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Phalanx formations teach an ancient lesson in human ingenuity

Middle-schoolers learn history by doing battle, with paper shields 

Kent City seventh-graders take two practice rounds of marching in phalanx formation before going head-to-head in an ancient Greek-style battle in the gym.

Kent City — The year was 480 B.C. and the Greek soldiers were under threat from the Persian Empire. Although small in numbers, the soldiers prepared for battle by arranging themselves into a groundbreaking new military tactic: the phalanx formation. Standing in tight rows, elbow-to-elbow, they held their hoplon shields in one hand — half of the shield protecting their own body, and the other half shielding the person to their left — leaving the other hand free to wield a spear.

With a cue from their leader, the soldiers began the long march to the pass of Thermopylae. Shouting the battle cry, “Haiden picks his nose,” they fought valiantly to stay in formation as they came under attack from approaching Persians. But the phalanx soon fell apart as the soldiers dissolved into laughter and mild chaos in the middle of the Kent City Middle School gymnasium.

…Wait a minute.

*Checks notes*

Upon further examination, it appears these weren’t Greek soldiers at all, but seventh-graders learning about ancient Greece in teacher Ashleigh Sutton’s class. Their goal was to use everything they had learned about ancient military formations to successfully make it across the gymnasium. 

And as for that rather unique battle cry? That was in honor of their fearless leader and classmate, Haiden. 

“Haiden’s just, like, really good, so (the chant) gave us all the energy to be amazing,” seventh-grader Jaxon Robeck said. “We made a really tight formation and fought pretty well and I think it worked out amazing.” 

‘As we go through history, I want them to really see the improvement in technology over time — that inventions don’t pop out of nowhere.’

— teacher Ashleigh Sutton

‘Make or Break Your Empire’

Sutton’s classical ancient history unit covers a period in time that can be hard for today’s seventh-graders to imagine, the teacher said. It was a time before Alexander the Great, before the Roman Empire, before the idea of a cavalry, and certainly before the invention of modern weapons. And yet, thanks to the creativity of the ancient Greeks, their small army was able to fend off the decidedly larger Persian invasion. 

“It’s really an underdog story: the Greeks against the largest empire ever created at the time,” Sutton said. “It took a lot of ingenuity to be able to succeed. When students today think about modern warfare, they’re thinking about things like guns and fancy military gadgets. But back in this time period, the phalanx was brand-new technology. Something as small as figuring out how to line up in a square could make or break your empire.” 

That’s why Sutton took her class to the gym: so they could test out the ancient-slash-cutting-edge military formation in person. Wielding paper shields, marching arm-in-arm and bracing for attacks from Sutton and other classmates, they got to feel how the Greek soldiers moved and fought together as one unit to fend off the approaching enemy. 

The class split up into two groups and first practiced moving in formation before marching toward each other in a head-to-head battle under the bright neon lights. They met in the middle of the gym and struggled to break apart the tight lines of the phalanx. 

After engaging in a few rounds of battle, they took some time to debrief at the half-court line. 

“Was it hard to move forward?” Sutton asked the erstwhile soldiers, most of whom nodded. “Yeah! You guys were clumped together and pushing against each other; that’s what it was like to fight in a phalanx. That’s why you were in those lines — it’s a lot more difficult to get through a tight mass of people like that.”

Little Things Matter

While the study of ancient empires can be a big topic to cover, Sutton said she hopes that students take away from the lesson the idea that “little things matter.” 

“As we go through history, I want them to really see the improvement in technology over time — that inventions don’t pop out of nowhere,” she said. “And technology doesn’t always mean a cell phone; technology is ingenuity and invention by humans. It is always a person or a group of people that sees something and tries to make it better. 

“(Students) ask me all the time, ‘Why are we learning about this? Why does this matter?’ … These (military formations) were a type of technology, something little that made a huge difference. We got to today by starting with shields and sticks. And I hope they can think about something small they do that might actually make a huge difference.” 

Read more from Kent City: 
Third-graders visit Capitol, examine real laws
Student’s winning artwork to benefit his whole school

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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