Thursday, June 9, 2016

Teaching Homer's Odyssey

It is my favorite time of the year - my Humanities Seven students are currently completing a novel study on a version of The Odyssey.  Greek Mythology always gets the kids excited, and I absolutley love teaching it.  While there are a lot of different retellings of the epic tale, I am a big fan of the version by Robin Lister.  The writing itself is beautiful, not to mention the fun illustrations throughout the novel.  I find that she captures the essence of the story, and makes it accessible to middle school readers.  I have taught this novel for 10 plus years now, and it is always thoroughly enjoyed by my students. I highly recommend the novel for upper elementary and middle school students.

As a pre-reading activity to get the kids excited about the book, I usually show them some of the Odyssey themed artwork done by John Waterhouse.  He has some amazing pictures of characters and events from the epic.  I usually choose a few images and put them on the classroom screen, and have the kids try and predict what is going on in the picture.  It is a fun pre-reading activity, and helps to build anticipation.  If you are interested in checking out some of Waterhouse's work, click here.  My favorite image is his picture of Circe and the "animals" - haunting!

There are a lot of different characters and settings in The Odyssey, so before we dive into the story, we take some time learning about each of them.  With all of the different Greek names, it can be easy for students to get confused.  Because of this, I have the kids write down some notes on each of the characters and settings in the novel.

When they are done, I have them glue these pages into the front of their Odyssey Interactive Notebook, to refer back to whenever they get confused.  I have found that the kids get quite attached to their notebooks, and often spend extra time at home decorating the pages (which makes me happy!)   I find these pages really come in handy around quiz or test time, as the kids have something to refer back to and help them study.  

When discussing Greek Mythology, the idea of the "Epic Hero" often comes up in my English classroom.  Odysseus truly embodies the idea of the Greek Hero (even with his flaws), so it is a good time to discuss what it means to be a hero.  In order to ensure that we are all using common language when we discuss the concept of the Epic Hero, I like to go over the specific qualities that Epic Heroes possess.

Noble Birth: The hero is typically a King, Prince, Demigod, or someone of high rank within their culture.

Supernatural Abilities or Qualities: The hero possesses qualities of greatness, such as bravery, cunning, humility, or wisdom.

Vast Traveler: The hero's travels take him to exotic or supernatural locations, often to battle against evil.

Unmatched Warrior: The hero is a great warrior, in some capacity.

Cultural Legend: The hero is well known in his own culture, before going out on his quest.

Humility: A true hero completes heroic actions for their own sake.  Heroes that choose to boast are often punished and humbled.

Battle Supernatural Forces: The hero faces supernatural beings of some sort.

Once we have established a common framework to examine Epic Heroes more closely, I have the kids discuss in small groups some of the Epic Heroes they can think of from movies and TV.  Characters like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker are great examples.

After discussion, I have the kids come up with symbols to represent each of the Epic Hero qualities.  I find that creating a visual of the concept really helps the kids to remember the qualities.

When they are done, I have the kids glue them into their Interactive Notebooks.  While we read through the novel, I had the kids discuss and write about the different ways Odysseus showed these Epic Hero qualities.

This year marks my tenth year of teaching this novel, and I still don't get tired of hearing my students react to the Cyclops scene.  It is just the right amount of gruesome to really appeal to 7th graders! 

 Because engagement is naturally high with the scene, I take advantage of that and have the kids create a comic strip summary of what it going on.  The kids love creating their own comics, and I don't even seem to notice that they are practicing their summarizing skills.

Do you teach this novel with your upper elementary or middle school kids?  I would love to hear about some of the fun activities you do with it!!!  If you are interested in doing a similar unit, you can pick up a copy of all of the resources I used here, as well as a bunch of other fun activities (including my Odyssey High School Yearbook activity!) by visiting my teachers pay teachers store, or clicking on the image below.