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During my years in public education I taught Literature and English in junior high – and, when the principal du jour was a little bit irked with me, an occasional semester of Pre-Algebra as well.
One literature textbook our district adopted in the 1990s included a unit on “the 900 Cinderellas,” which looked at this theme in fairytales from cultures around the world, which presented an opportunity to discuss motifs recurring across mythologies widely divergent from each other in time and space. I would piggyback an intro to the Hero’s Journey onto this unit (taking advantage of the female hero in each of these stories to step outside the usual identification of heroes with the male gender).
A few years later I was pleasantly surprised, when teaching The Call of the Wild as our assigned novel, to find the support materials provided by our textbook publisher at the time used the Hero’s Journey as a framing device for Jack London’s best-known work (and acknowledged Joseph Campbell’s role in identifying this pattern), even though the story has nothing to do with myth.
But mostly, over the years, I’d have to find my own entry into the Hero’s Journey. I would begin the year teaching the elements of plot to my students – and then, once I was confident they had that down, after Christmas break I would focus on the Hero’s Journey as another way to diagram a story. I’d usually begin by asking students to collectively brainstorm movies they enjoyed, writing titles on the board as they called them out. Inevitably someone would mention The Lion King (or, on the rare occasion no one did, I’d add it as I was scribbling titles as if I’d heard someone say it – no one ever caught on). Once the board was full, I’d ask for a show of hands as to how many had seen specific titles – and, always, nearly every hand went up for the Lion King, so I’d ask if it was okay if we worked with that, considering it was always the one film most every child had seen.
Of course, I was only prepared to discuss Lion King in detail (which was consciously created with the Hero’s Journey template in mind, and so fairly simple to document the various elements of the HJ story arc); the trick was getting each class to think they were the ones who had selected that title to discuss. We would spend a couple periods on the HJ in that film; once I was confident they understood the basics, then we would branch out and take a look at how the HJ trajectory surfaces in myths – and then, the rest of the year, as we moved into other stories as well as an assigned novel (which differed from class to class depending on the reading level of the students), as reinforcement we would touch on how the HJ applied to each of those stories.
Now that I’m retired from teaching, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve had my own classroom. I would love to hear from other teachers at all grade levels, past and present, about how you introduce your students to the Hero’s Journey and/or mythology in general.
Feel free to share ideas and even specific lesson plans. One thing I noticed my first year in public education is that other teachers are always happy to open their cupboards and share ideas, lesson plans, and even materials they created themselves with other teacher. It would be wonderful if this forum category can serve as a collective resource for those wanting to teach myth and / or the hero’s journey, but could use a little inspiration and insight.
tie-dyed teller of tales
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