Lesson Plan: Point of View and Myth
This lesson is designed for English classrooms, grades 9-12.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Watch part of a video interview to learn more about an author.
- Take notes to help understand main ideas expressed in an interview and to develop a personal response.
- Understand that poets and writers often draw on earlier sources for their inspirations and models and that their interpretation usually reflects contemporary themes and points of view.
- Be able to explain how point of view influences a narrative.
- Write an original poem or piece of fiction that re-interprets a myth for a contemporary audience.
Four 45-minute class periods. Can be adapted to two-three longer periods.
- A copy of THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS BY A. WOLF by Jon Scieszka
Relevant National Language Arts Standards
Source: "Content Knowledge" (http://www.mcrel.org/compendium/browse.asp) by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)
Writing, Standard 1
Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Level IV, Benchmark 1
Prewriting: Uses a variety of prewriting strategies.
Level IV, Benchmark 2
Drafting and Revising: Uses a variety of strategies to draft and revise written work.
Level IV, Benchmark 3
Editing and Publishing: Uses a variety of strategies to edit and publish written work.
Level IV, Benchmark 8
Reading, Standard 6
Writes fictional, biographical, autobiographical, and observational narrative compositions.
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.
Level IV, Benchmark 1
Level IV, Benchmark 7
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary texts.
Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work.
Level IV, Benchmark 8
Backgrounder for Teachers
Understands relationships between literature and its historical period, culture, and society.
Bill Moyers asked a number of writers about the importance of myth. Margaret Atwood explains why myths are so important to writers today, and in the past:
They are the building blocks of literature. And the stories that we call myths aren't just any old stories. For instance, there's lots of other kinds of stories. There's jokes, and there's animal fables and things. And there's what happened to Bill when his tractor went into the pond.
But why do these myths resonate? As author Jeanette Winterson points out, that myths reflect a common experience: "The spur is always an anchor in history. That there is an event, even if you think of the creation myth. What it means is, people look around, and they think, 'Oh, we live in a world that's been created. Let's write a story about it."' There's always a reason there."
Those kind of anecdotal stories. Myths are usually more important to a culture. They are stories around which the culture revolves. And on which it builds all sorts of other beliefs and activities.
Indeed author Anne Provoost, who has written a retelling of the Noah's Ark story, (See Extension Ideas) notes that "almost every culture has a mythological story of flood." Indeed there are over 150 flood myths around the world. (See Flood Myths for a list.)
Atwood says that the desire for such stories is part of the human experience because we are "symbol-making" creatures. Humans, Atwood contends, always "want a beginning of the story. And we go as far ahead in the future as we can. We want an end to the story. And that's not going to be just us getting born and us dying. We want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story."
Author Jeanette Winterson says that myths also fulfill another function for people of all eras: "What the myths say, is that you have to be the hero of your own life. So, it's-- you're the one who has to take charge of who you are, you're the one who has to take control. And also, you're the one who can bring something to the community."
But all these authors suggest that myths need adapting in the retelling. Winterson says that "when a myth gets fixed, it becomes an idol. That's what idolatry really is. It's when you fix something, and you won't let it evolve, or change, or grow anymore." Margaret Atwood notes "[myths] only remain relevant because people keep retelling them. If nobody ever told them again in any other way, their meaning would become obsolete."
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939 and grew up in Northern Quebec. After studying at the University of Toronto and at Radcliffe and Harvard in the United States, she has made a career teaching and writing. Much of her work, such as the well-known dystopia THE HANDMAID'S TALE, would be considered science fiction; she prefers the term "speculative fiction." She has been influenced strongly by the work of critic Northrop Frye and psychologist Carl Jung; much of her writing has shared their interest in mythological themes. A poet and critic as well as a novelist, Atwood has been awarded the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award, for her fiction.
Part Three of the lesson is a writing exercise in which students create their own version of a myth. This section may be done as a traditional paper and pencil exercise. Alternately, since so many students today maintain Web pages or blogs of their own, they could submit their writing via a Web page or blog. Students may write a series of blog entries over a period of several days, or may comment online on each other's stories. If you assign students to teams that work on individual characters of the same myth, they may comment on each other's versions of the tale and thus reinforce the idea of point of view. For more information about setting up a classroom blog, see "Related Resources."
Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
It is assumed that students know the basic story of Homer's ODYSSEY, including the following characters and elements:
If students are not already familiar with the basic story of Odysseus' adventures and you do not have time to study a translation of Homer's epic in class, you can give them some background by one of the following methods:
- Helen of Troy
- Odysseus (Explain to students that he is the same figure that the Romans called Ulysses)
- The Trojan Horse
- The Laistrygonians
- The Sirens
- The Lotus Eaters
- Visiting the Underworld
- The Cyclops (Polyphemus)
- Scylla and Charybdis
- The Suitors
- Odysseus' homecoming
- Assign each of the topics above for research and then have the students tell about their research in the order listed above, so that the narrative fits together.
- Tell them the story yourself, using a picture book such as the DK Classics version of THE ODYSSEY.
- Show them a film version if time permits. The Hallmark version with Armand Assante is still another modern version, but it will at least help them understand the plot and something of Odysseus' character.
- Refer them to a Web site that retells the story, such as those listed in the Related Resources section.
Announce to the class that you are going to read them a new version of a story they probably know, the Three Little Pigs. Retell the original story with expression, to make the wolf seem exaggeratedly scary. Then read them THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS BY A. WOLF by Jon Scieszka. Explain that in this story, the author creates a persona, the Wolf, to tell the story for him. Discuss how changing the point of view in this story from the author (the first version) to the persona changes WHAT is told and HOW it is interpreted. This is what is meant in literature as point of view.
Part One: Persona, Point of View, and Authorial Perspective (two class periods)
1. Review with students the basic plot and characters of THE ODYSSEY to be sure that they understand the events and people listed above under Assumed Student Prior Knowledge. These characters and terms are frequently used as allusions in Western literature and are worth spending time on. Review with students ideas about the importance of retelling myths throughout time (see Backgrounder for Teachers).
2. Discuss: What kind of a man do you think Odysseus was? (Clever, resourceful, tricky, willing to lie to accomplish his goals.) What were his goals? (To return to his homeland, to re-unite with his wife and son, and to rule his kingdom again.)
3. Explain to students that many authors have taken this basic plot outline and reinterpreted it to suit themselves. One of them was Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of Great Britain during the height of the British Empire, who wrote a poem called "Ulysses." Remind students that Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus. Distribute Handout 1: Ulysses and give students time to read it through.
4. Read aloud the first five lines. How does Ulysses describe himself? ("Idle, bored") Penelope? ("An aged wife") His people? ("A savage race that does not even know him")
5. Continue reading the poem aloud, asking students to interpret as you go. What does it mean to "drink life to the lees"? (You will have to explain that the lees are the dregs at the bottom of a bottle of wine; to drink life to the lees is to experience whatever life offers, good or bad.) Ask them to examine some of the other metaphors the poet uses:
...all experience is an arch wherethro'
6. Conclude by asking students to compare Odysseus' goals in the last few lines of the poem with Odysseus' goals in Homer's Odyssey. Has he changed, or is it his point of view that has changed as he ages? Is he fundamentally the same person that Homer described? (Answers will vary.)
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move….
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought….
7. How does Tennyson's version reflect the historical fact that the British Empire stretched all around the world at the time he was writing?
8. Give students a formal definition of the literary term persona (a fictional character who tells a story in a first-person work of poetry or fiction. The persona colors a story by telling it from his or her own point of view, which may or may not be the same as the author's.) Discuss: How did the persona of Ulysses in the Tennyson poem differ from Homer's version of Odysseus? Do students think the persona of Ulysses and the sentiments of the author, Tennyson, overlapped? Why or why not?
9. Remind students that Odysseus in Homer was striving to get to Ithaca, while in Tennyson he could not wait to leave it. What was Ithaca like? Locate Ithaca on a map for students. Read aloud these sentences describing Ithaca from Margaret Atwood's novella PENELOPIAD:
[Odysseus} was not seriously considered...to be a serious candidate for my hand. His father's palace was on Ithaca, a goat-strewn rock; his clothes were rustic; he had the manners of a small-town big shot...(p. 31)
Ithaca was no paradise. It was often windy and rainy and cold. The nobles were a shabby lot compared with those I was used to, and the palace, although sufficient, was not what you would consider large... (p. 59)
10. Ask students: Why was Odysseus so eager to return to Ithaca, in spite of all the hardships he had to go through to get there?
11. Distribute Handout 2: Ithaka. Tell students that they are now going to look at a poem written in the early 20th century by a Greek poet who lived most of his life in Alexandria.
12. Explain that Cavafy wrote this poem in 1911, just before the Great War (World War I), at a time of great tension between European nations. How might this situation have affected his poem?
13. Have students read the poem silently and respond to it in their journals using the following questions. (Finish for homework.)
a. What main idea is Cavafy trying to express?
14. Why did Cavafy choose to tell the poem from his own perspective, as if he himself were giving advice, rather than from Odysseus' point of view?
b. How is his point of view distinct from Tennyson's?
c. Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?
d. What does he mean at the end when he says "these Ithakas"? Why is it plural?
e. What is your Ithaka?
Part Two: Penelope (one class period)
1. Introduce the idea that, just as writers used mythological people and places from ancient Greece to express ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries, today's writers are doing the same thing. One example is Margaret Atwood, who wrote a novella on THE ODYSSEY from the perspective of Penelope. Give students some background information on Atwood (see Backgrounder for Teachers). Then have them watch a video clip of Atwood describing her work during an interview with Bill Moyers. Ask students to use Handout 3 to take notes as they listen about the ideas that Moyers and Atwood are discussing.
2. Put students in pairs or small groups and allow them time to share ideas and complete their notes.
a. What has Atwood emphasized in her version of the story of Odysseus and Penelope?
b. What has she left out?
c. Why do you think she made these choices?
d. What current social issues are reflected in her choices?
4. Read the beginning of the chapter "Waiting" (pp. 81-85 of THE PENELOPIAD) to "...when you have few others." Ask students how Atwood's retelling of the events and editorial comments reflect the ideas and preoccupations of the 21st century. If they have studied THE ODYSSEY, which version do they prefer?
Part Three: It's Your Turn (one class period)
1. Review with students the concepts of persona and point of view.
2. Tell them that a log is a journal or diary. [Optional: Ask students if they know what a blog is. (an online diary, short for Web log or "weblog") Ask if any students maintain a blog or a Web page where they post their ideas.] Explain to students that they are now going to write a log [or blog] entry that will express the point of view of a character in THE ODYSSEY.
3. Distribute Handout 4, which is a preplanning sheet to help students think about the character they choose. Ask them to select a character (human or otherwise) from THE ODYSSEY and write a passage which describes an event with which the characteris familiar. Try to imagine what kind of a personality the character has and what interpretation of events he or she would hold. Work with your students to help them plan using the worksheet.
4. Assign an appropriate length to the log or blog entry depending on the age and ability of your students and the amount of time you have to dedicate to this project.
5. Follow through with your regular writing process of drafting, revising, editing, proofreading, etc.
6. If your students have created these stories as blogs, post their projects on blogger.com. If not, you can print up them up as a sequence of characters' letters to each other and post them in your classroom.
Students may be assessed through:
- Student journal responses.
- Class discussions.
- Student understanding of the video interview as reflected in Handout 3.
- The creative writing assignment to retell a myth from a defined point of view.
1. Bill Moyers has interviewed another contemporary novelist, Anne Provoost, whose novel IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK interprets the story of Noah from the point of view of a young woman who has fallen in love with one of Noah's sons and who is doomed to be left behind when the rains start to fall. To extend the lesson's discussion of persona and point of view, your class may wish to read all or part of Provoost's book, as well as watch a segment from her interview (or read the transcript.) with Bill Moyers where she explains her approach to writing the story. Discuss Provoost's theory of fiction writing: "I think every conflict, every story, becomes more interesting if you see it from the sides of the losers."
2. Work with a history teacher to have students write journal or blog entries in the personae of characters participating in an historical event.
3. Work with an art teacher to select a well-known painting and write a journal or blog entry from the point of view of a person shown in the painting. Some appropriate examples would be Renoir's The Boating Party, one of Degas' ballerinas, Ingres' portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, or Leonardo Da Vinci's Ginevra de Benci.
4. Study the short story by Edgar Allen Poe: "The Tell-Tale Heart." This classic story of murder and guilt is told by a protagonist who grows increasingly mad. Have students retell the story from the point of view of the old man or of the police.
5. Study a novel that plays with point of view, such as:
Louise Erdrich: YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER. The story of three generations of an American Indian family, with daughter, mother, and grandmother each providing new facts and new interpretations of what the others have told.
6. Fairy tales are also good vehicles for playing with point of view. You can assign teams to re-tell fairy tales from alternative perspectives, just as you did for the Odyssey. For some classroom examples of re-told fairy tales, visit a Re-told Fairy Tales blog (http://visitmyclass.com/blogs/burnett/archive/category/286.aspx) or read the novel WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST by Gregory Maguire.
William Faulkner: THE SOUND AND THE FURY. The story of a beautiful and tragic Mississippi woman, as told through the eyes of her disturbed brothers: one tale "told by an idiot," another by her suicidal brother, and a third by the brother who is outraged and heartless. A very challenging book for advanced readers.
Julia Alvarez: IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES. A fictionalized account of the lives of the four Mirabal sisters who resisted the rule of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The story is told in four different voices, each with a very distinct personality, cycling through episodes at different times of their lives.
John Gardner, GRENDEL. The story of the monster Grendel's epic battle with Beowulf, from the viewpoint of the monster himself.
Clemence McLaren, WAITING FOR ODYSSEUS: A NOVEL. Retells the story of Odysseus from the perspective of the women in his life: Penelope, Eurycleia, Circe, and the goddess Pallas Athena.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, THE MISTS OF AVALON. Learn the Arthurian legends from the perspectives of Arthur's sister Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay) and wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere).
7. Encourage students to also examine writing style when exploring the concept of point of view. For example, you could share excerpts from books with very distinctive styles, such as anything by Hemingway, Salinger's CATCHER IN THE RYE, Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN, or James Joyce's ULYSSES. After a discussion of what makes their styles unique, ask students to write a blog entry about their own lives using the writing style of one of these authors.
ORPHEUS AND COMPANY: CONTEMPORARY POEMS ON GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Edited by Deborah DeNicola
This book includes the work of well-known poets like John Ashbery, Louise Glück, and Muriel Rukeyser. It is organized by individual mythological figures that have inspired many modern poets, including 35 poems based on THE ODYSSEY.
WAITING FOR ODYSSEUS: A NOVEL
By Clemence McLaren
This book retells the story of Odysseus form the perspective of the women in his life: Penelope, Eurycleia, Circe, and the goddess Pallas Athena. According to the School Library Journal, "In her fine epilogue, McLaren discusses characters, themes, and symbols, and she explains some of the underlying questions that made her tell the story in a way that addresses the concerns and interests of modern readers."
"The Siren Song That Keeps Us Coming Back: Multicultural Resources for Teaching Classical Mythology"
By Elise Ann Earthman
English Journal. (High school edition). Urbana: Oct 1997.Vol.86, Issue 6; pg. 76.
This article provides an excellent bibliography of sources for classical themes in modern short stories and poetry.
Sites that retell the story of THE ODYSSEY:
Myth Man's Homework Help Center
This site provides a brief synopsis plus details on various parts of the story.
MythWeb: THE ODYSSEY
This resource provides a short and long version of THE ODYSSEY, as well as a detailed index with information on various elements of the story.
Sites to help create a blog:
This easy to use site provides step-by-step instructions for starting a blog.
Boutell.com: How Do I Create a Blog?
This resource outlines several ways to start your own blog, including some more technologically sophisticated options.
Ask Bob Rankin: Create a Blog
Bob Rankin lists some additional blogging opportunities, plus some useful warnings for students about what not to include in a blog.
Sources of fairy tales:
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Carnegie Melon University Web site provides an online book with 209 stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.
ANDERSEN'S FAIRY TALES by Hans Christian Andersen
Project Gutenberg provides plain text of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.
Source of Greek myths:
Fund a number of Greek myth resources by searching under the subject of "mythology."
About the Author
Eileen M. Mattingly has been teaching English and social studies since 1968. She currently serves as principal of Indian Creek Upper School in Crownsville, Maryland. She holds a B.S.F.S. degree in International Studies from Georgetown University and has received master's degrees from St. John's University and the Johns Hopkins University, as well as two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has developed curricular materials for NOW, FRONTLINE/World, the Peace Corps, and the Center for Learning. She is also senior editor for a multi-volume curriculum project for Journeys in Film.