I had the opportunity to teach [excerpts of] The Odyssey to two separate classes this past school year, so I had plenty of opportunities to experiment with secondary sources and supplemental texts. One text I want to go right ahead and endorse is Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel of the epic poem. It can be difficult to teach from a text when you don’t have one-to-one copies for all students, so I could only scan the chapters we read and project them as we read along with the poem. It wasn’t ideal, but it often helps striving readers to have visuals (besides the 90’s movie we watched), and it’s just a more modern medium. I adore this adaptation!
As with the previous units, I focused on an overall idea or theme, this time being “heroes;” the texts and discussions included in the unit led students to question the traits and actions that typically lead to the title of “hero,” as well as challenge whether someone can still be a hero if s/he occasionally acts in ways that go against those traits/actions. Odysseus is a perfect character upon which to focus these questions, since he is generally considered one of literature’s great heroes, but also does a great many things that challenge that title.
My main goal in this unit was to present the students with materials and questions that would force them to practice looking at events and actions through various perspectives and determine whether that perspective change affects heroic status. As with all my units, I want this to make sense on a literary level (obviously), but I also want it to make sense in the everyday lives of my students. I want them to practice seeing things from various perspectives. I want them to understand how those perspectives lead people to have different opinions of who is heroic and who is not. We live in difficult times. The more we equip the future generations to be compassionate, understanding individuals, the better our chances of creating a society in which we all treat each others with kindness and respect, and one way to gain respect for others is by making the effort to see his/her perspective.
I challenged the students to begin by attempting to assume how the perspectives might have varied between the Greeks and the Trojans during the Trojan Horse episode, as a bit of background. To Greeks, it was a witty and brave action to infiltrate the walls and capture the city, thereby winning the war. To Trojans, though, the same actions look more like being tricked and massacred by an invading army. Similarly, students challenged Odysseus’ actions on the isle of the Cyclopes and his interactions with Polyphemus. Using a chart, students recorded the moments in which Odysseus acted civilized vs. when he acted savage, as well as when Polyphemus acted civilized vs. when he acted savage. The result was that both parties were clearly to blame for the death of Odysseus’ men and the delay in his return to Ithaca.
We continued the challenge on perspective by pairing modern works with the ancient poem. Margaret Atwood is a pioneer of feminist perspective and often writes accounts of historical stories from the point of view of a minor character. After completing Book 10 and discussing Odysseus’ account of his time spent with Circe, we read and excerpt of Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems,” in which we get an interpretation of Circe’s negative opinion on Odysseus’ year-long visit. Students spent time reflecting on how this perspective conflicted with Odysseus’ account and in what ways the change in perspective affected Odysseus’ status as a hero in this particular Book.
Our final perspective challenge was that of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. Since women’s points of view were rarely included in ancient texts, Atwood takes the liberty to give voice to the voiceless, daring to reveal that Penelope might not be as chill about Odysseus’ 20-year absence and multiple affairs as Odysseus would have us believe. Since The Penelopiad is a full-sized novel, I gave students a handout containing the intro (from a dead and pissed Penelope) and first chorus (from the maids Odysseus slaughtered for “befriending” the suitors), and were again given time to reflect on how these perspectives challenge Odysseus’ account and his status as a hero.
Unsurprisingly, these brilliant students picked right up on the fact that the point of view was pivotal to heroic status. Most students finished the unit with powerful and passionate opinions on Odysseus’ heroic status, opinions which they argued and defended in final persuasive essays. We ended the unit by re-addressing the status of “hero,” as well as by briefly analyzing two antiheroes (Sir Ballaster Blackheart from the graphic novel Nimona and Dr. Horrible from “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) who often act more heroically than the heroes they fight. Going forward, if I get the chance to teach The Odyssey again, I’d love to spend more time with each of these, really digging into why the heroes in these accounts fail to to actually be as heroic as the “villains,” as well as what that means and how it applies to real life.
I truly hope that I get to teach The Odyssey again. As old as it is, I have no doubt that this unit was the most interesting and the most relevant for my students. I’d love to hear what others have done to teach it, or just what anyone thinks might help make it more meaningful and fun for 9th graders!