BY: LIZ KEIPER
The bell rings. Freshmen begin to file into my room as they would any other day, expecting to start some Greek story called The Odyssey as I have hinted the previous day, but as they pass me at my door, they pause. Some of them smile, some of them comment, “Umm,” or, “Nice!” or, “What…?” but most of them just give me a strange look.
Must be because their English teacher is wearing a toga.
Since this is (unfortunately) a rare occurrence in their lives, upon entering the room, I do feel the need to explain my attire. I tell them that I’m wearing a toga because, “You have to wear a toga to go on a quest!”
“Wait… we’re actually going on a quest?” they ask.
“Yes!” I reply. “There will be obstacles and heroes and prizes to be won! Let’s go!” And I begin making my way to the Wellness Center, 30 squirrelly freshmen in tow.
Little do they know that they will learn so much, and dare I say, more than they expected to learn, about quests.
When we get to the large, enclosed gym-like space, I split the students up into groups. I have a set of three towels and a blindfold for each group on one end of the gym and a bed-sheet toga, piece-of-twine belt, and plastic laurel crown on the other end.
I explain that, working in teams, their quest is to start out at their “home,” which is the end of the gym where they currently are, and to travel to the far end of the gym where one of them will become a Greek hero. However, the floor is hot lava, and in order to avoid losing body parts and such, they must travel on the magic lava-resistant towels that I have conveniently provided for them. Also, because this is a quest fashioned after epic tales, we need some archetypes, so I’m throwing in a blind character for good measure (we previously brainstormed archetypes and how they surface in modern culture the day before), so one character is going to be blindfolded, but they can’t step on the lava either.
When the team reaches the other side on the towels, one character must don the toga and laurel crown, and after becoming a hero, like all good epic heroes, he or she must return to their home a changed person.
Oh, and the group to do so first gets CANDY. So, get your GAME FACES ON, kids. Ready, set, GO!
I leave about 15 minutes at the end of the period for us to journey back to the classroom, bestow lolly-pops on the winners, and talk about our quest. As I’m handing out the victors’ spoils, I give them a few questions that they need to answer about the activity that they just did.
“Questions?” they ask. “But, we were just competing for candy! We didn’t learn anything from that!” Oh, young grasshoppers, young grasshoppers…
I pass out a paper to each student with the following questions:
Then we share their answers to number 4. Turns out that they were actually learning a whole lot about teamwork and their own role in the success or failure of a group, while during the activity, they thought that they were just competing for high fructose corn syrup on a stick.
And actually, that’s the entire point of a quest. The quester learns something along the way, usually about him or herself, which they did not expect to learn at the outset.
Here I must pause and give credit where credit is due. This concept of The Quest is heavily influenced by Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. If you have not read this book, drop whatever you are currently reading and read this because I promise that it will change the entire way that you think about symbolism and archetypes in literature and will add depth to your reading that will in turn impact your students.
Foster claims in How to Read Lit that there are five main elements of any quest story:
Really, all quest stories involve these elements. Take for example, the movie Finding Nemo, which in fact I analyze as an exemplar with my class…
When we get to number five, a conversation ensues about what Marlin learns about himself through this experience. My students have come to the conclusion that he learns to not be overprotective, he learns to value what matters, he learns about appropriate boundaries, or he finally finds closure for his wife’s death and learns to forgive himself. Pretty cool for a kids’ movie about a fish. But that’s because it’s not just about a fish—it’s a quest.
And these elements of the quest apply to most quest stories, from The Odyssey to The Canterbury Tales to the short film Home Sweet Home (which is also great to use to teach quests).
This activity has opened up doors for my students in terms of preparing their minds to be looking for teachable moments throughout the story of The Odyssey. Instead of it just being a cool story about a hero defeating monsters, witches, and whirlpools, it becomes a tale of leadership, friendship, fallibility, temptation, choices, loyalty, and the struggle of man against fate and the natural world. My students begin looking for what Odysseus is learning, or if he truly learns from his adventures, and more importantly, what they can learn from them… in other words, themes of the story.
At the end of the day, themes are what is important about literature anyway. I tell my students that the themes are the good stuff—if you’re not reading to learn something about life from a story, what’s the point? English class isn’t just about who did what in a story; it’s about what the author is trying to say about life through what the characters do.
So, if I can set the stage for my students to contemplate themes and big ideas throughout The Odyssey by giving them some lava-resistant towels, a plastic laurel crown, and some candy, it’s well worth it.
And of course, I get to wear a toga while I’m at it. Because Toga Tuesdays are the best.
WVCTE is wondering…
1)How do you engage students with themes in a text?
2)How would or could you adapt this idea to connect with a text that you teach?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
One of our most important jobs as educators is to elevate our students’ voices. Our classrooms should be places were students feel that their voices will not only be heard, but that they will make a difference. I want them to consider their roles in their community and world. Right now, West Virginia is facing some extra-ordinary challenges: a struggling economy, a population decline, an opioid epidemic. Young people in West Virginia are discouraged. They constantly hear negative things about our state, and they ignore or don’t know is that West Virginia has a rich literary and art tradition. That our state exists because Mountaineers rejected slavery and valued freedom. Activists and artists are working tirelessly to create accurate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of our state and culture, and preserve our rich, history and traditions.
This year I decided to try something. I wanted find a way to not just engage my students in conversations about West Virginia and our struggles and successes, but I wanted them to be thinking about their place in West Virginia—how as young people they have a unique voice and perspective regarding how fix problems in our region. I believe that West Virginia’s path forward begins in our classrooms. (To read an Op-ed Karla Hilliard and I wrote about this, click HERE.)
This year, I taught my introduction to rhetoric to my Advanced Placement Class through the lens of Appalachian studies. You can see an overview of the unit HERE. The goals of the unit are (like West Virginia) diverse and multi-faceted. I wanted students to master the basics of rhetorical analysis, but also immerse themselves in the rhetoric surrounding our region.
The final culminating project in this unit was for the students to apply what they learned about crafting effective arguments, and create a proposal to present at the 40th Annual National Appalachian Studies Conference. We approached the task as an exercise in rhetoric. I asked the student to first choose something we studied in the unit that resonated with them. We covered a wide range of topics related to Appalachia: literature, poetry, environmental issues, the opioid epidemic, diversity, veterans, and stereotypes.
Then, students were split into teams had to write a proposal to present their chosen topic at the ASA conference. I asked the students to consider their unique voices. They are teenagers in Appalachia today, and they have a chance to share a concern or a topic with a conference of academics, writers, and activists. We read a few sample proposals and studied the conference website, program, and theme. I asked them to think about their proposals as persuasive essays and apply what they learned through our study of effective arguments.
The kids had a week to put together a “pitch” and write their proposals. They then presented their proposals to the whole class. I chose what I thought were the “top 10” pitches and gave them to a panel of teachers and administrators in my building to evaluate. They narrowed it down to four that they thought were the exemplars in terms of executing the task.
I put these four exemplars and my unit presentation together as a panel proposal for the conference, submitted it not really imagining that we would actually get accepted.
But then we did!
And not only did we get accepted, the conference committee emailed me to say how excited they were the students would be attending.
We were going to Blacksburg.
Below are three take-aways from taking 13 teenagers to present at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA on March 9-12:
1. Kids rise to the occasion.
My students prepped and prepared like professionals. I required them to meet with me bi-weekly to show me the progress of their project, and then we had a “dress rehearsal” the week before. They worked so hard. They understood the gravity of the opportunity they were being given, and their presentations were thoughtful, smart, and executed with more grace and poise than many presentations I’ve had to sit though given by adults. They blew everybody away.
We were also asked to sit in on a round-table discussion on youth and activism through art, and the authenticity and honesty of my students brought me and the rest of the room to tears. They were rock stars.
2. There is a wealth of educator resources at this conference!
Not only did I learn about several new pieces of Appalachian literature (read about Robert Gipe’s novel, Trampoline HERE), but my students and I learned about several incredible programs, organizations, and educational groups who care deeply about and are working on many of the same things we were discussing in our own presentation. And the authors and artists! My students were in the same room as Silas House, Jason Howard, Roger May, and Nikki Giovanni.
Roger May is not only a gifted artist, but he is also the director at Appalachian South Folklife and the Looking at Appalachia project, and a generous and kind human. Here he is taking time out of the opening of his own gallery show to answer my students’ questions about his photography.
And here is the incomparable Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was brilliant, funny, honest, and by far one of the highlights for my students.
3. Young people want their voices to be heard.
My students had the opportunity to participate in discussions about activism, art, and literature. And because having high school students actively participate in this conference is a bit of an anomaly, they were encouraged to speak up and share their perspectives and opinions. What I noticed was a maturity and a sense of importance settle over my students that I had not previously seen. They reveled in having adults who were not their teachers or parents, care about what they thought. I realized that giving them this opportunity to simply be heard was one of the most important and powerful components of this activity’s success.
For more reflections on this wonderful weekend, you can check out my Twitter feed @jessica_salfia, and look for the #ASA2017.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you incorporate ways for your students to share their voices or impact their communities in your classroom?