Ten activities for teaching The Odyssey —add these pieces to your Odyssey unit!
Teaching The Odyssey can be fun, can be overwhelming, can be rewarding. When I sit and ponder what to teach with The Odyssey, I come up with several areas:
- Finding the standards I’ll meet using The Odyssey.
- Helping students with the dense language, amount of characters, and literary devices.
- Showing the bigger connections of The Odyssey to our world.
Below, I’ve included ten activities for teaching The Odyssey. No matter what your Odyssey unit looks like, you’ll be able to add some of these activities to your class.
Show Helpful Videos
Tons of helpful videos exist. Here are a few that I add to my Odyssey unit:
These videos are educational in nature. I have these and many more organized into an introductory presentation and guided notes for students. I’ve found when I front-load information, students understand this epic poem better than when I address components as students read.
Sprinkle Fun Videos
So many fun videos about The Odyssey exist that I separated them from the list above.
Troy Story (I spelled that right!)
Ok, these videos are fun, but yes, they are also educational. You and your students will grow in a deeper understanding of The Odyssey from these videos.
Students are probably reading an epic poem for the first time, and they can be overwhelmed. The videos will help students understand the poem, and the videos will help you to connect the poem to their lives. Plus, students will have fun.
Explore the Themes
No Odyssey unit is complete without studying the themes. Common concepts that students can develop themes and make judgements are:
- Double standards
- Cycles of violence
- Heroic characteristics
You’ll be able to meet standards with The Odyssey because the story has such deep development. How, for instance, is the motif of cruelty building the theme concerning cycles of violence? Was divine intervention necessary to end cycles of violence?
Several of my activities for teaching The Odyssey center on the standard that asks students to compare two mediums. I have taught the Robert Fagles, Emily Wilson, and Gareth Hinds versions.
The standard (for Common Core, it is standard RL.9-10.7) that asks students to compare different mediums works with the graphic novel version and another translation.
Students will need plenty of opportunities to review the characters.
Many students are familiar with mythological characters due to the popularity of the Percy Jackson series. Still, the names are new and often, the characters arrive quickly and only make a quick appearance. With character cards, students not only have images of the characters, but they also have room for taking notes.
Take “Odysseus” and the “beggar” for example. They’re the same person, but in one, Odysseus has a disguise. A motif in the story is disguises, and so students should understand the reason Athena disguises Odysseus. I’ve had students confused about Odysseus’s changes, and we’ve reviewed those scenes again.
Discover Literary Devices
So many literary devices interact and build this story. One ninth grade standard asks students to identify the theme’s development over the story, and pulling in the literary devices in will help students find the theme.
Here’s an example: The pun of “Nobody” in the scene with Polyphemus is a crowd pleaser. (My students, at least, always chuckle.) So, Odysseus makes a safe escape, totally fooled the cyclops. But. His hubris gets in the way, and he yells at Polyphemus that his real name is Odysseus.
The concepts get messy here, which actually is where learning can take place. Is hubris part of the epic hero? If so, is this interaction with Polyphemus building the theme of “heroic characteristics”—perhaps the idea that heroic characteristics change over time?
Again, discovering the theme is probably easy for students. Looking at its development with other components might be a challenge.
Cover the Hero’s Journey
Meeting the mentor? Athena.
Tests, allies, enemies? Lots and lots of folks.
Students enjoy learning the hero’s journey because they see the pattern in their own lives, in movies they watch, and in stories they read. I use the TED video to introduce the concept (listed above).
Years ago, a colleague of mine used the movie ET to teach the hero’s journey. Since most of my students have read The Hunger Games, that story helps them understand the hero’s journey. Then, they can connect it to The Odyssey.
Learn the History
Greek traditions and customs are interesting, and students will understand the story better if they have background information. Additionally, students need to understand the importance of hospitality and the gods to make sense of certain parts of the story.
Connect with Allusions
Songs and other stories reference The Odyssey. Use some of them to expand the topic to modern day: Why do artists still reference Odysseus’s story?
A few suggestions:
The Cave, Mumford and Sons
Song to the Siren, Tim Buckley
The Journey Home, Sarah Brightman
I’ve also shown students art that relates to the story. Artistic students appreciate the infusion of music and art into your Odyssey unit.
Evaluate the Hero
Crash Course Literature (the link is above) does a great job exploring the role of the epic hero. Odysseus is indeed an epic hero.
Modern day students don’t necessarily care for him, though. I always assure them that is fine—our standards and our expectations change over time.
But what does that mean for Western literature? If The Odyssey is a foundational reading of the past, has Odysseus shaped modern day heroes? Where do we see the themes of The Odyssey and the character development in our modern stories of today?
These questions make the best conversations, and they provide a meaningful way to close your Odyssey unit.
These ten activities for teaching The Odyssey should liven any unit you’ve created. If you need materials, you can click in my materials in the picture above.