Heroic Journey and Archetypes

Many of you may know I’m teaching a senior elective called Hero With a Thousand Faces modeled after the work of Joseph Campbell.  We have completed The Iliad and are wrapping up our discussion of that epic.  Interestingly, though Achilles is often called the hero of that epic, I asked students to analyze it to determine who the hero is, in their estimation.  I think a case can be made for Hector and possibly Odysseus as greater heroes than Achilles.  I mentioned in class that Hector was one of the Nine Worthies: “historic” examplars of medieval chivalric ideals.  These were the Nine: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar (pagans); King Arthur, Godfrey de Bouillon, and Charlemagne (Christian); and Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus (Jewish).  We talked about why medieval people might have found Hector more admirable than Achilles.  It’s interesting that in several places in the epic, he denies mercy to soldiers who beg it — including Hector — which was a sign of very poor behavior in a knight indeed.

We are preparing to study Star Wars, as this month is full of Jewish holidays that will inhibit our ability to study a book, and I created a chart based on Campbell’s heroic journey and archetypes that some of you might find useful if you intend to study the monomyth.

I have been presenting a book that treats the monomyth each Friday because my students’ final project will be to read a book or watch a movie of their own choice that is NOT one we have studied and discussed together and analyze the heroic journey and archtypes within.  If you are looking for a heroic reading list, you might want to check out the books I’ve mentioned:

Some upcoming books I intend to discuss include:

Of course, I’ve talked about Harry Potter throughout.  I will add to the list as I think of others.

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Twitter Redux

OK, I asked before what the big deal is, and I suppose I cannot assuage my curiosity unless I actually try it out, so first I watched this video:

And I signed up for a Twitter account, and you can follow me if you like.

I think the true impetus for getting an account is that my husband now uses Twitter, and I can’t stand it when he one ups me technologically speaking.

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Education and the Web? Not Really

One of the first classes in my IT program is a course entitled Education and the Web.  Based on the title alone, it was the one class I was really looking forward to because the title led me to believe it would treat up-to-date tools and uses of the Web in education.  How silly of me to leap to that conclusion.

My problem with the class is that I am not learning anything useful about Web tools or education-related sites.  One assignment I found particularly pointless dealt with the difference between the Web and the Internet which basically required some background reading on the history of the Internet (and the Web… because it’s critical for our purposes that we get the difference).  It was mildly interesting, but I didn’t advance my knowledge of how I can use the Web in education.  My biggest issue so far, however, is with the journal of Web sites.  I am required to collect and categorize a minimum of 50 Web sites that are useful in education, providing a link to the URL and a brief description of the site.  OK, no problem.  I am required to do it in Excel.  Can someone please tell me why, in a course called Education and the Web, they didn’t think to ask us to use a social bookmarking service like Delicious?  Delicious would enable me to collect and categorize through tagging.  It also allows for providing a brief description.  The URL and site name would be saved automatically.  What’s more, I could share all of my sites with my classmates as we could have been required to share and subscribe to each other’s feeds.  And we would be using the actual Web to learn more about Education and the Web.  Instead, I’m using Excel?  It reminds me of a remark Will Richardson made about presenters at NECC taking notes in Word.

This whole deal does not inspire confidence.  When the one class I thought might be most useful becomes the one I’m not learning anything from, what do I do?  Will my other classes similarly be at least five years behind the times?  Because that’s deadly for an instructional technology program, in my opinion.  I hope I get a chance to do a course evaluation.  I don’t have a problem with my instructor.  I’m not sure who wrote the course, but my perception is that a department of teachers all teach it at various times, so it may be that my instructor has had little input on the curriculum or it may be that my instructor created the curriculum.  Therefore, I am not sure whether it would be beneficial to advocate for myself and my learning by saying something to my instructor or advisor.  Some people would consider it useful constructive criticism and address the problem.  Others would see it as an attack.  I worry more about my classmates than I do about myself.  I have a pretty decent grasp of how to use the Web effectively for education, and because I keep up with so many savvy folks, I also know about some useful tools.  But what if my classmates were counting on learning the same kind of information in this class?

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Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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One of My Teachers

When I talk about certain works of literature, I can hear the words of my own professors coming out of my mouth.  I truly received a good English education at my college, and I look back in fondness at my college classes, perhaps none more so than the very last one I took, Twentieth Century American Poetry, which was the last class Coleman Barks taught at UGA before he retired.

Coleman Barks is probably best known for his translations of the poetry of Rumi, but he is a fine poet in his own right, and he was a great teacher.

Perhaps he made it a practice every time, but perhaps it was because we were the last class — I remember he asked us to submit our own poems and he had them made into an anthology for us.  I wrote one about my great grandfather that he found kind of dizzying, but to be honest, it really captured my feelings as I watched a man who I wasn’t personally close to, but who was important to my family, slowly dying of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

We read only one female poet in that class: Adrienne Rich.  I remember we tried to talk about that omission, but he didn’t seem as concerned as we were.  I think he just picked what he liked.

It was a great class, and I remember the day of his last lecture, he was crying as he walked quickly out the door — he was trying to hide his tears from us.

And then he slept through the final exam.  I didn’t know he’d slept through.  I think we were told there was a a problem with a flight.  We waited.  And waited.  Another professor stuck his head in the door, ascertained the situation, then left to find out what was going on.  He returned to tell us that we should just write Coleman letters about what we thought of the class.  So we did.

I didn’t realize until this very day, which is at this point over 10 years later, that Coleman wrote a poem about us.  Wow, I didn’t know he felt that way about us or the final exam.  I’m so glad I found it.

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Is a Flower Worth More than a Frog?

Via this week’s NCTE Inbox, I read an article about an experiment in assessment that English teacher John O’Connor tried.

After spending 15 hours carefully crafting comments on a class set of papers, there’s nothing more depressing than to see those papers parachute, unread,  into the recycling bin at the end of class.

This past school year, I swore, would be different: I would give no grades.  I figured this would force students to read, absorb, and appreciate all the attention I had given their work, rather than just rely on a grade at the end of the paper.

O’Connor left cute stamps instead of grades on student work.  Of course, they still tried to see what the value of each stamp was — “Is a flower worth more than a frog?”  Parents worried.  “[T]his was cute and all, but try explaining to a college that her son has a ‘raccoon’ in senior English.”  Indeed.

Ultimately, such a system is very hard, if not impossible to defend, particularly in a school that does assign grades to students. I cannot imagine how an administrator could back up a teacher who tried such a system and then (as is likely) was challenged by a parent or student.

I wish there was a way we could eliminate grades as a means of communicating progress and rely instead on narrative and comments, but grades are very entrenched in our schools, and O’Connor’s system would only work if the entire school was behind the idea of eliminating grades.  Many schools who use other means of assessment exist, and colleges do indeed accept these students.

Like O’Connor, I wish students would read the comments.  I am frustrated when I spend a long time with a student’s work, giving what I feel is copious feedback, only to have the student turn to the grade and ask “Why’d I get a B?”  At least students understand letter grades, and even if, as O’Connor insists, he and the student generally knew what the student’s letter grade was, I can’t imagine how I’d address the question “Why’d I get a frog?  What is a frog, anyway?”

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Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at BeowulfTranslations.net.

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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A Quick Update

Being department chair coupled with starting graduate school hasn’t been good for my blog, but I feel great about what I’m doing and learning.  I had an excellent start to the school year.  My Hero with a Thousand Faces elective class is going very well.  We’re reading The Iliad together right now.  My British literature classes are going well; we wrapped up summer reading and start Beowulf in earnest this week and the next.  My ninth grade class is full of hard workers.

I am connecting with fellow students in my program at Virginia Tech through Facebook, and that has added a whole new dimension to my use of social networking.  One of my classmates set up a study group for us, and it has been helpful.  For instance, I found out who among our group is taking more than the first three hours our program of study recommends.  I needed financial aid, and I had to go at least half time, so I had to add a fourth three-hour class.  It was good to know who is taking the class.  I was using Excel for an assignment in that class last week, and I had to call my dad for a little bit of help (I’m weak with Excel).  This week, a classmate mentioned she was having some trouble with making the chart in Excel.  I was all ready to share what I’d learned, but it turned out she used a different program and made it work.  It’s easy to feel disconnected from fellow classmates when you’re studying online, and Facebook has been great for connecting and feeling at least a little bit like I’m part of a class.

I’ve been doing well with my assignments so far.  The level of challenge has been mixed, but I understand that much of it is intended to be introductory material.  Perhaps program designers needed to think about where most people are in their level of computer knowledge.  I am a bit concerned that one of my classes is a little dated in the era of Web 2.0, but I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve completed a few more lessons.

I am in love with my new MacBook.  I took advantage of the free iPod with rebate promotion, and I also now have an iPod for the very first time ever, and I love it, too.  It’s an iPod Touch.  I am not sure I will go back to a PC after the Betsy iBook and now this MacBook.  I am really glad that I was able to get the computer — never would have happened in a million years if not for financial aid.  I have to say our Federal Student Aid program is really excellent; I was able to go to undergrad and now attend grad school when there is no way I’d ever have been able to do either without financial aid.  I think it’s great that we offer that opportunity to students.

So, I’ll try to update soon with content and the like.  Stay tuned!

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Google Chrome is Live

About midnight today, Google launched their new browser Google Chrome in beta.  It’s not available for Mac or Linux yet.  My husband uses a Windows desktop and downloaded it today, and he thinks he’s in love.  Here’s a video about some of Chrome’s features:

I love Firefox.  I love it very much.  But if Google does for browsing what it did for search, I may be tempted to at least try it.  I’m pretty faithful to my pet technologies, but I’ve ditched Movable Type for WordPress and Netscape Navigator for Internet Explorer, and Internet Explorer for Firefox.  I’ll be interested to see how Firefox addresses this new competition.

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