By Dr. Heather Harwood, Classics Faculty
My Summer of Shoshin: Applying Beginner’s Mind to Learning Ancient Greek
Imagine this. You fly across the ocean to a different continent to go to school. You miss a connection and your plane is delayed, so you arrive a day late. You make your way from the airport to the campus of the school where you meet your roommate (someone you have never met before) and several other “ new” students. Most of the students you soon realize are returning for their third or fourth year to the school. These students know the campus, they know each other, and they know the teachers. At the opening night ceremony and for the remainder of your time at the school, the teachers and many of the returning students all converse in a language which, while you have studied it in books your whole life, you have never really heard spoken or spoken yourself. You go to bed a jumble of conflicting feelings: brain-numbing exhaustion from your journey, excitement and eagerness to start learning, uncertainty about whether you should even be here, homesickness for your dog, and total fear.
While this is the experience of many students coming to St. Mark’s for the first time from abroad, it was also my experience this past summer when I traveled to Greece to participate in Paediea Institute’s Living Greek in Greece program. I now have a much better understanding of what many of you who come to St. Mark’s from another country experience. The “school” I attended, however, was actually only a two week workshop held in a small coastal town called Selianitika where students, professors and high school teachers of Ancient Greek gathered to learn how to understand and speak Ancient Greek.
In addition to the empathy I gained for international students at St. Mark’s, the oral teaching techniques I brought back to use in my classroom, and the new friends I made, what I think I valued most about my summer experience was that it forced me to encounter a discipline that I have been practicing for a long time with a beginner’s mind.
The term shoshin, beginner’s mind, comes from Zen Buddhism and describes the practice of cultivating openness, curiosity, and lack of preconceived ideas when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, as a beginner would. Although I was very familiar with this concept from my Yoga practice, I had never had a chance to practice beginner’s mind in my academic pursuits.
Approaching Ancient Greek from this perspective gave me some very important insights into what it must feel like for students who are new to St. Mark’s or are learning a language for the first time. Here are five things that cultivating a beginner’s mind towards learning Greek taught me this summer.
1. Slow Down – We had a great teacher in my small seminar of six. Every morning at 10:000 a.m. and every afternoon at 5:00 p.m. we would meet for an hour to discuss (in Greek!) the text that we were reading and right from the start he modeled a very measured speaking pattern, asking questions in a very slow, clear manner. This was so helpful for me, and it set the tone for the whole class. When it was my turn to speak, especially in the beginning, I didn’t feel like I needed to rush; I took my time and let the words come into my head first and then onto my lips.
2. Use All of Your Senses – I learned this from our teacher as well. Because there were people in my class from all over the world, many had different accents, and I sometimes found it difficult to understand what they were saying, especially as they were speaking Ancient Greek! I noticed that my teacher did not seem to have trouble understanding anyone and then I noticed that he was looking directly at the students’ eyes and mouths as they spoke. When I did this it made it much easier to understand my classmates. In addition, our teacher used his hands and gestured a lot when speaking as a way to help us understand his meaning. This helped me glean a meaning from his words that I might not otherwise have understood.
3. Keep it Simple – Several times during the seminar my mind would get ahead of my mouth. I would understand what others were saying and get so excited and have an idea of something I wanted to say in return, but when I tried, I would be grasping for words that I didn’t actually have in my speaking repertoire yet. This one I taught myself because of my earnestness to be understood by my classmates. If what I wanted to say was, for example, “X is clearly exhibiting all of the signs of a confused and sad person,” instead I would simply say, “X has confusion and X is sad. ” My classmates understood me and it allowed the conversation to continue.
4. Say it Again, and Again, and Again and Again – This was good advice that I received from one of the veteran teachers of the program during office hours. I was worried I had been placed in too advanced a level and went seeking guidance on how to get better. He suggested that I imitate my teachers and other advanced students and repeat the things that they said a lot: little catch phrases and filler words that helped the conversation flow, things like “I think that,” or “I wonder if,” or “perhaps,” or “it seems to me that,” or “I agree, or disagree with.” This provided a kind of connective tissue for my communication and allowed me to get a foothold in the discussion even when I felt very lost or confused.
5. It’s a Practice not a Performance, or Keep Your Eyes on the Prize- There were a lot of people at the workshop who were very good at speaking Greek. Although I discovered that my comprehension was fairly good, I realized that my ability to speak was still very rudimentary. In the evenings, some of the teachers would hold special advanced seminars in Greek, where they would discuss some topic that had come up in the readings. These were fun to watch and listen to, and I really wanted to participate, but after the first two I didn’t attend anymore. I realized that as a beginner it wasn’t beneficial to be in an arena where I couldn’t practice speaking and that my time was better spent preparing the next day’s material. Also, it was important to remember why I was there. Keeping my focus on my goal of being a more effective Greek teacher allowed me to let go of my desire to be up on a stage conversing as a kind of performance and to focus instead on the actual practice of learning how to speak.
Cultivating shoshin as a Classics teacher has completely transformed the way I think about teaching and learning Greek and Latin. After nearly two decades teaching beginning Greek, I’m now teaching it with more empathy towards beginners: I’m slowing down, I’m using my hands (a lot), I’m looking my students in the eye, I’m repeating myself and I’m giving them more opportunities to speak Greek and Latin in class.
I hope maybe some of these takeaways will resonate with you, whether you are a student who is new to St. Mark’s, or just beginning a new language or subject this year.
Dr. Heather Harwood teaches Classics, coaches yoga, and advises the St. Marker. She received her B.A. in Classics from Bryn Mawr and her Ph D. from Yale University.