“So, do you like Star Wars?”
Inevitably, that will be one of the first questions out of the mouth of a student entering my room for the first time. It’s not hard to tell. Star Wars items are mixed in among the dragons, origami Platonic solids, and duckies on my desk and shelves.
Discussing my love for Star Wars and other science fiction and fantasy books and movies is a fantastic way to break the ice, but it can be so much more than that. When you share a common fandom with your students, it is a transformative tool for teaching. I bring up characters and events in Star Wars, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and other high-interest tales frequently as I teach literary analysis to my elementary students.
Teaching the Hero’s Journey is a prime example of literary analysis enhanced by harnessing our shared fandom. I wasn’t exposed to Campbell’s thoughts until college. Why, then, do I use it in elementary school? Story elements cross cultures, building a bridge between the tales of today and those of our ancestors around the world. This is the globally-aware, critical thinking I want from my students. The Hero’s Journey is my entry point partly because I can use their passions, and mine, to ignite their curiosity.
Beginning the Journey
We begin the lesson with the similarities between Star Wars and Harry Potter. Using a simple description of A New Hope, I cross out each element and replace it with the corresponding piece from The Sorcerer’s Stone. At this point, students explode with accusations of cheating or defense of their beloved J.K. Rowling. Maybe it’s a cheap trick, but it certainly sets us up for an engaged discussion.
The document I use is all over the Internet, but you can find it here.
In my first few years teaching the structure, I tried to go through all the major and minor steps of the journey. What I found, though, was that it was just too much for an initial introduction for this age group. Then I discovered a simpler version, broken down into the 5 core steps, at the site The Hero Construction Company. The description and video shows examples from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Wizard of Oz. Honestly, though, what really sells the kids on the Hero’s Journey is the way I get excited about the connections to my favorite characters, especially when we share the same fandom. We extend the discussion with examples from The Lightning Thief.
Extending the Journey
Once students have the idea of the structure in place, they apply it as we read a novel with a strong Hero’s Journey aspect. I use either The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander or The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, depending on the level of the group. I ask students to journal as they read, identifying the parts of the Hero’s Journey in their book and making connections to the plots and characters of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or other tales. Each year I’m amazed at the depth of their thinking and the quality of the discussion that follows.
As we talk about each part of the Journey, we discuss what it reveals about what humanity. These stories speak to us for a reason. They have been the core of folklore and mythology for generations for a reason. Our discussions lead us deeper into the idea that humans are more alike than we are different. We need to believe that we are special, even if our lives are difficult. We need to find comrades to bring along on our journey. We gain confidence as we overcome obstacles. Connecting Bilbo’s or Taran’s life to that of Luke, Harry, or Percy is just the first step in each student’s journey of discovery. The next step is to connect to the lives of the real heroes that populate our world. Scientist, revolutionary, or eminent artist; they have all taken their own steps down the same path.
We’ve also used these tales to discuss other aspects of human nature, including what leads the villains down the path to the “dark side”. Our joint knowledge of Anakin Skywalker’s descent is helpful, and leads us to a deeper understanding of the consequences of a character’s actions. Really, though, my goal is to move my students beyond the “good guy” against “bad guy” mentality they exhibit as they discuss historical events, and to get them to stop and think about the motivations of each side in a conflict. I realize they are still young, but planting the seed now builds stronger critical reasoning skills later.
While I’ve always brought up alternate viewpoints in my reading groups, this was the first year where a student directly asked, “Does this structure fit for heroines also?” As I’ve become more involved online with social media like Twitter, I’ve connected with many women who critique literature and movies from a feminist perspective. With the explosion in popularity of books and films like The Hunger Games and Brave, it’s time to expand my knowledge base and move into this discussion with my students next year. I’m thankful to the writers at Fangirl Cantina who provide me with a valuable source of information about a heroine’s unique path.
I’ve always been proud of my fandom, but I’m even more thrilled that it is a powerful tool for instruction in my classroom.
Maria Selke teaches at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is in charge of enrichment units and advanced reading and math classes for gifted learners, as well as a voracious reader and viewer of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. You can follow along with her passions via Twitter: @mselke01.