The Odyssey Beyond the Classroom: From Book to Stage

Mar 20, 2019 | All School, Fine Arts, Humanities, Middle School News

Guest post by Maggie Menkus

Read Part 1 of this story The Odyssey of Learning: A Student’s Perspective

Maggie Menkus

An odyssey is an “extended adventurous voyage” as well as an “intellectual or spiritual quest.”*

Grade 6 students had an adventure exploring The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem written by Homer, as they began an intellectual quest to understand this story through Sketchnotes, a Learning Exhibition, and a stage production!

This journey began with a partnership between MV Performing Arts Director, Brittany Schmutzler, and Maggie Menkus, Grade 6 Humanities teacher.  Brittany knew Maggie taught Greek Mythology in her classroom as a connection to Ancient Greece which is taught in the Pioneers course. She suggested the story of The Odyssey, a tale about the long journey of a man named Odysseus. Maggie knew this would be challenging as it is usually taught in Upper School or even college.  However, Maggie located a graphic novel that was age appropriate for her students so the journey began in the classroom.

Sketchnotes:  MV Performing Arts had a visiting artist from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, (name), to inform teachers about sketchnoting; a powerful way for students to take notes to improve information retention. Maggie attended the workshop, and saw a wonderful opportunity to teach this to her students while reading The Odyssey.  She discovered that this way of taking notes made the complicated story more accessible to the students, and they had a higher level of recall of the details from the story.

Learning Exhibition:  MV had an all-school Learning Exhibition on Friday, February 15.  Maggie’s classroom was transformed into the epic journey of The Odyssey, and students were able to tell the story to visiting guests using their sketchnotes.

The Play:  Brittany and Maggie collaborated on the stage production of The Odyssey, and the cast included Middle School students (Grades 5 through 8).

Students had the opportunity to see the play during the last week of instruction in the classroom, and they loved seeing this production!  Students were amazed at the transformation of their peers into Greek sailors and sea monsters. In addition, they were surprised at the differences between the book and the play:  “I thought the ending of the play had more depth and emotion compared to the graphic novel . . . it ends in a way where you’re free to imagine what happens next.” (quote: Lucille Kincaid, 6th Grade).

Maggie’s Reflections:

I learned that students can learn very complicated stories through the use of strategies that make the story more accessible.  The impact of using a graphic novel and Sketchnotes was amazing because the students understood The Odyssey in a way that had meaning to them.

I was surprised by the students’ reactions to the play.  They were not only surprised to see the transformation of their peers, but also to see how the story could be adapted to a stage production.  I think it really opened up their imaginations about storytelling.

I would have liked the cast of the play to be present during the Learning Exhibition.  I think that would have impressed the MV community. But, those students were engaged in other demonstrations that day.

I think the ‘big win’ was my own transformation as a teacher.  I was able to step from classroom instruction into the creative process of stage production, and it was empowering to make the translation of a story into a play.  I loved working with Brittany because she is a visionary teacher who can develop students’ skills and abilities with such a passion! She truly understands how to guide students in the acting process, thereby developing a deep pool of talent at Mount Vernon.  She is an amazing asset to our school, and I plan to make stronger connections to Performing Arts in future units of study as we embrace the Humanities approach in our curriculum.

As a teacher, I wanted the students to know this story because of the courage displayed by Odysseus in his efforts to overcome challenges in his life.  Students learned about the Hero Journey as explained by Joseph Campbell, and were able to apply this concept to their own lives.  It was a very powerful experience from the beginning to the end of the unit, and I think we all grew from this.  As Christina, Grade 6, said, “Thank you so much, Mrs. Menkus, for creating a beautiful show. I loved how everything almost came to life. You should do something like this again!”

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