NCTE Session G.41 Teaching the Hero’s Journey: Understanding Our Past, Creating Our Future

On Saturday, I presented with Glenda Funk and Ami Szerencse on teaching the Hero’s Journey. Here you will find my slide deck and handouts. You can find the handouts Glenda and Ami shared here at Glenda’s blog.

View more presentations from Dana Huff

Heroic Journey and Archetypes Note-taking Sheet

Star Wars Levels of Reading (MS Word document)

Star Wars Essay

Hobbit Essay Assignment

Please feel free to share feedback about the presentation and/or add to our list of hero’s journey texts. The Google Doc Glenda shared is not editable, but feel free to add suggestions in the comments. Also, if you have questions or need additional resources, feel free to ask in the comments.

I wanted to add this video for folks interested in The Matrix as a hero’s journey text:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AG4rlGkCRU[/youtube]

Thank you Glenda and Ami for being awesome co-presenters.

I will share my own reflections and thoughts about the conference at a later time, but it was wonderful to see you all, and Chicago is a beautiful city.

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The Journey

SeekI think one of the reasons the hero’s journey is so popular in our culture, and arguably in most cultures, is that we inherently recognize that in our lives, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Once the hero reaches his destination, the story ends.

When I was in my English Education program at UGA, one of my classmates introduced me to Joseph Campbell. I can’t remember the particulars anymore, only that Greg mentioned Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers, which became The Power of Myth.

Greg was one of most well-read people I’d met up until that point, and I respected his intellect. Out of curiosity, I purchased a copy of The Power of Myth. As a fan of Star Wars and Tolkien, I was drawn to Campbell’s ideas.

Many years later, my department chair asked us to dream up possible English electives, and my first idea was to create a course based on the monomyth and the work of Joseph Campbell. My department chair and principal approved the course based on the description I wrote. I titled the course “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” after Campbell’s seminal work.

Regular readers of this blog know that backward design informs my teaching and planning. Therefore, I created essential questions not just for each text, but also for the course:

  • How is the pattern of the monomyth demonstrated by various cultures around the world in various time periods?
  • How do archetypes inform our understanding of literature and the world?
  • How are the Hero, his/her quest, and his/her ideals still valid and useful in today’s world?
  • How has the monomyth been influential in shaping subsequent literature and film?

I begin the course with a WebQuest to help acquaint students with Campbell and his work. Next, I divide students into three groups, and each group reads a section of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Because I don’t have the option of assigning summer reading, and we need to hit the ground running so we can study several texts over the course of a semester, I have found that simply dividing the section of that book that discusses the hero’s journey into thirds—the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return—the work of learning about the hero’s journey can be accomplished more quickly. Each group reads the section of Campbell’s book dealing with their assignment and teaches the information to the class. Last semester’s Return group made great use of video to teach their section.

After students understand the basics, we move on to the texts. Campbell’s two books The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth serve as foundation texts. We also study the original Star Wars trilogy. No other modern work, with the exception of Harry Potter or possibly The Matrix, is mentioned so often in conjunction with Campbell’s work. George Lucas has said that he wanted to create a monomyth after reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the idea seems to have caught fire in Hollywood since then. Campbell’s famous interview with Bill Moyers took place on Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. Another work I felt important to include is The Hobbit. I felt that The Lord of the Rings in either book or movie form would be a bit too long for a one semester course, but obviously that work is a great choice. The Hobbit contains the hero’s journey in a more abbreviated form. Aside from these works, I have also taught The Iliad. In future iterations of the course, we will instead read shorter Greek/Roman/Norse/Celtic myths that conform more closely to the hero’s journey. Achilles, after all, spends most of The Iliad stuck in the “Refusal of the Call” phase of the journey. One could argue Hector is much more heroic, and certainly medieval scholars must have agreed—he was chosen as one of the Nine Worthies, whereas Achilles was not. I have purchased a set of The Ramayana, but never managed to get to it. It is a one semester class, and the Jewish holidays often hit us pretty hard in September/October. I have to seriously curtail reading homework during that time period, which makes it hard to get through texts (also an excellent time for film study of Star Wars).

The course has proven fairly popular. The first year, eight brave students signed up. A few of them really enjoyed the course. One of them recently visited me to tell me he had been accepted to college (he took a year off after graduation), and to tell me he was watching Star Wars with his brother the other day, and kept talking about what part of the hero’s journey Luke was currently experiencing as they watched. As he said, “Oh, now they’re in the Belly of the Whale.” I am delighted that he will not be able to watch a movie again without seeing this additional layer of meaning. Before he left, he thanked me “for a great class.”

This year, the class was full, and I understand quite a few interested students were turned away, as the class was capped at 15 students. A student in my class last semester drew a Venn diagram to help his fellow students understand the prominence of the Hero’s Journey. The diagram has only one circle instead of two. The diagram is titled “Stories that follow the Hero’s Journey.” Inside the circle are the words “All Stories Ever.” I really like the idea that as a result of taking this course, students see this common story in a new light.

My friend Greg, the one who introduced me to Joseph Campbell, was killed in action in Iraq in April 2004 when his truck convoy was ambushed outside Abu Ghraib. Greg was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal for his bravery—he saved the lives of ten other soldiers before being killed. I know Greg had a deep understanding, perhaps better than most, of the sacrifices a hero must sometimes make for his people. He would have been pleased, had he lived, to learn about this course. He told me once he thought every English teacher should teach Campbell. I teach Campbell because I think his work is important and helps students put so much of their culture into perspective, but it’s a fitting tribute to Greg’s memory, too.

Here you can find a list of links I use in teaching this course or that I just find helpful and have shared with students (or just use for myself):

“For we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us.”—Joseph Campbell

*For more discussion of this essay, see this previous post.

Update: This post used to contain documents I use with the course. I will post the documents again on a future post. A plugin I used to use made them unavailable to users.

Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

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Rethinking Heroes

Last year was the first year I taught my Hero with a Thousand Faces course, which is based upon Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The course, by the way, begins with a study of the monomyth, followed by study of several works of literature and films that exhibit the hero’s journey. I wanted to start the year with a classic text, and students had read The Odyssey in 9th grade, so I settled on The Iliad. I had not read The Iliad until the summer before, as I was preparing for the course. Last year I felt that the size and sheer weight of the storyline stopped the forward motion of the course, but it was the first time I’d ever taught the work, and sometimes I have noticed that until I feel I know a work better, I spend too long on some parts, not enough on others, and with large works like The Iliad, which can be read in pieces rather than its entirety, I don’t know what to skip and summarize and what to give close attention to. I chalked my troubles up to my unfamiliarity with the text.

This year, I really think that the problem is with the book. I have slashed parts of the book from our study, and it’s still dragging. It’s just too long to begin this course with, I think, and I plan to replace it next year with a collection of Greek, Norse, and Celtic myths (perhaps Hercules, Perseus, Cuchulainn, and the like). It would give students the opportunity to practice applying Campbell’s theories to a number of short works prior to tackling a longer work. Also, I am not too sure The Iliad is the best work to illustrate Campbell’s theories: Achilles may not even be a hero, and he doesn’t really journey anywhere, and though Hector may be a hero (he was considered one of the Nine Worthies by medieval writers), his story doesn’t really fit the journey either. I love the work, and I think it’s great for students to read and be exposed to, but I am thinking it’s not a good fit for this course.

Another logistical problem unique to my situation is the fact that the Jewish holidays in September and October often create challenges in terms of timing assignments, as I cannot give students homework that is due the day after a Jewish holiday. The past two years in a row, we have encountered some problems with finishing The Iliad as the holidays approach. I think all in all, it will be a much better solution to start small with some shorter hero stories from mythology.

I think it’s a good practice to examine the books, units, and activities we do each year to see if they are still working for our current students. I was dismayed to learn this week that this practice isn’t as widespread as I thought, and I wonder why.

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More Than Texts

As he was leaving today, a student paid a compliment to my Hero with a Thousand Faces class.  I’m not sure if I was meant to respond to the comment.  I didn’t.  We were chatting about our schedule on Thursday, which differs from a usual Thursday schedule for a lot of reasons that aren’t germane to this post.  The student said something about liking the usual Thursday schedule because he can come in late (he’s a senior and must not have a class before mine) and go to a class that’s about more than just the text.

I have not given a lot of assignments in this class, but we have engaged in some deep discussions about Joseph Campbell and his ideas, and we are delving into a serious discussion of Star Wars at the moment.  I really enjoy the class.  Even without the carrot (or the stick) of grades looming over the students, they do the work, are involved in class discussion, and are engaged in the material.  I conduct the class more like a college seminar than a standard required English class precisely because it is an elective.

The same student mentioned looking up information about Star Wars at home in his free time, completely unprompted by me, so he could learn more about it.  He was impressed by the sheer amount of information online.  Another student picked up the Harry Potter series for the first time because he was intrigued by some of the class discussion of how Rowling’s work displays Campbell’s influence.

A colleague of mine, a science teacher who often participates in the discussion and has really become a co-teacher in the class, has added so much to the class just by her enthusiasm and presence, often filling in gaps in information I have.  I am not sure how the class would have differed without her presence because she has added so much to our discussion and to our understanding of the subject matter.  She participates in the class during her planning time, which effectively causes her to lose time she could spend grading or planning lessons.  I think the students have really come to appreciate her presence a great deal, and they miss her when she is unable to come.

I’m not sure if the student realized what a compliment I considered his statement.  Some might interpret his words to mean we’re not doing enough “English” in the course, but I understood him to mean that we are engaged in larger discussions and conversations that involve the text, but also go beyond the text and are stimulating in some way he found it difficult to express in other words.

One of my goals in this class is to transform the way students read literature and watch movies, and I feel good about my progress toward reaching that goal.

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Introduction to Joseph Campbell

This fall, I will be teaching a new elective class based on Joseph Campbell’s theories.  As an introduction to Campbell’s ideas (and also because I am going to be working with ninth graders for our first double-block and need something for my students to do), I created this web scavenger hunt: Joseph Campbell: A Scavenger Hunt for ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ Students.

Any feedback from folks who think I’m missing something or think something could be more clear (or any other feedback) is appreciated.

The blogs I’m referencing haven’t been created yet, but my thinking was to put them on something closed, and my first thought was Ning.  Does anyone have another solution?  Ning is blocked at my school, but I think I can get it unblocked.

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