BY: LIZ KEIPER

The bell rings. Freshmen begin to file into my room as they would any other day, expecting to start some Greek story called The Odyssey as I have hinted the previous day, but as they pass me at my door, they pause. Some of them smile, some of them comment, “Umm,” or, “Nice!” or, “What…?” but most of them just give me a strange look.

Must be because their English teacher is wearing a toga.

Since this is (unfortunately) a rare occurrence in their lives, upon entering the room, I do feel the need to explain my attire. I tell them that I’m wearing a toga because, “You have to wear a toga to go on a quest!”

“Wait… we’re actually going on a quest?” they ask.
“Yes!” I reply. “There will be obstacles and heroes and prizes to be won! Let’s go!” And I begin making my way to the Wellness Center, 30 squirrelly freshmen in tow.

Little do they know that they will learn so much, and dare I say, more than they expected to learn, about quests.

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image via http://dirtonyourhands.blogspot.com/

When we get to the large, enclosed gym-like space, I split the students up into groups. I have a set of three towels and a blindfold for each group on one end of the gym and a bed-sheet toga, piece-of-twine belt, and plastic laurel crown on the other end.

I explain that, working in teams, their quest is to start out at their “home,” which is the end of the gym where they currently are, and to travel to the far end of the gym where one of them will become a Greek hero. However, the floor is hot lava, and in order to avoid losing body parts and such, they must travel on the magic lava-resistant towels that I have conveniently provided for them. Also, because this is a quest fashioned after epic tales, we need some archetypes, so I’m throwing in a blind character for good measure (we previously brainstormed archetypes and how they surface in modern culture the day before), so one character is going to be blindfolded, but they can’t step on the lava either.

When the team reaches the other side on the towels, one character must don the toga and laurel crown, and after becoming a hero, like all good epic heroes, he or she must return to their home a changed person.
Oh, and the group to do so first gets CANDY. So, get your GAME FACES ON, kids. Ready, set, GO!

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Students work in teams to complete a quest.
*****
I leave about 15 minutes at the end of the period for us to journey back to the classroom, bestow lolly-pops on the winners, and talk about our quest. As I’m handing out the victors’ spoils, I give them a few questions that they need to answer about the activity that they just did.“Questions?” they ask. “But, we were just competing for candy! We didn’t learn anything from that!” Oh, young grasshoppers, young grasshoppers…
I pass out a paper to each student with the following questions:

  1. Evaluate your group’s teamwork. Did you work well together as a team or not? Give an example to prove this.
  2. Evaluate leadership on your team. Who seemed to take the lead? Was this person or were these people good leaders? How do you know?
  3. What do you think either made your team successful or unsuccessful?
  4. So… what was the take-away?? Sum up in a sentence something that you learned (relating to the above questions) through this activity.

Then we share their answers to number 4. Turns out that they were actually learning a whole lot about teamwork and their own role in the success or failure of a group, while during the activity, they thought that they were just competing for high fructose corn syrup on a stick.

And actually, that’s the entire point of a quest. The quester learns something along the way, usually about him or herself, which they did not expect to learn at the outset.

Here I must pause and give credit where credit is due. This concept of The Quest is heavily influenced by Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. If you have not read this book, drop whatever you are currently reading and read this because I promise that it will change the entire way that you think about symbolism and archetypes in literature and will add depth to your reading that will in turn impact your students.

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image via www.pinterest.com

Foster claims in How to Read Lit that there are five main elements of any quest story:

  1. A quester
  2. A place to go
  3. A stated reason to go there
  4. Challenges and trials along the way
  5. A real reason to go there (which involves a lesson to be learned, usually involving self-knowledge)

Really, all quest stories involve these elements. Take for example, the movie Finding Nemo, which in fact I analyze as an exemplar with my class…

  1. The quester is Marlin.
  2. The place to go is 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.
  3. The reason to go there is to find Nemo.
  4. Challenges and trials… Where do I begin? The sharks. The torpedoes. The jellyfish. The tank cleaner. DARLA.

When we get to number five, a conversation ensues about what Marlin learns about himself through this experience. My students have come to the conclusion that he learns to not be overprotective, he learns to value what matters, he learns about appropriate boundaries, or he finally finds closure for his wife’s death and learns to forgive himself. Pretty cool for a kids’ movie about a fish. But that’s because it’s not just about a fish—it’s a quest.

And these elements of the quest apply to most quest stories, from The Odyssey to The Canterbury Tales to the short film Home Sweet Home (which is also great to use to teach quests).

This activity has opened up doors for my students in terms of preparing their minds to be looking for teachable moments throughout the story of The Odyssey. Instead of it just being a cool story about a hero defeating monsters, witches, and whirlpools, it becomes a tale of leadership, friendship, fallibility, temptation, choices, loyalty, and the struggle of man against fate and the natural world. My students begin looking for what Odysseus is learning, or if he truly learns from his adventures, and more importantly, what they can learn from them… in other words, themes of the story.

At the end of the day, themes are what is important about literature anyway. I tell my students that the themes are the good stuff—if you’re not reading to learn something about life from a story, what’s the point? English class isn’t just about who did what in a story; it’s about what the author is trying to say about life through what the characters do.

So, if I can set the stage for my students to contemplate themes and big ideas throughout The Odyssey by giving them some lava-resistant towels, a plastic laurel crown, and some candy, it’s well worth it.

And of course, I get to wear a toga while I’m at it. Because Toga Tuesdays are the best.

WVCTE is wondering…
1)How do you engage students with themes in a text?
2)How would or could you adapt this idea to connect with a text that you teach?

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