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Heroic Journey Lit Circle Overview

I have written a number of entries that analyze specific books from my Heroic Journey Literature Circle unit. To sum it all up, here is an overview of the unit, along with my thoughts on how it needs to grow in the future.

Learning Goals

Going into this unit, I want students to read different stories of characters that face large obstacles and persevere, becoming stronger and more empathetic people. My specific learning goals are:

  • Students will analyze how texts show the Heroic Journey monomyth
  • Students will use background knowledge to make sense of texts
  • Students will evaluate how characters act heroically and change over the course of the book
  • Students will manipulate the Heroic Journey monomyth to create their own personal Heroic Journey story

To start the unit, we learn more about the Heroic Journey monomyth and use a variety of picture books to analyze simple examples. As well, we do some introductory work with visual texts, to build skills that will be used throughout the unit.

The Books

Drawing strongly on Faye Brownlie's work, I book talk the novels of the unit, and students select a book. As they finish a novel, they are expected to select another from the book list. Students participate in discussion groups according to the book they are currently reading (or have recently finished), making for fairly fluid groups as we analyze the texts and characters together. Below is a brief list of the books I have used in the past; click the links to see more detailed reviews.

  • Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen - After committing a violent crime, Cole Matthews is sent to live on an island by himself as part of a restorative justice program.
  • Devil's Pass, by Sigmund Brouwer - Webb must travel to the Northwest Territories to uncover secrets from his grandfather's past.
  • Peak, by Roland Smith - After getting arrested for a reckless stunt, Peak is sent to live with his father and potentially become the youngest person to ever climb Mount Everest.
  • Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson - A graphic novel that follows the adventures of Nimona, a shapeshifter and sidekick to the villain Lord Blackheart.
  • First Test, by Tamora Pierce - This book tells the story of Keladry, a girl who wants to become a knight despite great obstacles.
  • Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen - Roy must act to protect the habitat of endangered burrowing owls and stand up to the company that is seeking to destroy their home.
  • He Who Dreams, by Melanie Florence - This high interest, low vocabulary book was immensely popular this year. It tells the story of John, a boy who wants to rediscover his Indigenous roots through dance. However, the text may fit better in the Identity Literature Circle I am planning, so I may replace it with Caught in the Blizzard by Paul Kropp.

Overall, this collection of books is fairly strong. The majority of the texts were popular and texts of varying difficulty are present. As well, they all offered character and content that led to rich discussions about what makes a hero. The collection contains Indigenous perspectives, with two texts having prominent Indigenous characters or themes, and several other texts featuring supporting Indigenous characters.

The collection still needs improvement when it comes to gender diversity. Only two books have female protagonists, and one of those texts was rarely selected by students. While better book talks at the beginning could improve this, I would still like to swap out some titles for books that have girls taking their own heroic journey. Touching Spirit Bear, Devil's Pass, and Peak all contain an initially troubled boy (often with anger problems) who manages to grow as a result of some environmental obstacles. With these strong similarities, the unit wouldn't be harmed if one or two of these titles were shelved, potentially in favour of a book about girls who gain assertiveness and self-reliance as part of their journey.

Weekly Themes

Each week, the class focuses on a different theme of what it means to be a hero. Week one is courage, week two is perseverance, and week three is kindness and selflessness. We complete an initial lesson for each trait, often involving visual texts to help us better evaluate what these traits actually mean in practice. As the week continues, the class follows a set of routines. Students read their novels daily, while one group meets with me for small group discussions relating to the traits. Afterwards, the class has a mini-lesson on particular skills relating to the unit. These differ according to student needs, but often relate to analyzing characters, supporting our ideas with examples from the text, and writing reading responses. To support these lessons, I often refer to our read aloud text. Using a shared text helps the class develop a common understanding of key skills and concepts, which they can then apply more independently to their own novels. I have tried a variety of read aloud texts for this unit, such as Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, or Walking Home, by Eric Walters. Next year, I'll likely use Refugee, by Alan Gratz, as it was very popular with students earlier in the year.

Near the end of the unit, students turn to the final project. Using their understanding of the Heroic Journey monomyth, they must create their own personal Heroic Journey. The protagonist represents themselves, and while their narrative can be entirely fictional, there must be a kernel of truth that relates to some fear or obstacle they personally face. Student responses have been creative, with some choosing to cast themselves as superheroes or characters who have stumbled into fantasy worlds. Not all students end up selecting a deep-seated fear or obstacle (which is still totally acceptable), but some do surprise me with their honesty. With the unit's intense focus on courage and perseverance, students who are brave enough to be a bit vulnerable in their writing take the first step on their own heroic journey.

Ellen Bees

Ellen Bees

I am a middle school teacher with a passion for sustainability and human rights. Opinions are my own.

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