March may be madness for basketball fans, but here in the English courts I am knee-deep in teaching the nuances of Homer and Hamlet and Caesar (oh, my). Freshmen get to sail the seas with the wandering Odysseus, while sophomores figure out if they would have followed Brutus or Antony after those stirring funeral speeches, and the seniors decide the course of tragic hero Hamlet. No matter how I teach it: lively YouTube clips, polished PowerPoints, thought-provoking pair share activities, or No Fear Shakespeare helps, something gets a little lost in translation.
For instance, working with freshmen is tricky. Most are on the cusp of maturity, and often senselessly slip into giggling fits of pubescent behavior at the mere mention of certain subjects. Especially when they drift into PG-13. I’ve always wondered how to best approach the subject of Odysseus’ habit of dallying with those goddesses. I mean, honestly, Penelope is keeping the home fires burning and keeping true to her man while raising their son, crushing the olives, and staving off lascivious suitors while Odysseus keeps company with the likes of Circe and Calypso. Willing prisoner, my foot. The guy couldn’t figure a way off the island for seven years? We read about him crying during the day facing the sea, his heart breaking for Ithaca and Penelope, and we stir up a little bit of compassion. At night?
A couple of years ago I asked my across-the-hall coworker how he explained the nighttime adventures of our lonely Greek epic hero. Scrabble. Excuse me? He told me he would explain to his ninth graders that during the day Odysseus pined for Penelope, but at night he couldn’t resist playing Scrabble with Calypso. Circe is another story.
So I borrowed the Scrabble euphemism and it worked well until two years ago. A big backfire ensued. A sweet girl who must have been preoccupied when I first began the lecture, brightened up when I mentioned Scrabble. Popping up from her head-down reverie she exclaimed, “Scrabble? I love Scrabble! I’d play Scrabble every night if possible.” Yup, pandemonium in the classroom. It took about ten minutes to quell the masses of giggling hysteria, plus I had to smooth over the collateral damage to my naive student of the moment.
You think I would have learned my lesson.
This year once again I’m teaching freshmen and once again we cruise up to Calypso and her night time activities. This year Yahtzee became the fill-in-the blank. Oh, did they run with that. I told them it didn’t qualify for an in-text citation reference in their unit essay. I know they will sneak it in anyway.
Homerian values of men just gotta be men and women staying true make for decent discussion in terms of how roles of heroes have changed over time and what values are esteemed in society. However, our current textbook has sliced and diced The Odyssey’s twenty-two books into a pale, anemic handful of adventures, and even those are abridged to anorexic shadows. Trying to make a cohesive unit out of hobbled material is definitely challenging. It all works out though–we read a bit then watch a bit of the 1997 movie (a remake, please?) and I explain and translate the dissected textbook offerings into everyday vernacular. Even though it sounds a little erratic, by the time my little freshies are done with their three weeks with Odysseus they have the foundations of epic heroness down so when they get to senior English and face Beowulf there is something to dredge up and refer to.
Truthfully, The Odyssey is not my most favored unit; I’m not much into mythology, the whole gods/goddesses messing around with humans is irritating, to say the least. Nevertheless, the unit is a curriculum requirement, which means I do my best to make it enjoyable for my students. They learn how to create a reader’s journal while duly noting epic hero characteristics and through the process discover how ancient literature can still transfer a thrill, but most of all they appreciate how it’s all about doing the right thing and that there is no place like home. You did know Dorothy is an epic hero, didn’t you?
Next stop: “The play’s the thing”– trying to get my seniors to groove on Hamlet