The Liturgical Classroom, With a Side of Greek
~ by Mallory Stripling ~
One idea that I have been delighted to see gain popularity in the classical education world is that of “Liturgical Learning,” in which liturgical worship provides a pattern for learning. I’ll describe my understanding of liturgical learning, and since I am a Greek teacher, I’ll share my thoughts on how to incorporate the study of Greek into the liturgically oriented classroom. My thoughts on liturgy are formed by my experience in the Orthodox church, but I hope you’ll be able to draw connections to your own tradition.
Liturgical worship follows a set form, with variable content in some elements. For example, in our church, there is always a reading from an Epistle and a Gospel, but the particular readings change each Sunday. The people know when to expect the Scripture readings and are “trained” to pay special attention at those times. Rich sensory experiences are often woven into the flow of the liturgy as well. Worshippers are accustomed to the warm aroma of incense drawing them into especially solemn moments, but often surprised to smell a different scent marking the transition into a new season. The unchanging forms of the liturgy give structure to the changing content and make it easier to pay attention to that content.
These liturgical practices arose in the early church because Christians continued to worship in patterns similar to those practiced by the Jews. This way of worshipping acknowledges that humans are created to live in rhythms and cycles, and to engage with God through the created, physical world. We can’t worship God once and check it off our list, or simply hear the truths of the Gospel proclaimed, nod our heads, and call it a day. We can’t “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” instantaneously, because those minds are part of a unity of soul and body, which exist in space and time. So, we must return, again and again, to the house of the Lord.
In liturgical learning, educators recognize that humans require forms and rhythms to learn. But if this is true even for adults, how much more do children rely on predictable patterns, which shepherd them through their senses into attentive contemplation? Children begin their lives as almost entirely sensory creatures, who thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually when their days and environments are predictable. A liturgically influenced classroom is one where the where the sequence of activities and the aesthetics of the environment are oriented towards leading children peacefully and joyfully into engagement with the beautiful things they are learning about. This approach to “classroom management” works with children’s natural tendencies, rather than against.
What will the forms and rhythms in your classroom be? When is the best time to read out loud? When should we stomp and clap math facts? When should we have an open discussion, and when should the teacher lecture? When should students be using their hands, and when should their hands be quiet? When is a good time to light a candle and say a prayer or sing a hymn? When do we share a meal? When we can order all of these elements of the children’s day into a predictable rhythm, we can, after many repetitions, reduce the “friction” of transitions and bring bodies, hearts, and minds into harmony.
If you are learning Greek, you can bring these languages into the literal liturgical elements of your day by praying and singing hymns in Greek. The early church followed the Jews in appointing prayers for certain times of the day; you can look to these “prayers of the hours” to guide you in choosing Greek prayers and hymns to dedicate each portion of your day to God. The easiest place to begin would be with a short phrase such as “Kyrie eleison,” (Lord have mercy.) Or include the Greek doxology in your prayers: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen.” And if you read the Lord’s Prayer out loud in Greek at least once each day, you’ll be surprised at how soon you and your students will have it in your hearts.
All that I have described so far is one “level” of liturgical learning; that which considers the set pattern for each class session. But the power of liturgical worship is not merely in the form which persists each Sunday, but also in the elements which change. The early church also continued, after the example of the Jews, to observe the festivals of the year. Christmas and Easter are only two of the many, many feasts celebrated by Christians. The eternal God became a little child in time, giving us so many opportunities to rejoice in different aspects of salvation! As the earth journeys around the sun and we experience the cycles of nature, we delight in the anticipation and celebration of the events of the life of Christ, along with His mother and the other saints of the Church. The patterns of fasting and feasting give a spiritual depth to our experience of the year and draw us physically into the contemplation of events like the Transfiguration of Christ, the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, or the martyrdom of St. Stephen.
Find places in the daily rhythms of your classroom to create anticipation for upcoming feasts. (You already know how to do this, if you love Christmas!) Have a special place in the classroom where you display an icon or beautiful painting of the feast or saint, adorned with fabric in the appropriate liturgical color. Often certain flowers are associated with a feast, such as a lily for the Annunciation. Find out if there are traditional foods that the class can prepare and enjoy together. What wonderful music has been composed throughout the centuries in honor of the feast or the saint? Follow your nose to connect other subjects to the historical and geographical context of a saint’s life. Above all, through Scripture reading and prayer within your own church community, contemplate the meaning of the feast yourself, so that you can try to create the right atmosphere in the classroom.
Of course, the study of Greek is an easy one to incorporate into this practice! Read the Scriptural account of the feast, or the assigned reading if the event isn’t described in the Gospels. Beginning Greek learners could copy out and memorize one or two of the most pertinent sentences from the reading. As students advance, they can read longer passages in an interlinear translation, in which you’ve covered up the English translation of the words they should know. You can pull out vocabulary words from the Scripture readings to add to their flashcard stacks, and the most advanced students can prepare their own translations. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America publishes a free calendar in which every single day has the name of a saint in Greek and English; have one student read out the name of the saint of the day and have the rest of the students spell it. You might pick one of these saints each week to discuss in more depth, showing an icon of the saint that bears a Greek inscription of his or her name.
If you are celebrating a feast that is shared by the Orthodox Church, you should even be able to find a Greek hymn for the occasion! The Greek of Byzantine hymnography is mostly accessible to students of New Testament Greek. In my Greek courses for St. Raphael School, we practice one hymn each month, learning to sing it in both Greek and English. The younger students simply try to commit the hymn to memory, focusing on a few vocabulary words, while the older students parse, diagram, and translate the Greek.
These are just a few ideas for weaving Greek into the yearly, weekly, and daily rhythms of your classroom, and into the bodies, hearts, and minds of your students.