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Gods and Monsters: Teaching High School Mythology

Meghan Mathis

Gods and Monsters

I loved reading Greek myths when I was younger.

When I first became a middle-school teacher, I was thrilled to learn that a brief Greek/Roman Mythology unit was part of my curriculum. My students loved learning about the different Gods and Goddesses, the crazy myths, and how people in the past explained things they didn’t understand. Years later, I found myself considering a mythology unit for high school students. I knew that I wanted to increase the level of complexity in my lessons, but I also wanted to make sure I didn’t lose the simple pleasure my younger students had experienced learning about the gods and goddesses and their tales. 

In the end, my unit included an introduction to the gods and goddesses and the most common myths in Greek mythology. While these were fairly simple lessons, they are also highly engaging and inclusive. Students of all ability levels were able to participate with ease, which increased student engagement with the material. It also allowed students without any background knowledge to bring to the lesson to catch up with their classmates who had been introduced to mythology at an earlier date (and allowed the latter students to refresh their memories). I also kept the typical, “Look for modern connections lesson,” that many mythology units contain. For many of the reasons listed above—accessibility, building background knowledge, and high interest level—my students enjoyed a somewhat relaxed introduction to Greek/Roman mythology. After all of my students had mastered the basics, I moved on to adding the complexity and the extended the thinking skills so essential for high-school-level instruction. Here are the three areas my unit focused on:

Allusions in Pop Culture

While this was similar to earlier lessons where I asked students to find references to mythology in everyday life, this time I asked students to consider not just overt references (like Nike, and Ajax), but allusions to mythology that we encounter today, but that many people do not recognize. We read the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and examined Suzanne Collins’ popular novel, The Hunger Games to see how the ancient tale (of a king sending seven young men and seven young women to their deaths in an inescapable Labyrinth and how a hero saved them) served as partial inspiration for this modern book and film. We studied the idea of the Hero’s Journey, and then examined modern films ranging from Jaws to Monsters Inc. to look at similarities. Not only did my students love seeing these pop-culture references in a new light, but I loved seeing them analyze, synthesize, and evaluate Greek/Roman mythology and their own modern experiences.

Comparative Mythology

Once we had taken time to see how a firm grasp of Greek/Roman mythology would continue to serve us well in modern times, I wanted my students to see that myths and legends were not the exclusive realm of the Greeks and Romans. We studied popular myths from a variety of different cultures; Norse, Native American, Celtic, Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian. I asked my students to compare and contrast different myths. We studied a variety of flood myths, analyzing the different perspectives from which they had been told and debating how these myths challenged what some of us believed to be stories unique to Christianity. We abstracted, looking for patterns between the myths—and discussed what those patterns could tell us about the human experience. I found that by giving my students the firm background in Greek/Roman mythology before we began these lessons continued to be an asset, as they were more easily able to make connections—not to mention the teachable moment that occurred as they learned that the myths and legends they had thought were unique to Greek and Roman mythology could actually be found in different cultures the world over.

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Modern Mythology

Finally, I ended the unit by asking my students to consider what people in the future would point to as the myths and legends of our time. We looked at tall tales and how Americans used them to explain the unknown. The students found urban legends and presented them to their classmates as modern cautionary tales. They began to understand that while the story of Arachne and Athena was a warning against excessive arrogance, our urban legends are warnings against going off alone, making poor choices in unfamiliar locations, and even teenage promiscuity. By the time I got to my culminating activity, where I asked my students to create their own myths, my students had the background knowledge, depth of understanding, and ability to synthesize everything they had learned to create myths that went well beyond simple explanations for why it rains or snows. Students created heroes’ journeys through the complicated world of high school, cautionary tales of not preparing for midterm exams, and explanations of unknown phenomenon, like why time goes slowly during a boring class but swiftly on the weekend. I know that I would not have seen that level of complexity, creativity, and comprehension if I had not searched for ways to add higher-order thinking skills into these lessons.

When I poll them at the end of the year, this unit always ends up being at the top of most of my students’ list of favorite units. I like to think that there are several reasons for this. First and foremost, mythology is fun. The stories are funny, exciting, and occasionally gross. The gods and goddesses are flawed and fabulous. There is a lot there with which to work. But I also like to think that by tapping in to those extended thinking skills, the students are able to see that the mythology is not just something fun from the past. They do more work than they realize searching through myths from a variety of cultures to find those connections that make us human. They think harder than they realize when they use those patterns to create myths of their own. And finally, I like to think that they walk away from the unit better equipped to view their world critically when they learn to be on the look-out for allusions to mythology in the music, books, television, and movies they’ll interact with for the rest of their lives.