ancient Greece and Rome.
I had a chance to interview Nathalie about her creative (and hands-on) approach to mythology!
Question 1: You do some really amazing Maker projects in your classroom. What first prompted you to take this approach to classroom learning?
Boredom. I had been teaching Latin on the AP track for over a decade, and every time I read Julius Caesar with my students, I wanted to build bridges, fire catapults, and cook Roman bread. But there was never enough time due to the demanding schedule of translating and analyzing complicated and lengthy Latin texts. So one year, I decided to propose a class called Roman Technology, a hands-on history class rooted in STEM, and the school said yes. We spent that year reproducing the products and processes of ancient Roman daily life through experimental archaeology and STEM-based projects. From that small class, the concept grew and grew - I now teach three full sections of the class. We recreate Roman hairstyles, cut stone and design mosaics, build aqueducts and aquifer models, orient and create sundials, design and build bread ovens, research and recreate games, learn to write on papyrus with squid ink, and yep, build and fire our own catapults. With the popularity of that class, I began teaching my mythology class with a more hands-on approach too. We call it Myth Makers because we make things based on the stories of Greek and Roman mythology.
Question 2: What are some of your favorite outcomes from this teaching approach?
Students are innately interested in the past and, particularly, the everyday past. One of my favorite questions to answer is "How did the Romans go to the bathroom, and what did they use for toilet paper?" In studying the past, sometimes it's easy to go exclusively to the written sources. But for the ancient past, literary sources were often written by the males from the highest echelons of society. So many groups of people like children, women, and enslaved people get lost in those sources because they simply aren't represented. Studying archaeology gives us a more representative picture of the past. Using experimental archaeology to recreate someone's life gives us a clearer picture of what life was really like for that person. For example, if archaeologists hadn't found sponges tied to sticks in public bathrooms of ancient Roman cities (which they rinsed in basins of water so they could be reused by the next customer), I might not know the answer to my students' favorite question above.
Question 3: You take a truly cross-curricular approach to learning by combining mythology, STEM, and even classical languages. How does combining all of these subject areas strengthen them and deepen your students' learning? What are some of your favorite myth/activity combos?
One of my favorite Myth Maker projects is to teach students to weave on simple cardboard looms. Students love the story of Athena and Arachne, but the STEAM terminology in it, such as weft, warp, shuttle, spindle, etc., are abstract terms that don't really mean much. When they learn to actually spin and weave their own small tapestry, the story truly comes to life for them. Arachne's amazing skill seems that much more extraordinary, and they walk away with an actual usable skill they can enjoy in life. In addition, my math teacher colleagues are constantly thanking me for reviewing measurement with the students as they work with the metric system to make cuts on their loom and measure yarn.
Question 4: Are there any practical hints you have for teachers who might want to try Maker projects in their classroom but are worried about finding or purchasing the needed supplies?
Teachers should never feel obligated to spend their own money for school-related materials. There are all kinds of ways to ask for funding for special projects. Most teachers are aware of sites like Donors Choose, but maybe they aren't aware that large companies like Walmart, Lowe's, and chemical companies like Exxon Mobil give grants to local teachers specifically for STEM or STEAM projects. In addition, you might ask small businesses in your area for assistance in "sponsoring" your classroom. Look specifically for a company who might be interested in hands-on, STEM, or STEAM education. Non-profits which have STEM agendas are great options. A local non-profit organization in my city (Benedict Explorations), dedicated to water conservation and recycling, sponsors my classes - the CEO simply asks us to teach the students about the local aquifer and how to keep it working. Since I can connect it to Roman aqueducts, it's pretty easy for me to fulfill this promise. For most maker projects, cardboard, glue, scissors, and even simple paper can keep your class rolling with activities for the whole year. Your school may already supply those things.
Question 5: Why is creativity in the classroom important to you?
Creativity, making in my classroom, allows students who don't have traditional academic skills to shine. I had a student a few years back who asked to speak with me privately at the end of the first day's class. He told me that he couldn't read real well, suspected he wouldn't be successful in my class, and planned to drop. I told him not to worry - that I would help him. He stayed and ended up winning a bunch of STEAM challenges because he had an innately mechanical brain (I didn't help him nearly as much as I thought I would have to). In addition, his scores in reading improved in his other classes because the confidence boost he got in Myth Makers gave him the will to keep trying. Some students just don't have traditional academic strengths. Giving these students options to explore texts and demonstrate their learning in non-traditional ways can make or break success for them.
Question 6: If teachers are interested in the “Maker Movement,” are there any resources you recommend?
Free to Make: How the Maker Movement is Changing Our Schools, Our Jobs, and Our Minds by Dale Dougherty is the standard. It helps to understand the Maker Movement by reading about it from its founder. For more practical ideas in the classroom, I recommend Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds by Clapp, Ross, Ryan, and Tishman. Also, check out the MAKE: Website for all kinds of classes, events, and resources: https://make.co.
Follow Nathalie Roy @MagistraRoy or visit her website at https://sites.google.com/view/creativeclassics/home