Even though I’m on week five of the new semester already, it seems like it just kicked off yesterday. I’ve had many new transitions during this period, including a brand new room arrangement, new class decor, and a new committment to both giving the best and expecting the best from my students. While it’s been a transition, including the gaining, losing, and rearranging of students in my classes, I feel like it’s been a really great first five weeks.
One of the most major changes curriculum-wise has been the shifting of theme in my senior literature class. While semester one was British Authors, semester two is entitled Contemporary Authors. I’m lucky enough to teach at a school where I have a considerable amount of curricular flexibility, as long as I’m giving quality teaching that addresses state standards, so I decided to design an introductory unit that was writing-heavy rather than literature focused. If you follow this blog, you know that teaching writing is my first love; however, that’s actually not the main reason behind this switch. The reason was Reader Burnout. To put it simply, my seniors were exhausted from reading old, British texts that took several run-throughs to make sense of. After back to back texts like Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and some John Donne thrown in for good measure, English can start to look and feel like a foreign language for the average adolescent reader. By the end of semester one, I still had them with me… but barely. I was fighting hard to keep interest alive, to take a metaphorical windshield wiper to those glazing eyes, but (fight as I may) I was not winning too many fans for the classical literature team.
As the new semester–Contemporary Literature–rolled around, I wondered, ‘Okay, these kids have dutifully read classics with me all year long. When do they get to read and write about things that they find interesting?’ After asking that question in my head, I found myself answering, “Tomorrow.”
I ended up revisiting a unit that I did last summer, about Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and transforming it for the senior level. As it happened, this was the ideal transitional move. Monomyth–a term coined by Campbell to describe the Hero’s Journey process of calling, struggle, and transformation–can be used to examine the form and characters that appear in texts across time, across cultures, and across genres. As we started talking about the structure, it gave the students a chance to showcase what they had learned in semester one, citing examples from classical texts we had already read. But the fun part was seeing the lightbulbs go on as they began to realize that similar plotlines and characters are featured in today’s books and films, relatively unchanged from their ancient roots. We had some phenomenal class discussion about the idea of the Collective Unconscious, and how humanity tends to share common nightmares, desires, and dreams. “There’s only one story, and we all know it by heart” became our motto to prove or disprove as we looked at varied examples from The Odyssey to Avatar.
Using that knowledge as a stepping stone, I set out to examine the most contemporary authors possible–my students. Over the course of the unit, my kids completed a rigorous creative writing assignment, which required them to implement the all stages of monomyth within an original plot, create a story setting and worldview, design archetypal characters, and showcase the effective writing skills that we had workshopped in class. And they worked hard. Even the slobbish slacker that always sits in back handed in a paper over ten pages long, smiling a goofy, proud smile as he handed it in (just one day late). Other kids created novellas that would have a freelancer with writer’s block simply salivating. Students that struggled to squeeze out ten sentences about The Exeter Book were now creating complex masterpieces. “Finally,” the class atmosphere seemed to say, “I get to make something cool on my own terms.”
Today’s high school students still need classical literature. The skills, cultural knowledge, and academic maturity gained by interpreting these texts are important, without a doubt. But let’s remember that reading and writing can be–and at times should be–purposefully new, exciting, and relatively free of prescriptive requirements. My first priority for my seniors is getting them college-ready. Still, a close second is getting them to understand that reading and writing are not only vital, but life-giving as well.
(Besides, even when creating something new, they can’t ever totally escape the incorporation of classical story structure. Little do they know, the same tools used by every canonical writer are already lurking in their young, unsuspecting brains. *Wink*)