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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

A Journey of Heroic Empathy: The Odyssey Design Challenge

The Status Quo

Recently I saw a post on Twitter that asked a question about teaching Shakespeare—if a text or author is considered essential reading in English classes and forced exposure is required for students to read it, is a text truly timeless? As a teacher of 9th grade English and The Odyssey, another “timeless” text, I was grateful to hear teachers continue to grapple with a classic text’s place in our contemporary classrooms. Truth be told, I am guilty of the “I have always taught The Odyssey in this course” rationale for teaching the text to freshmen, and it has always bothered me that I cannot articulate a clearer reason.

Of course, there are a million reasons to teach The Odyssey, and we are so grateful for the burst of energy infused into our curriculum from our switch to the Emily Wilson translation, but the question in 2021 is: How could I teach this text in a way that inspires my 14-year-old freshman girls who have traditionally struggled to understand, let alone care (forgive me, Homer!) about this story? If I found a contemporary and successful way to teach The Odyssey, would it then become clear to me why I teach this text, answering my own course essential question: whose stories do we value, and why?

The Call to Adventure

As a creative person I have always been interested in the role of a workspace in the creative process. Writers’ desks, artists’ studios, and carpentry workshops filled with tools, drawings, mock-ups, drafts, and pencil shavings are the birthplace of ideas, where creators are so present in their process, the outside world slips away, and they find their flow through trial and error. As a teacher of writing, with the help of Angela Stockman’s Make Writing: 5 Strategies That Turn Writer’s Workshop Into a Maker Space, I began to play with the question of how writing, especially writing essays, can be treated as a maker space, guided by the belief that maker spaces are not just for engineering or science classes. Through physically moving around Post-it notes, paper, and drawing in dry erase markers on a desk, I wanted student writers to see that drafts of topic sentences, evidence, and discussion can be moved around as parts of a whole, and that an essay is truly playing with an idea- not having the “correct answer.”

Supernatural Aid

Using design, play, and maker spaces to teach writing led me to a workshop on Design Thinking by Katie Krummeck, held in 2019 at the Center for Transformational Leadership. Katie coaches teachers on how to apply design thinking principles to curriculum across multiple contents, but again, you might assume design thinking is for a math, science, or engineering class only. However, Katie, a former secondary English teacher, included an example of teaching poetry through design thinking, which spoke to my creative heart.

As part of our writing and wellness focus this year, my students are working on developing their empathy as a competency of our course. Through reading and relating to characters in our stories, students continually assess themselves on an empathy competency, discussing how our fictional characters have helped them develop their own empathy in the real world. As the empathy interview is such a fundamental principle of design thinking, in which designers must put themselves into the shoes of their client to determine what solution will help them, I had an idea. What if the final assessment of The Odyssey was not an essay, or even a research assignment, but a design challenge in which student teams solve a messy human or divine problem for a character in the epic poem? What if reading The Odyssey is about developing the skill of empathy, while also teaching students that the human struggle to find our home, as well as come of age, are as old as Ancient Greece?

The Odyssey Design Challenge

Once we finished reading The Odyssey, students selected a partner and created a team name. We discussed the design challenge as an opportunity to develop our empathy for a character in The Odyssey through analyzing the text and identifying their messy human or divine problem.

We then had a series of six workshops in which student teams completed each step of the design process, including:

Step 1: Brainstorming characters and then selecting one as a “client”

Step 2: Completing an empathy map and empathy interview (which were recorded and shared electronically in these pandemic times!)

Step 3: Completing “needs finding charts” and point of view statements, both evaluated by another partner group

Step 4: Brainstorming / sketching up to 10 ideas for our design

Step 5: Design sketch of top 3 prototypes

Step 6: Final Round of feedback from another partner team, as well as uploading final sketch / photo of prototype of design

Seeing eye "sheep" for Polyphemus

Step 7: Final written proposal in which designers discuss their final design, why it works for their character, and their design process. This proposal must include textual evidence and be anchored in literary analysis.

Revelations, Transformation, and the Return

On presentation day, each team stood together and completed a “design pitch” to the class, introducing their character, their messy problem, and their solution, focusing on why their design was the best design to help their character. Solutions ranged from online dating services for Penelope to find a better suitor, to “human cupcake” recipes for Polyphemus to dispose of his unwanted human guests, to female-empowerment self-help books for Calypso and Circe. After listening to each group presentation, students voted on Most Creative, Most Empathetic, Best Discussion of the Text, and Best Overall Design, with the overall winner receiving our first-ever “Zeus’ Lightning Bolt” award.

The energy in our classroom was beautiful on presentation day; students laughing, clapping, congratulating each other, and giving so much wonderful feedback, both formally through a collaborative feedback chart, and informally through shout-outs and rounds of applause. After our presentations, when I asked for students to self-assess on our empathy competency, they reflected on their learning:

This Semester, I have learned a lot about empathy. Through doing our most recent project, I have learned to always evaluate everyone's emotions and realize that not everything is as simple as it appears. My partner and I chose to help Polyphemus, the blinded cyclopes. At first, I thought he was mean and set on violence, but throughout the project I started to see why he acted that way. He was so focused on protecting his sheep and his home that he came off as a terrible person. Although I do not agree with many of Polyphemus's actions, I learned to empathize with his struggle and figure out what truly was his problem. I hope to use these skills in the future and know that whenever someone acts negatively, there is likely an underlying problem that they hope to fix.

When discussing a debatable question with multiple possible answers, whether about politics, gardening, or taking care of our puppy Gus, my contemplative and rational husband always says that “both things can be true.” I think about the debate on whether these classic, canonical texts such as Shakespeare’s plays and The Odyssey have a place in our contemporary classrooms, and I think, both things can be true; we can teach these classic texts, and contemporary texts, both are needed, but we can challenge ourselves as educators to always be on the lookout for ways to teach ancient works in a way that develops our students’ creativity and empathy, critical thinking and analysis, all 21st century skills.

Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.


Click here for more information on courses at the Center for Transformational Leadership

Click here for more information on Katie Krummeck's work

Stockman, Angela. Make Writing: 5 Strategies That Turn Writer’s Workshop Into a Maker Space. Times 10 Publications. 2006.

Special thanks to Rachel Clark for making our first ever "Zeus' Lightning Bolt" trophies on a 3D printer!

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