The Journey: Creating a Course of Study


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A presentation describing how to create a literature/film course based on the study of the monomyth.

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  • Hi, my name is Dana Huff. I teach at the Weber School, a private Jewish high school in Atlanta. I want to describe my process for creating an elective course based on the hero’s journey.\n\n
  • I believe I first encountered Joseph Campbell through The Power of Myth when I was an undergraduate in my senior year as an English Education major at the University of Georgia. One of my classmates—his name was Greg—was reading it, and I thought he was very impressive. He was so well-read, and he was so intelligent. I did have a little bit of a crush on him. I think I actually picked it up to impress him, and he did notice that I was reading it. We talked about it, and he mentioned he thought all English teachers should be familiar with the hero’s journey and teach it to their students.\nBut as I read the book, I found I liked it for other reasons aside from who I might be impressing. I have always been a big fan of Star Wars, and the interview in The Power of Myth, if you’re not familiar with it, took place on George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. Bill Moyers interviewed Campbell. The resulting program was something like six hours long, so reading it, and being able to turn back and read some parts again or annotate was helpful to me. In the interview, Campbell talks a great deal about how Star Wars conforms to his theories about the hero’s journey, or monomyth, as he also calls it. I found it fascinating to learn that Hollywood was beginning to rely on the structure of the hero’s journey to tell their stories. Further, I found it interesting to learn that the hero’s journey is a story that is told in almost every culture, stretching far back into history. There is something that appeals to us about this story. It is as if we are hardwired to tell stories in the way that Campbell describes.\nSometime in December 2004, I learned that Greg had died. He apparently didn’t stay in education and had joined the National Guard to pay for college. When America went to war with Iraq, he was called up for duty. He was killed in action when the convoy he was traveling with was attacked outside Abu Ghraib. I learned that Greg had saved the lives of ten other soldiers during that attack. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal. \nI realized when learned all of this about Greg that he is one of the few people I have known in my life who embodied Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”\n\n
  • When my department chair and principal were looking to expand English course offerings and offer some electives, I was asked to design a potential elective course. I immediately decided I wanted to teach a course on the hero’s journey. Aside from teaching Shakespeare, hero’s journeys like The Odyssey and Beowulf were my favorite things to teach. I wrote a course description, and the course was approved.\nAfter I wrote the first draft of the course description, I thought about what the course should help students to understand. Why study the hero’s journey at all? So what? Why is it even important? What does knowing the hero’s journey help students learn or enable them to do?\nThese are the kinds of questions I ask about everything I teach. They are rooted in the principals of backwards design. As a result of asking myself these questions, I determined that I wanted students to understand four things as a result of taking my course:\n\n
  • •The hero’s journey is a story that has been told across time and in most cultures of the world.\nThis is important to me because it is a way for students to see their connection to people in history and to other cultures. As our world becomes smaller, our shared stories and history bind us together and help us to see how we are similar to each other.\n\n
  • •Archetypes inform our understanding of literature and the world.\nSometimes understanding how a certain set of traits go along with certain types of archetypes. They give us a common language that enables us to speak symbolically about characters. Archetypes are common in myths: the hero, the damsel in distress, the ogre/monster/giant, the wise mentor, the trickster. Understanding why archetypes are used in myths and how they can be a form of shorthand that helps storytellers communicate information about their characters quickly and in language we all understand will help students not only analyze literature, but also get a sense of how the world works—which types of behaviors are regarded, rewarded, or valued as opposed to undesirable or hurtful to society.\n\n
  • •The hero, his/her quest, and his/her ideals are still valid and useful in today’s world.\nWe don’t necessarily live in an age when great mythological stories are being created as they were in the ancient world, but we do use those myths even today to tell our stories. For instance, Saturday Night Live recently used the Greek pantheon of gods in a skit designed to skewer Greece’s economic problems when it was discovered that there was no Greek god of finance, no one looking after saving. Comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, and the X-Men have their earliest genesis in heroes like Odysseus and Beowulf. Most of Pixar’s movies follow this similar quest as well—the hero may be a hot shot racecar who realizes that he has been pursuing futile goals or he may be a little clown fish who searches the ocean for his lost son. We still celebrate when we read these stories. We still root for Lightning McQueen to figure out what’s important in life or for Marlin to find Nemo just like we rooted for Odysseus to get home or for Beowulf to kill Grendel. We like it when the good guys win. Those stories satisfy our sense that all is right in the world and that the future will be better.\n\n
  • •The monomyth as influenced literature and film.\nI have already mentioned a few movies, but the reason I wanted students to understand the monomyth’s influence is so that they could see how this structure has given rise to so many of the works of literature and film that they enjoy. I wanted them to see how the writers of those books and films used a familiar structure and made something new and unique with it. Any why does it work? Shouldn’t we be tired of this story? And yet we never seem to get tired of this story.\n\n
  • In addition to the usual goals and objectives you might have for students in any English class—that students reflect on what they read, that they learn and use the writing process, that they develop a more scholarly tone in their critical writing, that they make clear arguments—I also made some goals specific to this course.\n•Students will become well-versed in literary theories of the monomyth and the heroic quest.\nI wanted them to be able to talk the talk of analysis. I wanted them to know the terms used to describe the various stages of the hero’s journey: the separation or departure, the initiation, and the return. I wanted them to know the archetypes. I wanted them to be able to recognize themes and tropes common in this type of storytelling.\n\n•Students will interpret and apply the monomyth to various works of literature and film.\nUltimately, I wanted students to be able to recognize a monomyth when they saw one and be able to tell, for instance, when the film’s hero was stuck in the belly of the whale or when the hero might be receiving the ultimate boon. I have had students come back and tell me that movies are way too predictable now that they have learned the pattern, and in a way, that’s a good thing. They have learned how to analyze this type of story well enough to recognize how it works even in a film or book they aren’t familiar with.\n\n\n
  • The very first assignment I give students is a webquest designed to help them become better acquainted with Joseph Campbell and his ideas. I have included a link to this webquest in the handouts, but this QR Code will also take you to the site if you have a QR Code reader.\nThis webquest encourages students to read selected articles to learn about Campbell himself, different archetypes, Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the Joseph Campbell Foundation. It helps them get an idea of what the course will teach them and encourages them to start thinking about what they want to get out of the course.\n\n
  • After this webquest, I break students into three groups, which usually works well because the class has always been capped at 15 students. I realize this may be a problem for you if you choose to create a course, but you can adapt and change requirements to suit your class and students. I assign each of my three groups a different stage of the hero’s journey to research and explore. I just don’t have time in a one-semester high school course for students to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces in its entirety. If you’ve ever read it, you might realize it’s really dense. Someone suggested to me once that students might try reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. I haven’t read it, but I have been told it breaks down the structure of the monomyth in a format that is easier for students to understand.\nEach group creates a presentation designed to teach their classmates about their section of the hero’s journey. So I have one group that presents on the separation or departure. They are responsible for helping their peers understand this leg of the hero’s journey. I encourage students to find examples of steps in this part of the journey from films or works of literature their peers are already familiar with. For example, all of my students have read The Odyssey and Beowulf by the time they take this course, so they can use examples from these two works to illustrate their points. A second group covers the initiation part of the hero’s journey. The final group covers the return.\n\n
  • George Lucas has acknowledged that he read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and created Star Wars directly as a result of his desire to create a modern myth. Through Star Wars, other movies have followed suit. I find that Star Wars makes a great introduction to the hero’s journey.\nAnother work I often use in this course is The Hobbit. I find that if you are talking pure high fantasy with an excellent hero’s journey, The Lord of the Rings is actually a better text, but I am not able to use it in a one-semester course. One thing you have to be careful about in selecting texts is thinking about how much time you have. You could make this a year-long course, but my personal opinion is that it is a bit of overkill when that happens at the high school level. I think it could be done more successfully in college. So I have chosen to study The Hobbit, which has a nice hero’s journey that follows the pattern of the monomyth as well.\nLast year, at the suggestion of students, I introduced Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. In this series, for those of you who have read it, we have a female heroine, and one issue that has arisen in my teaching of the course is that the works of literature and film that use the monomythic structure tend to star heroes rather than heroines. Katniss Everdeen is a great example of a feminine hero who manages to do everything the male heroes in other stories do. You will find other great heroines in young adult novels if you do some digging around. And of course, the story of The Hunger Games is a modern version of the Theseus myth. Theseus fights the Minotaur after having been chosen as one of seven tributes from Athens to Crete. The tributes were drawn by lots and send as sacrifices. He was expected to die, but Ariadne helped him find his way through the labyrinth with her ball of yarn, and Theseus was able to kill the Minotaur and end his people’s suffering, just as Katniss is able to defeat the Capitol and end the suffering of people in the other districts of Panem.\nThe Matrix is another film that makes a good text for this course. It is rated R, which may be problematic for you. I would suggest if you use this text that you preview it and determine if it will work for you. It has no nudity. It’s rating comes from violence and language. If you do use it, you can, of course, provide a permission slip, and if you have a parent that has a concern, you can choose an alternate text, but just like George Lucas, the makers of The Matrix have admitted their debt to Joseph Campbell. \n\n\n
  • The ultimate performance task that students could create in order to show you that they have understood how the monomyth pattern is demonstrated by various cultures and in various times, how archetypes inform our understanding of literature and the world, how the hero and his or her quest and ideals are still valid, and how the monomyth has been influential in shaping literature and film is to create their own monomyth. This assignment will reach into the very upper levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. This kind of assignment is not a light undertaking, and you want to leave plenty of time for it. You could make the assignment more accessible if you broke students into teams to complete it. They could create a children’s book. Some could write and others could illustrate.\n
  • If you do not have that kind of time, you can ask students to select a film or book that you have not studied as a class and analyze how it conforms to the monomyth. This task still asks students to exercise the higher order critical thinking skills of application, analysis, and evaluation as well as synthesis in the older version of the taxonomy. \n
  • Another assessment I really like is asking students to create a board game either based on the hero’s journey alone or on a work. For example, one marker on the board could read “You’re stuck in the belly of the whale. Lose a turn.” Or “You have refused the call to adventure. Go back three spaces.” This is a fun way for students to help others learn the structure while still analyzing and synthesizing what they have learned.\n\n
  • Next I do want to talk about some issues I have had in creating this course. The Harry Potter series would be a wonderful text to study. I was not able to get approval for that text from my principal, who did not understand that though the books were initially aimed at children, they are, in fact, these wonderful, epic adventures that follow the monomythic structure and would be perfect for this age group to study. I think you could potentially build an entire semester course on the notion that Harry is the hero for this generation as Luke perhaps was for ours, and given there are seven books in the series, you would have plenty to talk about in terms of archetypes and mythic tropes and themes.\nOne problem I have run into as I created this course was needing to convince my principal that the texts I wished to use were challenging. Though the course has always been an elective, and I would recommend that if you offer such a course that you also structure it as an elective, my principal is a former English teacher, kind of what we might call “old school.” She has definite ideas about how English should be taught. She does not deem fantasy or sci-fi to be challenging literature that should be taught in high schools. She turned me down flat on Harry Potter, so even though I know it would be a good text for the course, I have not been able to use it. You may encounter similar issues should you design such a course. Fantasy, sci-fi, graphic novels, and similar types of literature, while beloved by their fans, have not attained the level of respectability that other genres have. \n \n\n
  • Another issue I ran into is that even though my course was an elective, it was used for a couple of years as a course that could fulfill the English requirement at my school, so not all the students necessarily chose to take it because they were interested so much as they wanted the English credit. This became a problem with students who discovered they didn’t much like fantasy or sci-fi. That has caused problems when students do not do the required reading so that we can talk intelligently about the texts. This is one reason why I feel that this course should be a true elective. I think that fantasy and sci-fi do not necessarily appeal to all readers, and of course, you can choose purely mythological texts to get around that, but I’d argue those are just fantasy works that have achieved a very old age and with it some respectability. \nStudents have varying levels of motivation and ability to read and participate, and if you have a group who is really excited about this material, they will be a great class, but if you have a group who has senioritis and just doesn’t want to do anything that resembles school, it can be tough. I have always had students of varying levels, and it usually works fine if you differentiate and offer assessments that can play to students’ strengths. \n\n\n
  • Depending on your school schedule, time may be a factor for you. I ran into this issue mainly because we have a rotating three day schedule, and I see my students two days out of that rotation. In a good week, I might see them four times, but most often, I saw them three. Our classes are only an hour. We have lots of days off school some years due to Jewish holidays in September and October. You may not have this same problem, but it’s something to consider if you have an odd schedule. \n\n
  • Creating this class has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I do have kids come back to visit and tell me about their experiences seeing a movie or reading a text and realizing it was a hero’s journey and surprising their friends by being able to discuss the work on that level. Others have said they were able to bring up the monomyth in conjunction with a text they were studying in college and thereby impressing their professors. However, the feedback that means the most to me is just that they tell me it was a great class and that they learned a lot. I think learning this structure gives a sort of sense or a pattern to storytelling that we find appealing. \n\n
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  • The Journey: Creating a Course of Study

    1. 1. The JourneyCreating a Course of Study Dana Huff The Weber School Twitter: @danamhuff
    2. 2. “A hero is someone who has given his or her life tosomething bigger than oneself.”
    3. 3. Why?So what?
    4. 4. How is the pattern of the monomythdemonstrated by various culturesaround the world in various timeperiods?
    5. 5. How do archetypes inform ourunderstanding of literature and theworld?
    6. 6. How are the hero, his/her quest, andhis/her ideals still valid and useful intoday’s world?
    7. 7. How has the monomyth been influentialin shaping subsequent literature and film?
    8. 8. Goals• Students will become well-versed in literary theories of the monomyth and the heroic quest.• Students will interpret and apply the monomyth to various works of literature and film.
    9. 9.
    10. 10. PresentationsDeparture/SeparationInitiationReturn
    11. 11. Star Wars The HobbitThe Hunger Games The Matrix
    12. 12. Create your own monomyth
    13. 13. Analyze anew text
    14. 14. Harry Potter? NO!
    15. 15. Dana @danamhuff
    16. 16. Works Cited• Slide 1: Lucas, George. “Luke’s Journey.” Star Wars. Web. • Slide 8: Lucas, George. “Luke Skywalker.” Star Wars. Web. 27 Sep. 2008. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 2: Moyers, Bill and Joseph Campbell. “The Power of • Slide 8: Paolini, Christopher. “Eragon.” Web. 13 Nov. 2011. Myth.” Web. 13 Nov. 2011. • Slide 8: Collins, Suzanne. “The Hunger Games Wallpaper.” The Hunger Games. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 3: balt-arts. “wallpaper—The Island.” Flickr. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. • Slides 9-13:Varlan, Horia. “Question Mark Made of Puzzle Pieces.” Flickr. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.• Slide 4: Le Dû, Stéfan. “To Be or Not to Be (a Clone).” • Slide 14: McKay, Dan. “Slightly Confusing Signs.” Flickr. Flickr. Web. 12 Nov. 2010. Web. 7 Nov. 2010.• Slide 5: Hinds, Gareth. “The Odyssey Cover.” The Comic. • . Slide 16: Warner Brothers. “Snape, Ron, and Harry.” Web. 13 Nov. 2011. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 5: Pratinidhi, Balasaheb Pandit Pant. “Bharata Asks • Slide 17: The Hero CC. “The Hero’s Journey.” YouTube. for Rama’s Footwear.” Wikipedia. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 5: Otranto’s Cathedral. “Detail from The Life Tree.” • Slide 18. Matrix Fans 2007. “The Matrix: Joseph Campbell Monomyth.” YouTube. Web. 13. Nov. 2011. Timeless Myths: Arthur Legends. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 6: Stokes, Marianne. “Aucassin and Nicolette.” • Slide 20: Keeandra. “Pink Paint.” Flickr. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. Wikipedia. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. • Slide 21: Clarke, Brenda. “Key 2.” Flickr. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.• Slide 6:Van Rosen, Georg. “Odin,The Wanderer.” Wikipedia. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. • Slide 22: Kleon, Austin. “Mindmap of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth.” Flickr. 13 Nov. 2011.• Slide 6: Griset, Ernst. “Reynard the Fox.” Wikipedia. Web. • Slide 23: McLeod, Scott. “We Trust You with the 13 Nov. 2011. Children, but Not with the Internet.” Flickr. 12 Nov.• Slide 7: 20th Century Fox. “Wolverine.” X-Men. Web. 13 2010. Nov. 2011. • Slide 24: Kratochvil, Petr. “Young Woman Bored.”• Slide 7: Pixar. “Toy Story Wallpaper.” Toy Story. Web. 13 Web. 13 Nov. 2011. Nov. 2011. • Slide 25: Time. “What Makes You Eat More Food.” Time.• Slide 7: Warner Brothers. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Wallpaper.” Harry Potter and the Order of the Web. 13 Nov. 2011. Phoenix. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.