Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist who mastered the study of great stories. He identified a pattern we see in most great stories called the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey starts with a hero, the protagonist or main character of a plot in which the story revolves. To sum the pattern up into the most simple of terms, Campbell says this hero starts in what is called the ordinary world. This could be considered the calm before the storm, where we get to know the hero and their setting before he or she hears the call to adventure. This is the point in a hero’s journey where their world is shaken up, and they have to decide whether they are going to do something about it or not. Often, the hero refuses the initial call, choosing to avoid danger and trials that can cause pain and fear. But in a great story, she eventually embarks into the unknown, seeking adventure.
Adventure is full of danger and surprise; tests and challenges that introduce the hero to parts of the world she has not seen before. In a great story, a hero rarely ends an adventure unscathed, but also returns to the ordinary world with new strengths to use in later adventures. Campbell calls this the Return With the Elixir. This is what makes the journey worth it. Almost every Disney or Pixar movie is about a hero taking this journey. Think about the Lion King, and what Simba learned after losing his father, running away from home, and eventually defeating his evil uncle to retake his throne and rightful place in the world. Would Simba be as great of a leader without first battling hyenas? Would the peace of Hakuna Matata entered his heart without first crossing a desert? The hero’s journey is about leaving what is comfortable for experiences that build and strengthen a character.
So often, school does everything it can to maintain the ordinary world, keeping the heroes from entering unknown spaces and potential failure. Students sit in rows to control order. Teachers call it a classroom management technique, when really it is mundane-management, a strategy to prevent the unexpected. The answers are in the backs of textbooks to prevent any surprises. We teach the same content every single year because then we know what’s coming.
There is a very wealthy school district in the county that I live that will not provide laptops or tablets to students because they are worried that new technology will distract from the learning that needs to take place. Not because of financial issues, but because the internet causes more variables than a textbook.
A hero cannot embark on their journey if they are locked in a room without a key. And a hero cannot obtain the Elixir, their new strength, knowledge, character, wisdom, skill, etc- if they do not leave the ordinary world.
So what can you do to set your students up for the hero’s journey?
Maybe try teaching with a project and give students authentic goals to strive for.
Invite in people from the community to partner with your students and create a solution for a specific problem.
I once had a class of freshmen who were reading Romeo and Juliet. Throughout our time in that unit, students summarized each act after they read and acted it out. Once they finished reading it, students turned their summaries into scripts and storyboards, and in groups created 90 second movies giving their depiction of Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the project, I popped some popcorn and we watched their films.
The students absolutely loved this project. In fact, I’ve never seen this level of engagement out of freshmen before. They took the content that they would have read and studied anyway in a traditional classroom, but interacted and had fun with it.
Some groups did “Romeo and Juliet: Zombies.” Others brought in their Barbie Dolls and created a stop-motion version of the play. Some acted the characters out on video games and recording their screens.
Their ideas were beyond what I ever could have imagined, and frankly this part of the project scared the heck out of me. The creative work was largely out of my control, and I did not know how the projects would turn out. There was no teacher-script for how to create these videos. My classroom was not big enough for all of the groups to stay in and film. I had to let them leave my room, and trust they were working when they are out of sight.
I had to trust the students and trust my process. One day while students were shooting their films, I received an email from an administrator asking why some of my students were climbing the bleachers in the gym when they were supposed to be in my class.
I responded, “Oh sorry, they are filming the balcony scene.”
This type of learning can be messy and feel a little chaotic. But it also has such a payoff. My students were pulled out of their ordinary world, and because of that they became smarter, more skilled, and more engaged because of it. They found the elixir.
And they also became intimately knowledgeable about Romeo and Juliet and reading 500 year-old British literature. The authenticity of the project fully engaged them in all aspects of the classroom. This type of learning takes scaffolding and some serious culture building, and can take some bumps and bruises to get to where it feels productive.
But the journey is worth it.
As teachers, we have to realize that students are characters who can become heroes, and we are helping write the story that lets them do that.