The Odyssey is long and complex, and full of unfamiliar words and places. When I heard I had to teach it to my 9th graders, I groaned. I hadn’t enjoyed reading it in college, why was I going to enjoy teaching it now?
I learned several things in my own personal odyssey teaching this poem that I’d like to share with you now.
First of all, if you aren’t familiar with The Odyssey, start reading it! Look at your Teacher’s Edition and read the summaries or, if you must, get the Cliffs Notes. You need to know what is going on so you can explain it to your students.
In my very first year of teaching, I was so overwhelmed by grading and paperwork that I would have the students read aloud in class, so I had a chance to refresh my own memory. A story like The Odyssey comes with a lot of questions from students, and you need to be prepared to answer them. Pre-reading the epic poem will help immensely.
If your students haven’t had any mythology lessons, they need a crash course before they begin reading The Odyssey. At the very least they need to know why the Greeks and Trojans had a war, and who the various gods and goddesses involved are.
I accomplished this with a simple PowerPoint presentation of the important gods and goddesses and what their symbols were. I took the events of the Trojan War and presented them in a gossip style lecture that my students really enjoyed.
Another teacher on my team used clips from the movie Troy to explain the events to his students. The DVD version also has a “Meet the Characters” section that can be helpful.
Once your kids have the background information, things should go a little more smoothly as you begin to read The Odyssey
Organize Events & Characters with Timelines or Trading Cards
Work together with your students to make timelines of the story, either individually or on a posterboard.
Point out to students important events, like when Odysseus is imprisoned by Calypso, or when the ship lands on the island of the Lotus Eaters. This will help the students keep up with what is going on, and help everyone keep things in order and remember who is who.
If you have time, the students could make trading cards (on index cards or smaller) of the main characters and events. This could be an assignment, extra credit, or something they could eventually use on a test.
In 1997, NBC created a miniseries of The Odyssey that is actually quite good. Several sections are recreated from the poem and a few sections combine events from several sections.
To break up some of the reading, I would show my students the section of the film we had just read about. It was great to hear them exclaim, “Oh, this is where Odysseus does…” or “I never thought the Centaur would look like that!”
Kids today are so trained on TV and video that having that visual can really help some of them “get it” in a way that they won’t from reading alone. And surprisingly, my students really enjoyed the miniseries
Write & Act Out the Poem
For those kinesthetic learners in your classroom you can renact scenes from the poem. Have the students write it into their own words or, have them act out a scene without speaking and let the other students guess what section of the poem they are acting out.
I found with something like The Odyssey, which students may decide is the most boring thing they have ever read (or so they will tell you), activities that get them up and moving around are always a big hit.
Create a Travel Brochure
When students have become comfortable with some of the places and events that take place in Homer’s Odyssey, it is time to give them a project. A fun activity I used in my classroom was to make a travel brochure featuring some of the locations and characters Odysseus had encountered.
In my class of 9th graders, the travel brochure was the most popular of all the activities we worked on. It was a pretty simple concept. I gave the students all a few sheets of plain, white printer paper and taught them how to fold it into thirds, brochure style.
I created a handout with very specific brochure requirements, and a rubric. This way the students knew for sure what was required to achieve the grade they wanted. Some things I included were that the brochure needed to be in color, and feature artwork representing three of the characters Odysseus encountered.
I also made a list of the places Odysseus had visited in our reading, and let them know that five of those places were to be covered in the brochure (the students were creating a cruise-type vacation of Odysseus’s travels). Each location and creature required a trivia or test question about it on the back of the brochure.
The students were given the rubric up front so they could see that turning it in without color would be a deduction, and forgetting the trivia questions would drop them a letter grade. Because of the specific instructions and the rubric the majority of my students were able to turn in high level work without the normal problems.
It was an enjoyable project for both the students and the teacher!
Remember, be creative! There are lots of things you can do to really engage your students in The Odyssey and make it a memorable reading experience for them – and not just because they didn’t like it!