Every time I teach the Odyssey, I rediscover why I love this text. It is both a great story and a story about the art of storytelling. It is about what it means to be human. It is about coming home, physically and spiritually; and about transformation, literally and figuratively. It is the archetypal heroic quest — a journey story that helps us to understand ourselves as we read it and as we read modern stories that follow its pattern. I say something along these lines to my students before we plunge into the reading, and hope that these promises will be in some way fulfilled for them by the end of the unit.
A desire to engage a wide range of students in studying the Odyssey inspired me to create a project with elastic parameters — probably why The Odyssey in PowerPoint project is one part of my curriculum that I have not substantially changed over the years. In an effort to enrich my students’ reading of the Odyssey, I challenge them with an extensive 2-part project that includes a writing assignment and a visual assignment. The first involves researching and writing a biographical sketch about a mythological god or character in the Odyssey and supporting that sketch with examples from art as well as literature. The second involves using content from the sketch to create a PowerPoint presentation that others can use to learn about the chosen god/character.
The richness of the Odyssey, as well as its impact on art throughout history, has enabled me to craft a unit that serves a multitude of pedagogic purposes, including interpretive reading, research, writing, visual literacy, and vocal interpretation. Over the course of the project (approximately 8-10 classroom periods), each student will:
- Team up to present the prehistory of the Odyssey.
- Read and discuss “The House of Atreus," with its many parallels and linkages to the Odyssey.
- View and discuss a variety of artworks inspired by the Odyssey. This exercise helps students appreciate the wide influence of the Odyssey, beyond literature, throughout history, and across cultures. It also helps students develop interpretive skills they can apply to other works of literature and art.
- Interpretively read the Odyssey.
- Select a mythological god or character from the Odyssey to research and write a report about. This report will be a biographical sketch of the chosen god/character and must include artwork containing the god/character in a way that supports what the student is trying to communicate about the specific god/character.
- Combine content from the report with his/her own technological know-how, principles of visual literacy, and skill at vocal interpretation, to create an interactive PowerPoint presentation with the goal of providing others a way to learn about the specific god/character.
Text vs. Image
Perhaps because we live in a visual age, many students have trouble imagining the gods/characters and situations described in the Odyssey’s verses. While it can be argued that this is precisely why we should focus our efforts on text rendering, the thousands of images inspired by this text — images that exist the world over — are too wonderful to ignore. These images bring the stories to life; and by including such images in their projects, my students bring their study of the Odyssey to life. The Odyssey in PowerPoint project also raises students' awareness of the deep fascination humans have held for mythology through the ages, in no small part because of the essential truths they reveal about humankind. The hands-on audio/visual projects that students create serve to deepen their understanding.
A Note on Translations
In my ongoing search for a text of the Odyssey that would engage as many students as possible, I have experimented with prose translations (Rouse, Christ) and poetic translations (Fitzgerald, Lombardo). Because my struggling students in standard level classes had a very difficult time, even with excerpts from the Fitzgerald translation, I resorted to a simple version by Christ. The students had no problem reading it, but they were neither inspired nor challenged. The Rouse version told a better, more complex story than the Christ, but I knew by that time that I wanted to work with a poetic translation. I found the Lombardo translation to be just challenge enough for standard students. Its accessibility gives less engaged readers the opportunity to read a classic epic in a sophisticated style without getting completely lost or turned off. Though even with its extended similes highlighted in italics, many students really struggle to understand the comparisons. Still, Lombardo did not provide enough interpretive challenge for my more advanced students, so I returned to the Fitzgerald, where I began, because I find the language richer and the imagery stronger, and because it offers a fine introduction to interpretive reading for young high school students who are willing to grapple with the text. As well, the reading challenge and poetic elements offer discussion points on the focus question about when story becomes literature.
Students will be able to . . .
- Understand the nature of the oral tradition of story-telling
- Gain an appreciation of how ancient Greek culture is revealed through the story
- Learn to interpret story through iconography in art
- Gain close reading skills
- Connect the Odyssey quest archetypes to modern literature
- Demonstrate understanding of character and situation by intergrting oral, visual and audio components
- Have students team up to present background information on the Trojan War
- Have students read the story of “The House of Atreus"
- Retell the "House of Atreus" story to the class in the oral tradition
- Have students discuss how great artworks inform us (here, about events that precede the story of the Odyssey)
Prior to reading the Odyssey, I have students team up to present background information on the Trojan War. Then, I have students read the story of “The House of Atreus." I follow up by retelling this story. This serves the dual purpose of continuing the oral story-telling tradition as well as clarifying an extremely complicated tale. I confess I also retell the story because I love to and because it's an attention-grabber — students at this age are old enough to handle the shocking events and still young enough to be shocked; so, should there be any sleepers in class, they will always wake up when Pelops is served up on a platter to the gods by his father. But more than this, the characters in this darkly cursed family are alluded to so often in the Odyssey, it is worth the time spent on it: when students start reading the Odyssey, they are well prepared to see how Homer works with allusion in the narrative.
Additionally, the suffering of Orestes at the hands of the Erinyes, and his redemption through the mercy of the Eumenides at the close of the saga, introduce the concept of transformation — students will encounter this literally with Proteus in the Odyssey; and later, both literally and figuratively with Odysseus. Though such complicated ideas may run over the heads of some students, the story holds its own even if students do not entirely follow this line of thought in all regards. This also provides an opportunity to discuss such relevant terms as nostos (homecoming) and aidos (a complicated relative of compassion), and cover a bit of ground on Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), her daughters the Muses, Themis and Dike (divine and worldly justice), and Nemesis (righteous anger), since these personified concepts come up in the reading.
Next, I introduce the text of the Odyssey with a slide show. The slide show includes an assortment of great artworks that sum up the events that precede the story, such as the wedding of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis; the sacrifice of Iphigenia; and the various murders in the household of Agamemnon. Throughout the presentation, I point out features and themes that students will encounter in reading the Odyssey. In particular, we take a close look at a Rubens painting of the Judgment of Paris, where I introduce the concept of visual interpretation. I focus attention on gesture and symbol as ways to understand what is going on in the painting. We identify the figure of Paris (son of Priam, king of Troy) offering an apple to Aphrodite. We note how this action seems to infuriate Athena (identified by her aegis and her owl) and Hera (with her attendant peacock who spits at Paris’s impassive dog). We identify the presence of Hermes (the Messanger) by the winged helmet and wand. We recognize the frightening image of the Fury Alecto in the sky. Based on these gestures and symbols, we can infer the story being told in the painting: that Paris' actions toward Aphrodite threaten war (in fact, the painting foreshadows the Trojan War). This is a very useful exercise, since students will have to provide similar interpretive explanations of artworks in their own PowerPoint presentations.
- Have students read the Odyssey
- Have students interpret and discuss the story
- Have each student choose a mythological god or character from the Odyssey and write a biographical sketch in which the student combines his/her knowledge of the Odyssey with an exploration of the god/character who figures in the epic.
Once launched into the text, the readings and class sessions are carried out conventionally. By the time we get to Book 12, I assign the paper and the PowerPoint project. I provide a list of gods/characters in the Odyssey. Students list their top three choices and submit them to me. To avoid overlap and conflicts, I make the final assignments of gods/characters to students.
Research and Writing
- Have students do research (2 classroom periods):
Have students conduct research on their chosen gods/characters, the objective being to find and accumulate information about their gods/characters so that they can write informed biographies of these gods/characters. In addition to using the Internet, students must include research using books (at least 3). In addition to textual references, students must find artworks in which their gods/characters appear. I stress the need for lots of art with lots of variety — different media, different artists, a wide range of historic periods (ancient to modern) — so students will get a sense of the influence of the Odyssey beyond literature. Students must document all sources for any text and art that they want to use — they will need this specific, detailed information for their bibliographies and/or for future reference.
- Have each student organize his/her research into a written report that includes the following:
- A decorative cover that has both the Greek and Roman name of the chosen god/character along with any associated epithet.
- An original essay on how the god/character is featured in the Odyssey. The essay should include a section on the god/character’s role in the Odyssey, including the direct or indirect relationship to Odysseus. For example, take the character Artemis. In Book 6, Odysseus compares Nausikaa to Artemis. Penelope is also compared to Artemis a few times in the text. Therefore, students might want to consider questions like: What is it about Artemis, and what is it about Nausikaa and Penelope, that prompts the storyteller to make these particular comparisons?
- A biography of the god/character based on information from sources outside of the Odyssey (birth, stories, symbols, etc.)
- A 20+/- line quotation of a passage from Odyssey that features the god/character, reproduced line for line, accompanied by 1) the identity of the book, lines, and translation; and 2) an original interpretation of the passage, explaining what is going on in the passage and why the god/character is important there.
- On a separate page — with the quoted passage appearing at the top — a list of observations about the language: extended similes, vivid imagery, digression, epithets, relationship with Odysseus, etc.
- An extensive and precise (see documentation section in Orange book) annotated bibliography, that includes a minimum of at least 3 books (The Odyssey, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and another) in addition to electronic resources, and that has separate sections for image research and text research.
- Have each student prepare and give an oral presentation — a dramatic reading — of his/her quoted passage.
Once I have assigned the gods/characters, each student must research and write a biographical sketch of the chosen god/character. Each student must base his/her sketch not only on the god/character's appearance in the Odyssey but in stories outside the Odyssey, stories each student needs to discover through research. The paper must include a passage from the Odyssey that features the chosen god/character; and the student's explanation of the passage establishing both its context and the relationship of the god/character to Odysseus.
Research needs to include a variety of sources — books, not just electronic sources — in order to offset the ease, and potential inaccuracies, of doing research on the Internet. Using a variety of sources will also be helpful to the student in getting a well-rounded sense of his/her god/character and in accurately identifying the "voice" of the god/character — a complete understanding of the voice of the god/character will be particularly important when it comes to an interpretive reading of the passage from the Odyssey.
Not surprisingly, the best resources for solid in-depth information on the gods and heroes are often older books from the library. But I have been surprised to see how lost kids can be in front of a shelf full of books — apparently, they are so used to Internet searches, that browsing the books without a key word search becomes daunting. On the other hand, for an extensive variety of good, color representations of gods and heroes, the Internet is most obliging. Students can download images or scan them from high quality art books and save them for use in the slide show.
The PowerPoint Presentation
- Have students discuss the goals and requirements of a PowerPoint presentation — in this case, a teaching tool about a god/character from the Odyssey that needs to educate, have visual appeal, be logically organized, and show creativity and imagination.
- Have students discuss visual literacy — here, graphic design in addition to art interpretation — and how it applies to designing a PowerPoint presentation
- Have students discuss vocal interpretation and how best to dramatize the reading. Students then create recordings of their chosen passages from the Odyssey striving to portray their gods/characters in vocal terms; and incorporate their recordings into their PowerPoint presentations.
- Have each student design and produce a PowerPoint presentation (6-8 classroom periods) that includes the following:
- 10-30 slides that tell the story of the student's chosen god/character and the god/character's role in the Odyssey.
Each student should use his/her written report as the basis for the content of the presentation. He/she must show an understanding of good visual design by distilling the text to what is most effective in a PowerPoint presentation. He/she should present the biography of his/her god/character in excerpts, spreading it out across as many slides as he/she thinks appropriate, and using as many different pieces of art as he/she thinks appropriate, for a thoughtful design.
- The title slide must have both the Greek and Roman name of the god/character along with any associated epithet.
- All slides should be illustrated.
Each student should incorporate fine art images in all slides. The artwork used should be as varied as possible. There should be at least six illustrations of the god/character as portrayed in paintings, sculpture, friezes, vase painting, or other fine art medium. There should be a wide range of media, artists, and historical periods. All art used should be identified: title of artwork (painting or other media), artist, dates artist lived or art was produced, and museum the artwork can be found in. Captions should be included for all images, providing in-depth explanations of the artwork itself and the story told in the artwork: What is going on in the picture? What tells you that? Who is the painter/artist? What is the medium? Period? Source?
- An explanation of at least three of the visual images using extended captions with voice-over recordings.
Extended captions should include: the title of the artwork; the student's interpretation of the artwork, including his/her comments on the action, features, colors, mood, facial expression and body language of characters, symbols, etc. (note: students do not necessarily have to include all of these "clues" about how to look at an artist’s intent in painting or creating the artwork); a recording of the student's own voice reading the extended captions; and a way for users to play the recordings if they aren't automatically played by the PowerPoint.
- 6-12 lines from the passage (that the student included in his/her written report) in the Odyssey that features the god/character.
Each student should type the passage line for line and properly credit the book, lines, and translation. There should be an explanation of the passage, considering such questions as: Who is speaking to whom? Bard to listeners/readers? God to mortal? Mortal to mortal? What is the context? What does the passage say and how is it said? Each student should identify the mood and tone of the speaker; record himself/herself reading the passage dramatically and striving for the best interpretation of the mood and tone of the passage; and incorporate the recording into the PowerPoint.
Note: it is often very hard to find all of the identifying information. Students should do the best they can. If a student uses images from picture books, he/she should be sure to cite both the book information and the name of the illustrator. While book sources usually provide information about the art, Internet sources often lack that information. Again, students should do the best they can. At the least, they should give URLs (specific web addresses).
- Students may include background music and transition sounds if they like.
If a student wishes, he/she can incorporate music into the presentation. Students should choose music that fits their subject matter and use it appropriately and judiciously, for example as a background for a recorded voice reading a written section and/or as a transition from one slide to the next.
- A final bibliography slide should document all texts and all artwork used.
Students should provide annotated bibliographies with separate sections for text and image resources. Bibliographies should include all books and electronic sources. Documentation should be in the correct format (refer to the Newton North Writing Handbook). The Odyssey must be one of the sources listed. Each student should include his/her own paper as a resource.
- An overall demonstration of good "visual literacy" in the design of the presentation.
- Students should proofread their work carefully! By putting text into PowerPoint, students are in effect publishing the work. In fact, some of these projects — maybe yours! — could end up on a website. So, students should make it their best work.
- Have students test and evaluate the projects (click here for the Peer Evaluation Sheet).
Learning Objectives By designing a PowerPoint presentation, each student is really designing a multimedia teaching tool, much like an interactive museum display. Students create these presentations with the goal of teaching others about the gods/characters they've chosen from the Odyssey. In creating the PowerPoint presentation, each student is required to create a graphic interpretation of his/her god/character and a vocal interpretation of a passage related to that god/character. The graphic interpretation element challenges students to get to know their gods/characters well enough to be able to recognize the traits and symbols of their subjects in works of art and to be able to interpret the stories depicted. By encouraging students to select a variety of works to illustrate their projects, students often discover — as they apply their newly learned interpretive skills — that there is more than one interpretation: different artists, in different time periods, often had different interpretations of the same gods/characters and stories. The vocal interpretation element challenges each student to consider what voice, tone, mood, and rhythm is appropriate to the passage; and further challenges him/her to use vocal inflection to successfully reflect those qualities when it's time to record him/her reading. In the end, students will get a chance to try all the projects and judge for themselves which presentations most closely meet these learning objectives.
Visual Objectives As well as interpreting art, students must present information artistically. Students are encouraged to think of their audience as they design their projects: What information should you distill from your written report to make an effective multimedia piece? How can you draw your audience in? How can the design aid in presenting the material in an optimal way? What should someone who doesn’t know your topic learn? What is interesting? What is important in terms of the connection between your god/character and Odysseus? Each student gets to be the teacher, the designer, the director, the producer, the graphic artist, the editor — many roles that (hopefully) result in an engaging, entertaining, information-packed product. Again, in the end, students will get a chance to try all the projects and judge for themselves which presentations most closely meet these visual objectives.
Visual Literacy 1: Art Interpretation Creating the PowerPoint presentation is where the project comes alive visually and where students begin to apply their newfound expertise in art interpretation. To accurately interpret what is being depicted, students must know their gods/characters well enough to recognize the traits and symbols of their subjects in works of art. I explain that this is a kind of “visual literacy,” where I am asking them to interpret the artwork in much the same way I ask them to do close reading of poetry or narrative. They learn to look closely at gesture and expression. Moreover, by searching out a variety of works to illustrate their projects, they are likely to see how different artists, in different historical periods, have interpreted the same mythological gods/characters and events from different points of view. In the abduction of Helen, for instance, a Greek vase shows her running away. In another work of art, the painter Reni portrays her ambiguously — perhaps victim, perhaps not. While a David painting shows her as Paris’s willing paramour.
Visual Literacy 2: Graphic Design The second kind of "visual literacy," I explain to students, concerns the graphic display of information. I encourage students to think carefully about how they can most effectively communicate with their audience: How does the organization of font sizes, color, and placement of elements bring the reader into the presentation? What is an appropriate amount of text for each slide? How can the relationship of visual elements and “background space” affect the viewer’s understanding? How can transition sounds and background music be used to evoke character, setting, or events? When is sound and music distracting?
Vocal Interpretation Each student must select 6-12 lines from the passage he/she included in the written report — the passage highlighting the god/character’s role in the Odyssey — to read and record. The reading should appropriately dramatize the situation and mood of the god/character the student has now come to know so well. Each student should consider what voice, tone, mood, and rhythm are appropriate to the passage, and then reflect those elements in his/her vocal inflection as the recording is made.
Textual Content While the written report serves as the basis for the text in the PowerPoint presentation, students will still need to distill — edit the text down, simplify, make it concise — this information in order to make it suitable for a PowerPoint presentation.
Visual Content To make optimal use of the visual capability of the PowerPoint format, students are required to illustrate each slide, using the images they collect during research. Variety is important, both informationally and aesthetically. Students are encouraged to find representations of their gods/characters in paintings and three-dimensional art from all periods, ancient to modern (ancient, medieval, baroque, renaissance, romantic and modern periods). Using fine art helps students appreciate the staying power and influence of the Odyssey in western culture. It also gives them an opportunity to understand and practice “visual literacy” — students are required to interpret the artwork in much the same way as they are asked to do a close reading of text. They have to know their gods/characters well enough to recognize the traits and symbols of their subjects in works of art and be able to make an educated guess at the story depicted. Requiring students to write extended captions challenges their ability to interpret the gestures, relationships, and actions that are clues to the stories.
Peer Evaluation I have students evaluate one another's projects using the Peer Evaluation Sheet (click here for the Peer Evaluation Sheet).
Beyond Text The PowerPoint project reveals hidden talents and unexpected levels of engagement. One of the rewarding results of this project is discovering talents that wouldn’t surface in a text-only response. The multimedia approach always reveals expressive and interpretive talents of students who are not necessarily shining stars of written work. The project-based approach allows for a broader base of skills and talents and values visual and auditory creativity, as well as playful responses. It is hard for a student not to be fully engaged in the process. Some get very involved in the technical tricks of PowerPoint. Others enjoy closely examining art. Some get involved in finding the right music; others, in aesthetic design considerations. There are always surprises, and sometimes I am bowled over by results.
(Links shown in red)
You need PowerPoint or PowerPoint Viewer installed on your computer in order to view the examples list below. If you don't have either one installed on your computer, you can get PowerPoint Viewer for FREE from Microsoft's website, just click Windows or Mac here and follow the Microsoft instructions. Once you've downloaded and installed the Viewer, click the link for the PowerPoint example you want to view (below) to download the .pps file to your computer, and use PowerPoint Viewer to view the presentation.
- Orestes: Vengeful Son by John Q. (Click here to download and view.)
This presentation demonstrates a high level of engagement with all elements of the assignment (design, vocal interpretation, and extensive captions and has a playful finale). The presentation has extensive interpretive caption, recorded, (note blood motif in Agamemnon) and connection to Adam and Eve. Also good documentation.
- Clytemnestra and Agamemnon: Dangerous Liaison at Mycenae by Yao W. (Click here to download and view.)
Good design, dramatic impact, effective use of bullets, appropriate amount of text on each slide, good organization.
- Circe, Calypso & Ino: Scheming Enchantress, Concealer of Men & Flashing Gull by Michelle K. (Click here to download and view.)
- Achilles: The Mightiest of the Acheans by Clemente. (Click here to download and view.)
- Polyphemus, Scylla and Charybdis by Rachel M. (Click here to download and view.)
Students are assessed on their ability to . . .
Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks Addressed
- The Odyssey, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald translation, Vintage Classics, New York, 1963.
- Mythology, Edith Hamilton, Little, Brown, Boston, 1969.
- Myths of Greece and Rome, Thomas Bulfinch, Compiled by Bryan Holme With Introduction by Joseph Campbell, Penguin, 1979.
- Art and Myth in Ancient Greece, T.H. Carpenter, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1991.
- The Archaeological Museum of Delphi, Marilena Carabatea, Adam Editions, Athens, Greece.
- Greek Mythology, Gods and Heroes • Iliad • Odyssey, Marilena Carabatea, Adam Editions, Athens, 1997.
- Ancient Greece, the famous monuments past and present, "Muses," Athens, 1997.
- Tourist Map, Mycenae
- Ancient Corinth, Brief Illustrated Archaeological Guide, Petros G. Themelis.