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‘Fitting teaching tool’

Why LEGOs were the building blocks of this classics course

Teaching and Learning

By Chad Pelley

A Child’s View: Intersections of Ancient and Modern Rome and Greece sounds like a typical classics course until you hear about the subject matter: video games, rollercoasters, super heroes and an epic LEGO set of the Colosseum that was assembled by the entire class.

Dr. Tana Allen, a professor in the Department of Classics, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, says the goal of her Classics 4010/6003 seminar course was to “explore the ways in which ancient Greek and Roman material is embedded in the experiences of children and young adults.”

She’s referring to traces of the classics in popular media like video games, bestselling young adult books, movies and even theme parks. One of her students is exploring how the Greek myth of Typhon is reworked into the Leviathan rollercoaster at Canada’s Wonderland, while student Mahala McIntosh is exploring why the DC comic books of Midnighter and Apollo drew upon classical stories.

Using LEGOs as the building blocks of learning

Dr. Tana Allen and the LEGO Colloseum
Dr. Tana Allen wanted to change her model of teaching – the LEGO Colosseum proved one way to achieve that.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

To complement this course material, Dr. Allen added something to her method of teaching this semester that perhaps no professor has ever introduced to a university course: a LEGO set. The LEGO set. Upon its release in November 2020, the LEGO Colosseum was marketed as, “The largest LEGO set ever.” It has a whopping 9,036 pieces.

Fun aside, the LEGO colosseum proved to be a fitting teaching tool. “There are Easter eggs embedded in that model,” Dr. Allen explained. “For example, there’s only four places where bright colours are used, which harkens back to the colours used by Roman chariot teams, so we had a big discussion around why those colours were purposefully in the set.”

She knew when she saw the set she could use it as a teaching tool, but she’s been surprised at how the act of building the Colosseum has taught students transferable skills like collaborative problem solving. Students have also said building the LEGO colosseum has been a relaxing way to unwind before, after or outside of class.

Initially, students picked away at the set during class, then Friday afternoons in Dr. Allen’s office, and from there it was placed in the Classics graduate student space as a communal project. One of her students is getting extra credit for maintaining an Instagram account devoted to the build: @colosseumlegemus

“Just hearing the classmates talk to each other about classics, about their university experience, figuring out the problems to build this thing, it was just amazing,” said Dr. Allen.

It also put some things into perspective. As one student aptly said, “If it’s this hard to build the Colosseum with LEGOs, can you imagine having to build it with stone?”

New lenses for old understandings of the classics

Student Mahala McIntosh and the LEGo Colloseum
Student Mahala McIntosh says the course allowed her to “get deeper into how we analyze things in classical reception.”
Photo: Chad Pelley

Learning about the actual Colosseum was at centre of the course material. The course covered things you’d expect, like archeological details about the famed amphitheater, but at the heart of the course was the concept of “classical reception,” which is essentially the study of how ancient Greek and Roman material has been transmitted down to us and translated, interpreted or re-imagined.

Together, Dr. Allen and her students went deeper into classical reception than is traditionally done. In light of recent social movements leading many academic disciplines to re-examine their understanding of their fields, Dr. Allen’s students began applying lenses of racism, colonialism and authority to long held understandings in classics.

This kind of exploratory thinking and uncharted territory was right up student Mahala McIntosh’s alley, as someone interested in how traditional discourse on the classics has affected her field of study. “We went progressively deeper into how we analyze things in classics, and what do we do with all of these different reinterpretations and adaptations,” she said.

This was Dr. Allen’s intention all along. “I wanted to change the model of teaching,” she said. “I told students right at the beginning that we are going to learn this stuff together. I’ll never go back to teaching any other way for this course.”

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