Hero's Journey: A Yearlong Curriculum

We share the interdisciplinary experiences of 31 eighth graders in an ELA classroom who engaged in a series of interlocking research projects aimed at developing a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Joseph Campbell’s The
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  Voices from the Middle   ■  volume 26   ■  number 3   ■  march 2019 52 Hero’s Journey: A Yearlong Curriculum KARLA V.  KINGSLEY   ■   MARGO COLLIER   ■   REBECCA SÁNCHEZ   ■   YEN PHAM   ■   ALISSA SANCHEZ  I remember thinking in school how I would grow up and would protect my students from unpleasant impressions, from uncertainty, from scrappy learning.   Today only one thing seems important—to rouse the desire toward creative work, to make it a habit, and to teach how to overcome di   ffi culties that are insigni   fi cant in comparison with the goal to which you are striving. —Dicker-Brandeis, as cited in Wix, 2009, p. 152  If we want to do what is best for children, we give them materials and invite them to begin to work.   —Dicker-Brandeis, as cited in Wix, 2009, p. 154 I n this article, we share the interdisciplinary experiences of 31 eighth graders in an ELA classroom who engaged in a series of interlocking research projects aimed at developing a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Joseph Campbell’s T e Hero with a T ousand Faces  (1968) served as a framework for students to conduct multidisciplinary inquiries that linked academic learning to their out-of-school lives. Campbell’s book described a situation much like the one experienced by the students, who were preparing to graduate to high school at the end of the year: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (p. 30) Wormeli (2011) asks, “If high school success, navigating the larger world, and discovering the direction we want our lives to take all have roots in young adolescence, why would anyone leave the transition into this impressionable phase to chance?” (p. 48). Research indicates that middle grade experiences correlate strongly with high school graduation and postsecondary success (Andrews & Bishop, 2012). With these thoughts in mind, the Hero’s Journey curriculum was designed as an interdisciplinary framework for students to study the hero’s journey through literature, history, and the arts. Students mapped journeys of heroes, including the Holocaust artist-educator Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, then dra f ed potential pathways for their own hero’s journey. Although Dicker-Brandeis was not a well-known name to our students at the time, she emerged as a focal point in the Hero’s Journey project. T e Hero’s Journey curriculum described here is rooted in the Partnership for 21st Century Learning Framework (2015), which weaves together academic skills, subject-matter expertise, and multiliteracies to prepare students for work and life in today’s technologically oriented global economy. T e yearlong curriculum immersed students in interdisciplinary projects for which they were encouraged to ask questions such as, What have I learned? What di  ff  erence does this information make in the world? How has my past a  ff  ected my life today? Who am I becoming?    How do I relate to a larger world?   Using a rich array of compelling questions that were both student and teacher generated, students made meaning through a variety of modalities, including the arts, literature, poetry, writing, and storytelling. The Collaboration and the Curriculum T is project took place during the 2016–17 academic year in an eighth grade classroom with 31 students (7.5 percent of the school population) at a public K–8 Montessori school. In Montessori classrooms the teacher encourages independence and freedom within limits while providing support and guidance as needed. Students are seen as capable of formulating meaningful questions, conducting research, and synthesizing knowledge individually and collaboratively. In keeping with the Montessori philosophy, the eighth graders !"#$%&'() + ,-./ 0$ )(1 23)&"435 !"647&5 "8 9137(1%: "8 ;4'5&:(< =55 %&'(): %1:1%>1?<  53 Hero’s Journey    ■  kingsley, collier, sánchez, pham, sanchez CONNECTIONS FROM   read writethink The hero’s journey is an ancient story pattern that can be found in texts from thousands of years ago or in newly released Hollywood blockbusters. This interactive tool will provide students with background on the hero’s journey and give them a chance to explore several of the journey’s key elements. Students can use the tool to record examples from a hero’s  journey they have read or viewed or to plan out a hero’s journey of their own. Lisa Storm Fink formulated self-directed projects aimed at learning about themselves, the world, and their place in it.Student demographics at this Title I school included 52 percent girls, 42 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 45 percent White, 13 percent with special needs, and 3 percent English language learners. T e eighth grade teacher, in collaboration with a team of university faculty members, wove technology and aesthetic modalities into literature and social studies to rouse students’ curiosity and nurture their creative instincts. Four overarching curricular themes of the hero’s journey were presented in a spiral progression: self-exploration, high school exploration, career exploration, and world exploration. Self-Exploration: Finding the Hero Inside of Us Early in the school year students watched the srcinal Star Wars  (Kurtz & Lucas, 1977/1997) as an introduction to the hero’s journey. T rough open-ended compositions, poems, and artwork students grappled with the concept of what makes someone a hero. T ey re fl ected on someone they considered a hero, comparing and contrasting the hero’s rites of passage with their own lived experiences. T roughout the Hero’s Journey unit, students negotiated the role of protagonist and hero in their own lives—making decisions, experiencing setbacks, discovering, and creating opportunities on the path to becoming the person they aspired to be. T ey developed projects based on authentic, real-world questions that motivated them and sustained their interest. We were reminded of how relevant the hero’s  journey can be from one student’s re fl ection: T e hero’s journey is an outline of every story and adventure . . . If I was to write a story about this year in my life . . . the threshold of the known would be my 8th grade year up till this point in the year as internships, high schools and big trip to Poland gets closer. Some of the challenges may be staying on top of [homework] and being a role model for the whole school. What I hope the transformation would be is me gaining independence and leadership skills to be ready for high school. T e return would probably be entering high school and that would start the cycle again. T is student’s re fl ection shows an understanding of the cyclical nature of learning and growth as he prepares to transition to the next phase in his life. High School Exploration: Where Am I Headed? High school exploration was the second theme in the Hero’s Journey unit. Drawing on their own questions and interests, students explored high school options for the upcoming academic year. T ey found information about local high schools online, compared course o ff  erings and schedules, and used social media to locate registration and open house details for schools in the area. T ey completed applications for schools they were considering attending. T ree times during the year, students shared their progress with parents, allowing them to demonstrate agency, take ownership of their learning, and engage in self-advocacy by creating persuasive arguments for their parents to consider. T roughout the project, they built understanding across and among academic subjects as they problem solved and used 21st century skills to fi nd, synthesize, and evaluate information related to the work they were doing; to conduct research, exchange ideas, and articulate their fi ndings to authentic audiences; and to re fl ect on e ff  ective uses of multimedia for speci fi c purposes. T e project strengthened students’ inquiry skills in ways that stretched beyond the srcinal assignment (NCTE, 2013) using holistic, embedded assessments that were “ in forming for the teacher and trans forming for the student[s]” (Filkins, 2013, p. 49). Career Exploration: What Will I Do When I Get There? Delving into the third strand of their journey, students researched career paths and pondered questions such  Voices from the Middle   ■  volume 26   ■  number 3   ■  march 2019 54 as, What am I passionate about? What do I want to do when I get older? What jobs might I be good at? What should I do when I encounter problems?   A f er taking career-interest surveys, students investigated professions they were interested in. For their culminating activity, each student interned with a local business or organization for one week. In preparation, they wrote cover letters, dra f ed résumés, and participated in mock  job interviews. T ey anticipated potential obstacles to securing internships, then brainstormed hypothetical scenarios so they could engage in the search with con fi dence. T roughout the inquiry unit, students learned that risk and failure are essential for personal, professional, and academic growth. World Exploration: How Do I Relate to the Larger World? T e fi nal strand of the unit was world exploration. Students contextualized their learning within a larger global experience: a two-week trip to a partner Montessori school in Poland at the end of the school year. In preparation for their trip, students held fundraisers, studied literature, and problematized World War II, including the circumstances leading up to Poland’s involvement in the war, the srcins of concentration camps, and the harrowing events of the Holocaust. In re fl ecting on the young adult novel  Milkweed   (Spinelli, 2003), one student wrote: I’m not sure how I would feel if I heard that the trains were coming for deportation, it’s hard to even fathom what it was like in their situation if I heard that the trains were coming to take me to a far away safe village I would want to believe it but deep down I would know that the elder man was right. It wouldn’t make sense for the Jackboots to treat us nicely and take us to a nice safe village, when they would treat us horribly and would let Jews die of starvation and sickness [in the ghetto]. Why would they kill us and then have a sudden change of heart  . . .  it just makes no sense  . . .  but I would wish they were taking me away to a nice safe far away village. T is excerpt illustrates how one student interpreted and responded to what he was reading. In our view, he was engaged in far more than decoding text and extracting information from it; he was transacting with it (Rosenblatt, 1978), reading and writing responsively and responsibly. His writing conveys an empathic understanding and awareness of lives and happenings that, while distant from his own life, are universal to the human experience (Probst, 2001).University faculty members also facilitated workshops during which students created and bound a book for posing questions, taking notes, and re fl ecting in preparation for their trip to Poland (see Figure 1). One faculty member shared her research on the life and work of Holocaust artist and teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (Wix, 2009). Dicker-Brandeis taught art to children in the Terezín concentration camp north of Prague from 1942 until her death in 1944 via the gas chamber of Birkenau. For Dicker-Brandeis, an artistic stance and engagement in the creative process were the whole point of making art, not just learning to (re)produce the “correct” forms of aesthetic expression. Her pedagogical methods encouraged children to tap their own life experiences as creative inspiration for intellectual growth and emotional empowerment (Wix, 2010). Students made empathic connections to Poland and WWII through the processes of drawing, painting, collaging, and weaving in their journals during the bookmaking workshops. T ey used Friedl’s creative process to cra f  a tribute to her as a hero (see Figure 2). T ese artifacts became core components of their new  journals.When they traveled to Poland, students researched other heroes who resisted fascism during WWII and recorded their fi ndings in their journals (see Figure 3). T ey stayed in homes of host families and attended classes with Polish students who went to the Montessori school in Warsaw. T ey ate local food, toured Warsaw and Krakow, engaged in service learning projects, and visited a concentration camp. T ese experiences immersed students in the history, cultural traditions, landscapes, and contemporary life of the Polish people. T e journals were a space for students to draw together a pedagogical assemblage of sorts, a portfolio to express and communicate their learning in authentic ways (Figure 4). Journaling was a way for them to encode the abstract concepts of literacy, aesthetic thinking, and history into concrete experiences. Concluding Thoughts T is paper takes as its premise the concept of “the juicier thinking about literacy, collaboration, interactivity, and multimodality” (Alexander & Rhodes, 2014, p. 158) Students researched career paths and pondered questions such as, What am I passionate about? What do I want to do when I get older? What jobs might I be good at? What should I do when I encounter problems?  55 Hero’s Journey    ■  kingsley, collier, sánchez, pham, sanchez F 󰁩󰁧󰁵󰁲󰁥  1:  Creating journals F 󰁩󰁧󰁵󰁲󰁥  2:   T e creative process that can unfold when teachers and students engage in a  pedagogy of    multiliteracies— multiple ways of communicating and making meaning using text, audio, visual, and aesthetic modalities (New London Group, 1996). Within this paradigm, the Hero’s Journey curriculum o ff  ered opportunities for students to conduct inquiries that encouraged risk taking, inventive thinking, and creative expression. As they traversed multiple pathways between self, literature, history, art, and the larger world, students developed resilience and gained con fi dence in their ability to make meaning from their experiences. A f er their visit to Auschwitz, Alissa, the teacher, wrote this poem: Seeds of hope — planted, but  growth le  f   toanother. How will weever know if theseeds we plant —will ever becomea forest?  F 󰁩󰁧󰁵󰁲󰁥  3:  Recording findings F 󰁩󰁧󰁵󰁲󰁥  4:  Students journaling   Voices from the Middle   ■  volume 26   ■  number 3   ■  march 2019 56 Margo Collier is an associate professor in special education at the University of New Mexico, with a focus on collaboration, assessment, and the arts. Rebecca Sánchez is an associate professor of social studies education at the University of New Mexico, with research interests in art integration and bilingual education. Karla Kingsley is an associate professor of teacher education at the University of New Mexico, with research interests in multiliteracies, instructional technology, and teacher preparation. Yen Pham is an assistant professor of special education at the University of New Mexico, with research interest in social emotional learning for adolescents with disabilities. Alissa Sanchez is a licensed educator who has been in the middle school classroom for eight years. T e poem illustrates a teacher’s recognition that, while their yearlong journey was coming to a close, students’ individual voyages of self-discovery would continue. Student re fl ections written at the end of the school year included remarks such as, “I’m feeling great about graduating from middle school and being successful in high school,” and “I’m scared but I’m ready.” References Alexander, J., & Rhodes, J. (2014). On multimodality: New media in composition studies.  Urbana, IL: National Council for Teachers of English.Andrews, C., & Bishop, P. (2012). Middle grades transition programs around the globe. Middle School Journal, 44 , 8–14.Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces  (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Dicker-Brandeis, F. (2010). On children’s art. In L. Wix, Through a narrow window: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her Terezín students  (pp. 129–135). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.Filkins, D. (2013). Rethinking adolescent reading assessment: From accountability to care. English Journal, 103,  48–53.Kurtz, G. (Producer), & Lucas, G. (Director). (1977/1997). Star wars: Episode IV—A new hope [Motion picture] .  United States: Twentieth Century Fox.National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). (2013  ). Formative assessment that truly informs instruction . Retrieved from London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66 , 60–92.Partnership for 21st Century Learning. (2015). Framework for 21st century learning . Retrieved from http://  Probst, R. (2001). Adolescent literature and the teaching of literature. In J. E. Many (Ed.), Instructional practices for literacy teacher-educators: Examples and reflections from the teaching lives of literacy scholars. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishing Co.Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Spinelli, J. (2003). Milkweed  . New York, NY: Knopf Books.Wix, L. (2009). Aesthetic empathy in teaching art to children: The work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezín.  Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26 , 152–158.Wormeli, R. (2011). Movin’ up to the middle: The transition years. Educational Leadership, 68 , 48–53.
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