Archives For Adventure

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

Our 9th grade classes have been reading Robert Fitzgerald’s excellent translation of The Odyssey. At the beginning of every book, “young Dawn spreads her fingertips of rose to make heaven bright”. My students have heard this phrase so often that they chorus back to me “fingertips of rose” when we read aloud. One morning this past week, I raced up the hill to school to get my iPad so I could capture this picture of the “rosy fingers” and put it on the class wiki.

We dutifully started The Odyssey with the “Invocation to the Muse” and Books 1-4, but the Telemachus “coming of age” story did not really capture their interest. Meeting Odysseus in Book 5 did not improve their respect for the “worthy man of twists and turns.” Once we read Book 9,  the meeting with the Cyclops, Polyphemus, their interest was revived. Apparently, they enjoy a good story of man-eating monster as much as previous generations from 2020 years ago.

I have only been able to locate about a dozen copies of this translation in the secondary market, so we did have to buy a class set. These replaced a worn set of the Richmond Lattimore translation. There will be an audio version of the Fitzgerald translation available in November 2013 I will be ordering so I will finally be able to hear how to pronounce all those Greek names!.

Our final project for the Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Happily,  writing narratives are once again favored in curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

The inclusion of the narrative confirms what most writing teachers recognize, that writing a narrative gives a students a better appreciation for reading a narrative.

In writing The Wamogossey, we allow students to organize themselves as individual narrators or in groups of two or three. Our instructions to the students are based on the following premise:

You and your partners are to create a modern equivalent of The Odyssey. The setting is Wamogo High School; the hero a 9th grader – Fresheus or Freshiope.

Your character must make their way through a day at school, facing modern equivalents of the Lotus Eaters, Cyclops, Sirens, and all that Odysseus encountered. The goal is simply to get home alive, where the or she can relax and feel safe.You must mirror Odysseus’ adventures, including how he solves the problems (trickery, patience, skill, self-control, etc).  The essential nature of the obstacles must be the same, in the same order, but set in modern Wamogo.

Each student in a group working on The Wamogossey is required to write three adventures: a single narrator needs three (3) adventures; two people writing the Wamogossey need six (6) adventures; three members of the group need nine (9) adventures. This organization assures that there is an equal sharing of responsibilities regardless as to the size of the group. They compose the narrative on Google Docs; each narrator writing in a different color ink.

In addition, to assure fairness in grading, we allow students to have some feedback on the distribution of points. The project is assigned a base grade (EX: 40 points) Once the project is graded based, that number is multiplied by the number of students in group. For example a project worth 40 points may be awarded only 34 points. If there were three members of the group, then there are 34 X 3 points available, or a total of 102 points. The members of the group then determine a fair distribution of points; slackers are usually “outed” by members of their group. We rarely need to intervene.

The Wamogossey narratives must begin with an invocation to their muse. These are usually very personal and often reflect that we have a vocational agricultural program. For example, from this year’s submissions:

Sing in me, Brandon,
and help me tell the story of tractors, you, skilled in all ways of contending,
the fixing, harried for hours on end,
after the break downs and endless driving in the field.
I saw the end of the last row of corn
and learned that good crops come slowly
and weathered many bitter days
in the early morning cold, while I fought only
to save my life, to get home to the barn.
But not by will nor valor could I save all the gas I use,
Of these adventures, Brandon, tell about me in my school day, lift the great song again.
Begin when the alarm rang, calling me to adventure, when all I hungered for was for home, my  Farm All tractors, and being ready…

In addition to the modernized twists of Homer’s plot, each adventure needs an epithet (“grey-eyed goddess”) and one Homeric simile. My students call these similes “enough already; we get the point” similes.There is also extra credit for using vocabulary from The Odyssey.

So far, several of The Wamogossey entries parallel Odysseus’s adventure very nicely. One student’s encounter with “Eaganphemus” (the Cyclops/our principal) is clever:

Encounter with the Cyclops- Book 9
I was hurrying to class, I was going so fast, I felt like I was in a race car, and the people around me are in a fuzz.  All of a sudden, I saw the huge Eaganphemus standing in my way. I almost slammed into him, my wheels spinning so fast. I tried to get around him, but I couldn’t  But, I happened to have M&M’s in my pocket, so I threw them at him. He seemed overwhelmed! He tried to catch all of them at once!! Once he was trying to gobble them down I raced past, now that he was distracted. I somehow survived getting past him.

As the semester ends next week, the students will have finished their hero’s journey. Odysseus will return to Ithaka and to Penelope, and, yes, another “Dawn will spread her rosy fingers…”.  I may get to run up the hill again to snap another picture.

There is not enough non-fiction reading assigned in high schools. There are textbooks and fiction, which is mostly assigned by English Departments, but there is a dearth of good non-fiction texts offered to students. However, there is one safe text to assign, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods first published in 1998.

The book chronicles Bryson’s attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail (2181 miles) which runs from Georgia to Maine with a friend “Stephen Katz” (according to Wikipedia , a pseudonym for Matthew Angerer). The book is informative, easy to read, and incredibly funny.  Bryson’s ability to move fluidly between the history of the trail and the encounters he has with people and animals makes the book very accessible to all readers.  Students make connections from the book to a wide variety of topics: geography, ecology, psychology and animal science. More importantly, the book can be added to different English Department curriculum units of adventure or memoir or the American Transcendental Movements.

A favorite non-fiction text for high school students

In preparing for the hike, Bryson discusses all the possible dangers, none of which seem more frightening than bear attacks:

“Imagine, if you will,” he writes, “lying in the dark in a little tent nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and the chill night air listening to a 400-pound bear moving around your campsite. Imagine its quiet grunts and mysterious snufflings, the clatter of upended cookware, and sounds of moist gnawings, the pad of its feet and the the heaviness of its breath, the singing brush of its haunch along your tent side. Imagine the hot flood of adrenaline, that unwelcome tingle in the back of your arms, at the sudden rough bump of its snout against the foot of your tent, the alarming wide wobble of your frail shell as it roots through your backpack that you left casually propped by the entrance-with, you suddenly recall, a Snickers in the pouch. Bears adore Snickers.”

When Bryson’s friend Katz asks to join him on the trip, they agree to do a three day practice run, and Bryson happily realizes, “I would not have to do this on my own!” Katz flies in arriving at the airport carrying a 75-pound green army surplus bag; “Snickers,” he [Katz] explained, “lots and lots of Snickers.” Hilarious.

The book has had great success in the adult market, and there are always copies in the secondary market in one of three forms: hardcover, trade and mass-market paperbacks. I initially started collecting all three types in order to have enough copies for all students, but now I limit purchases to the trade copy which retails at Amazon for $9.59. We now have 54 copies which would cost $581.56 retail; our cost $55 dollars, a savings of $462.86.

I have also collected a dozen copies of Bryson’s other book, I’m a Stranger Here MyselfNotes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away published in 2000, which has the same humorous observations and interesting facts for students who might want to continue with this author. I only find the trade paperback copies in the used book market that are available retail at Amazon for $10.87. I have spent $12.00 instead of $130.44, but only one student has been tempted so far.

Bryson only covers about 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, reasoning that amount of hiking was sufficient for him to understand the enormity of his goal. In undertaking this journey he brings all readers to an new appreciation for our nation’s East Coast geography and ecology. Students do enjoy his writing style and his running commentary on current ecological challenges along the trail. And he is very, very funny.