Over the past five weeks, I had a teaching adventure that few have the chance to experience. The place? St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy. The task? Teach a semester of English in five weeks to a group of remedial students from grades 7-10, two three-hour-long classes a day. Throw in the fact that the boys live on the grounds and also have intensive military training and athletics each day, and you’ve got quite a unique situation.
My challenge was creating a curriculum that could cover a wide range of standard language arts skills, that would be accomplishable in five weeks, and that would engage a bunch of teenage boys who hate English and got kicked out or failed out of other institutions. From day one, we were told to design a project-based curriculum, since most of the students have a history of failure in the traditional lecture-test pattern of schooling.
I ended up being inspired by Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology and the journey of the hero. When I think about stories and ideals that motivate and interest young men, hero stories top the list. So I built everything around that core idea—the hero’s journey. We started out talking about literary structure and archetypes, looking for common threads in plots, theme, and character throughout history and across genres. Upon that, I built my literature lessons—helping students to (in many different ways) learn to look beyond the literal events of a story to uncover the reasons beneath the stories we know, read, and tell. We used Lowry’s The Giver and Steinbeck’s The Pearl as our primary written texts.
For the project, I had students design a world for a videogame or film, complete with detailed character descriptions for the seven classic archetypes, illustrations and diagrams, and a full original narrative that brings a hero through the twelve stages of the hero’s journey, what Joseph Campbell termed “monomyth.” The writing piece of the project allowed me to work in grammar lessons as well as mini-lectures on descriptive writing, varying sentence rhythms and (my favorite) show-don’t-tell. [P.s. Campbell’s work is absolutely fascinating, and reading it makes me wish that I was teaching a college class on mythology… It’s super-complex and very meaningful. I’m looking into buying “The Power of Myth,” a PBS special which features a lengthy interview between Campbell and Bill Moyers]
Many boys did great on their hero’s journey project, coming up with unique characters and really involved stories. They were witty, action-packed, and often hilarious. Considering how difficult these students could be to motivate, I was blown away when several of them turned in over fifteen pages of single-spaced type for the story portion of their project.
It was a crazy five weeks, especially as I’m unaccustomed to the environment of a military academy. It’s a whole different feel when students live on the grounds and see nothing but each other all day, every day. Clearly, discipline was strict. It was a surreal experience to demand ten push-ups for every minute late to class! It was also very fulfilling to have a class that was more like a family than anything else—small classes and long class periods gave us no other choice! Also, since the boys are separated from their parents, being a teacher at the academy means assuming a role of adult support and value-reinforcing as well.
I am so grateful that I had this opportunity to sharpen my teaching skills before fall, and to be part of a school that is truly a separate world from mainstream schooling. I’ll miss my boys, and hope that they will carry their newfound academic and leadership skills into the next school year.
Meanwhile, it’s time for me to start planning for fall! But before that, I think I’ll take a long-awaited week off. 🙂