Mythology and Critical Thinking Skills

by Allison Stieger, GHFO Instructor

GHF Online

In the fall of 2012, I had the privilege of being invited to teach an online class on Greek mythology for Gifted Homeschoolers Forum. The timing was good for me, as my two children were both in school for the first time that fall, and I was starting to think about how to bring my passion for mythology out into the world.

I had been told that my students would be “gifted and 2e homeschooled” kids. I had no idea what 2e was, and I had no experience teaching kids (other than my own) of any age or ability, so I was incredibly nervous going in that first day. However, I knew my mythology cold, and I thought we could figure it out together.

Luckily for me, all of my students loved mythology, so we got along well from the beginning. I had the best time listening to their responses to the stories I was telling them, hearing how they worked out what was going on in each story. That first semester I was teaching two sections of Beyond Percy Jackson: Learning the Real Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology. We got to talk about the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, Greek heroes and villains, and how the Romans took the stories from the Greek tradition and made them their own.

Sisyphus, GHF Online

Titian's Sisyphus

While we were traveling together through the Classical world I was learning from my students as well. I started to see how learning myth was affecting my students, improving their critical thinking skills. It was fascinating to listen to them as they interacted with the stories they were hearing. I could see their critical thinking skills developing right in front of me as we talked about what these myths might mean. I love the week that we talk about Sisyphus, because it allows me to talk about Camus and his essay on Sisyphus, in which he postulates that the story of Sisyphus is a metaphor for life itself. (For those who are unfamiliar with the myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus was a Greek king who was a bit of a trickster figure. He got himself in trouble with the gods on multiple occasions, which resulted in his eternal punishment in the Underworld, pushing a boulder up a hill, then watching it roll back down, only to be repeated until the end of time.)

When we talked about this story in class, the kids were full of practical suggestions for Sisyphus, ways to make his burden easier, such as “Why doesn’t he just chisel the rock smaller, to make it easier to roll?” As I do throughout the semester, I reminded them that myth is metaphor, and we need to look at the story through a different lens. I told them that chipping his rock smaller would be similar to striving for bare minimum in life, reaching for a C instead of an A.

This happened time and time again, in every class I’ve taught for GHF. I taught the Beyond Percy Jackson class over three semesters, and in the fall of 2013 I taught a yearlong class on World Myth, which allowed us to dip our toes into the mythos of cultures the world over, from the Arctic Inuit to Aboriginal Australians and beyond.

One of my other favorite things about teaching for GHF was watching the way my students bonded with each other. The kids really formed friendships, and I heard stories about vacation visits between friends from class. At the end of each class I have the kids retell any myth that we’ve studied that term, in any creative way they might like to do it. Many of them formed teams (on their own!) to help each other do their end of term final presentations. I’ve seen lots of LEGO™- and Minecraft-inspired retellings, paintings, dance performances, rap songs, and reenactments with Barbies. The kids come up with things I could have never imagined, and those last two weeks of class are some of my favorites of the entire term.

I even had one student who called in at 2:00 a.m. her time from her home in Shanghai every week, just so she could both be there for class and hang out with her friends. I am told that she’s enrolled for my Norse and Celtic myth class this fall, and am so pleased that she’ll be back.

Thor, GHF Online

Thor, Norse God of Thunder

I am thrilled to be back at GHF this fall, after a year off spent writing and traveling to lead retreats, lecture, and teach workshops. I am especially excited about the new class I’ll be teaching, focusing on the mythologies of the Norse and Celtic worlds. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in Norse myth in our culture at the moment. The popularity of both Disney's Frozen franchise and the character of Loki from the Thor and Avengers films spring to mind.

Branwen, Celtic Goddess

Branwen, Celtic Goddess of Love and Beauty

We will be examining the stories of the Norse gods, including the fact that the Norse mythos is the only mythic system in which the end of the world happens, at Ragnarok. We also get to talk about the Celtic mythos, which will include the Welsh Mabinogion myth cycle, as well as tales of Ireland and Scotland.

Teaching for GHF is the best kind of challenge for me. I get to share my love of mythology with an incredible group of kids every week, and they’re always willing to go on an adventure with me, as we study this ancient repository of culture and narrative. I look forward to seeing a few familiar faces this fall, as well as all of the new kids that I will meet and get to know.

To sign up for this and other GHF Online classes, go to https://giftedhomeschoolers.org/ghf-online/class-schedule/.

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