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Lesson Plan: Retelling Myths

This lesson is designed for English classrooms, grades 9-12.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  1. Discuss what myths are and their importance.
  2. Watch video clips to identify how and why three modern-day writers reinterpret myths to reflect contemporary themes and points of view.
  3. Rewrite a myth in an updated, modern version, or from the point of view of another character in the story.
Estimated Time

One 45-minute class period

Materials Needed

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 Writes fictional, biographical, autobiographical, and observational narrative compositions.
Reading, Standard 6
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.

Level IV, Benchmark 8
Understands relationships between literature and its historical period, culture, and society.
Backgrounder for Teachers

For the series, Faith and Reason, Bill Moyers asked several writers about the importance of myths. Author Margaret Atwood says myths are the building blocks of literature and are more important than other kinds of stories because cultures build beliefs and activities around them. She adds that humans are symbol-making creatures and that we want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story.

Another writer, Jeanette Winterson, believes that myths fulfill an important human need:

"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."

Winterson also points out that myths are triggered by certain points in history or a common experience. She says that when there is an event, people want to write about it.

Many writers past and present have retold myths to express contemporary thinking or to add perspective. Author Anne Provoost, who retold the story of Noah and the ark (See Extension Ideas), notes "almost every culture has a mythological story of flood." Indeed, there are more than 150 flood myths around the world. (See Flood Myths for a list.)

All of 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 says, "[Myths] only remain relevant because people keep retelling them. If nobody ever told them again in any other way, their meaning would become obsolete."

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

For this lesson, it would be helpful (but isn't required) for students to be familiar with the story of Noah and the Ark from the BIBLE, Homer's THE ODYSSEY, and the Aeschylus play SEVEN AGAINST THEBES.

Teaching Strategy

1. Using information from the Backgrounder for Teachers section, discuss what myths are and their importance. Emphasize that many writers past and present have retold myths to express contemporary thinking or to add perspective. Explain that the class is going to prepare for a writing activity by watching three video clips that explore how and why some writers retell myths.

2. The first video clip (about four minutes long - see transcript for content) shows journalist Bill Moyers interviewing a writer named 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. Ask students to take notes on why Provoost chose to retell this story from the perspective of someone who didn't go on the ark. Following the clip, ask students how they think changing the point of view of the person telling the story affects the description of events.

3. In the second video clip (about four minutes long - see transcript for content), Moyers speaks with Margaret Atwood, whose book PENELOPIAD retells the story of THE ODYSSEY from the perspective of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. (You may wish to give a brief synopsis of THE ODYSSEY - see Related Resources - or have a student do so.) Ask students to note why Atwood believes the perspective of Penelope is so important. Following the clip, ask students what modern-day issues are reflected in Atwood's retelling of this myth.

4. In the third video clip (about three minutes long - see transcript for content), Moyers talks to Will Power, a pioneer in hip-hop theater who has taken the Aeschylus play, SEVEN AGAINST THEBES and reworked it into a modern interpretation called THE SEVEN. As students watch the clip, they should jot down what Power changed about the original myth, and what he preserved. Following the clip, discuss Power's approach to retelling the story.

5. Now that students have seen how modern-day writers retell myths to express contemporary thinking or to add perspective, have them rewrite a myth in an updated, modern version, or from the point of view of another character in the story. Students can choose to retell a story that has been previously studied in class, or they could choose a myth or story from the Web sites listed in the Related Resources section. Allow students time to get started in class and then complete the assignment for homework.

Assessment Recommendations

Students may be assessed through:

  • Class discussions.
  • The creative writing assignment to retell a myth from a defined point of view.
Extension Ideas

1. Spend time in class having students share their creative writing assignments. If students have modernized a myth, have them withhold the name of the myth and let the class guess which story it is.

2. Explore further the idea that writers reflect contemporary thinking in their retelling of myths. Read PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood, or this excerpt from the beginning of the chapter "Waiting" (pp. 81-85) 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?

3. Work with a history teacher to have students write journal entries in the personae of characters participating in an historical event.

4. Work with an art teacher to select a well-known painting and write a journal 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.
  • 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. Fairy tales are also good vehicles for playing with point of view. You can assign teams to re-tell fairy tales from alternative perspectives. 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.

8. 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 about their own lives using the writing style of one of these authors.

Related Resources

Books

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."

Journal Article

"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.

Web Sites

Sites that retell the story of THE ODYSSEY:

Myth Man's Homework Help Center
http://www.thanasis.com/ody01.htm
This site provides a brief synopsis plus details on various parts of the story.

MythWeb: THE ODYSSEY
http://www.mythweb.com/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:

Blogger.com
http://www.blogger.com/start
This easy to use site provides step-by-step instructions for starting a blog.

Boutell.com: How Do I Create a Blog?
http://www.boutell.com/newfaq/creating/cblog.html
This resource outlines several ways to start your own blog, including some more technologically sophisticated options.

Ask Bob Rankin: Create a Blog
http://www.askbobrankin.com/create_a_blog.html
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
http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~spok/grimmtmp/
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
http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=39259
Project Gutenberg provides plain text of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.

Source of Greek myths:

Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/search
Fund a number of Greek myth resources by searching under the subject of "mythology."

About the Authors

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.

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site, and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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