Teaching an Epic Story: The Hero’s Journey

There’s a hero inside each one of us. Telling that story is an essential part of what makes us human.

Recently, I’ve been awestruck by Joseph Campbell’s famous work The Hero with 1000 Faces. In this book, Campbell’s love for story shines through every page as he details numerous manifestations of the Hero’s Journey across the globe and throughout the ages. The idea of a collective myth fascinates me, and reading this book led me to two important questions.

  1. Why is the story of the Hero’s Journey so compelling? 
  2. How can I teach using the Hero’s Journey to immerse my students in the story (i.e. negotiating the meaning of the language), instead of losing them in the conscious and intellectual exercise of learning grammar rules?

Why is the Hero’s Journey so Compelling?

So many stories throughout history are just a fresh take on the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars, for instance, follows the proper hero’s journey stepsto a “T”. Among the steps, Luke Skywalker finds himself in the common world, is called to adventure, finds a mentor, faces challenges, confronts evil, and returns home changed.

I believe this archetype speaks to us on a deep level. There’s something about leaving the metaphorical cave (or our ancestors’ literal cave) and confronting the unknown. It’s a story that we seem to yearn to live out. 

Obviously, many of us do not actively live out this story. But we do seem to enjoy watching other people live out the Hero’s Journey, as evidenced by the recent craze for superhero movies. It seems we can’t get enough of them. According to AMC’s Website, the top 10 movies of 2018 (as of October 8th) are as follows:

1. Black Panther
2. Avengers: Infinity War
3. Incredibles 2
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Deadpool 2
6. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
7. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
10. A Quiet Place

Each of these superhero movies is a different manifestation of the same old story, changed only slightly to fit the context. The people in Hollywood don’t necessarily make the deepest films, but the people in charge of the story are not stupid, either. In general, they know what will pique audiences’ interest and what will maximize box-office sales. More times than not, this means  the same old story (and I mean old) wrapped in a new package.

I’ve seen the same story of the hero capture my own son’s imagination. The film that caught his imagination last year was Moana. I love this film. It was incredibly well done and the story speaks to something deep inside my being. There’s just something great about seeing a character go on an adventure and experience personal growth. Dr. Campbell didn’t live to see this particular animated film, but it’s just another version of the same old story.

As Campbell explains, the origins of the monomyth goes way back in history. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back. It’s possible that our ancestors were communicating the message of this story before they had language. The hero leaves the safety of home, fights the dragon (or some other unknown monster) and returns home a changed person. It makes sense that this would have been the story for our ancestors, from virtually every (if not every) culture. The oral traditions of our ancestors were painstakingly passed down from generation to generation, being refined all the while. Clearly, the story resonates with us and has done so for thousands of years and across perhaps every civilization the world has ever known. I can’t think of a better way to help students see the utility of the language than through the Hero’s Journey.

Using the Hero’s Myth to Teach Languages

As a language instructor that uses storytelling as a primary vehicle to deliver comprehensible input, the thought of using a story that embodies the collective unconscious excites me. I know this could be a powerful way to help build mental representation in a way that speaks to students on a deep level.

Wouldn’t it be something special to write a brief novella based on a story we co-created in class over the course of the term? Students could take away a story from the class that they helped create, and perhaps this would inspire them to continue their own language-acquisition journey, even after the course ended.

Okay, that sounds really good. We could teach with “authentic” texts written for native speakers. But we know how comprehensible that would be for most students. Not very. Instead of i + 1 (input the learners can easily comprehend plus a teeny-tiny bit they can’t), think i + 100 (where full immersion means drowning in incomprehensible input). I am confident that “authentic” texts are not the answer for lower-level students.

An alternative to this, and one that I think is the best solution, would be a level-appropriate text. So our goal should be to take the students on a Hero’s Journey without overwhelming them with vocabulary, especially in a 101 course. Conversely, it is easier to make an interesting text when we don’t limit ourselves on the number of unique words we can use. How, then, can we make use of the Hero’s Journey without drowning our students in vocabulary?

I propose that we make a personalized Hero’s Journey for each and every class, taking into account the varying degrees of limited vocabulary of each unique group of students. Each group of students is different, and we as instructors need to be sensitive to what they can comprehend and what they can’t.

If you want to add more vocabulary, you’ll need to spend more time making sure that vocabulary is comprehensible to them. Don’t assume they’ll acquire it if you give them a list of words with no context. Most won’t.

The goal of this exercise isn’t to have students acquire the maximum number of words. Instead, we want to provide a compelling story that will inspire them to seek out more stories, which will teach them new vocabulary (which will allow them to read and listen to increasingly complex stories, which will teach them new vocabulary, ad infinitum).

Again, the language-acquisition power of this story structure lies in communicating a compelling story in L2.

A Blend of Storytelling and Storyasking

We need to follow the proper steps in order to make a proper hero myth. There is a structure by which we must abide for students to accept the story, and with this in mind, I bring a script into class with an outline of where the story is headed.

It follows, then, that a large portion of this adventure is a Storylistening Activity (a technique pioneered by Dr. Beniko Mason). For this portion of the story, students need only listen and try to understand what is happening. Get off your phones, put your laptops away. It’s story time.

I go out of my way to make the story comprehensible using visuals (gestures, drawings on the board, etc.), repetitive language, and limited vocabulary. I don’t want to drown anyone with the immersive input I’m providing them.

Of course, I want this to be a personalized story, so I also have many underlined portions of the text where students can change the events/feel/outcome of the story. This portion leaves room for more of a Storyasking experience, à la TPRS©.

The script keeps me from drowning students in new vocabulary, and the underlined portions keep the story fresh and personalized to that particular class.

The Process

The Characters

At the beginning of the quarter, we did some one word images to help build listening comprehension and to actually do something useful with the language. For three straight days we talked about three different characters that will appear in our personalized epic adventure. Each day we reviewed the previous day’s character(s) and stretched them out before adding a new one.

We were left with three detailed characters that I can refer back to and insert into various situations, make examples with, or compare and contrast throughout the quarter. 

This part of the epic adventure alone is a goldmine for engaging comprehensible input. Sometimes I will ask about these characters during other stories just as reference point for comparisons or to ask how one of them would respond in the same situation. It is a stelar way to keep L2 flowing in the classroom.

Character 1: The Hero

This is the main character of the epic. Is it a man or a woman? What are they like? Are they tall or short? Are they smart or not? Is the person a superhero? What do they want? 

What do they want is the key to the epic, as it tells you so much about the character. One character wants money, another fame, and another a family. In another class, the main character wants a girlfriend.

The possibilities here are truly endless, and will change the timbre of our story dramatically. What the character wants leads the story in a unique direction, and ensures personalization for each class. It helps determine if the story you co-create is going to be a funny or a serious, a comedy or a tragedy. All of these are fine, and the differences keep things from getting stale.

In one class the hero is a superhero, n another it’s just an ordinary person.  The personalization is so much fun here, and letting the students decide who these people are make the story as engaging as possible for that particular group of students. When the material is relevant to students, they will care about it and master it.

Character 2: The Helper

Our hero needs a friend, someone who can help her overcome the trials and tribulations on her journey. This character should parallel the main character. They should undergo a similar transformation, but perhaps in a different way. Maybe they want the same thing as the hero. Maybe they want something different. What do they want? Compare and contrast.

Having two characters is essential because it lets you use the “they” and “we” forms in your epic. These forms are criminally underrepresented in a language classroom.

Using these two characters in many different scenes also lets you compare and contrast. You could teach comparisons from the the very first week of [your language] 101 this way, and it would be entirely comprehensible. There’s really no need to wait until chapter 8 to do comparisons.

Character 3: The Villain

The antagonist of the story doesn’t need to be a villain, but it does help make it more exciting. The antagonist should want the same thing as the hero, which will create tension. During the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sauron both wanted the ring, albeit for different ends. Frodo wanted to destroy the ring of power, but Sauron wanted to wield it.

Maybe the antagonist of your story wants the same thing as your protagonist, in a negative way or for a negative end.

With three characters, it’s now even easier to do comparisons. The hero is brave, and the helper is as brave as the hero. The villain is a coward. The villain is the most cowardly of the three.

The Story

After the three main characters are defined, I move to the story. We return here once or twice per week and will try to complete the story as we go through the quarter.

It’s the perfect activity to start the week since it’s listening heavy. When we have a short week (e.g. Thanksgiving), you can do this for the whole week and move the story along a bit more.

However you decide to break up this epic adventure, you’ll need to make sure to follow the proper steps to make sure students have maximum buy-in.

The Hero’s Journey Steps

  • Step 1: The Ordinary World
  • Step 2: The Call to Adventure
  • Step 3: Refusal of the Call (optional)
  • Step 4: The Mentor
  • Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
  • Step 6: The Road of Trials – Tests and Tribulations
  • Step 7: Trials and Failure – The Helper
  • Step 8: Character Growth – The Helper
  • Step 9: Death and Rebirth
  • Step 10: Revelation and Change
  • Step 11: Atonement
  • Step 12: Receiving of a Gift and Return

Depending on the length of your course, you may want to condense the story. I do this by combining a number of the previous steps. For example, chapter one in this quarter’s Hero’s Journey encompasses Steps 1-2, chapter two covers steps 3-5, etc.

You get a copy! And you get a copy! Everybody gets a copy!

I keep track of each story and write it out as we go along. At the end of the quarter, I post the Hero’s Journey to our classroom site (We use the LMS Canvas), and students can download a copy for their reference.

I tell students that re-reading our story is a good way brush up for their final, since all the relevant grammatical and vocabulary items are in the story. I made sure of that when I wrote the script.

My hope is that students also refer back to this text with fondness as something they helped create in L2. 

Conclusions

I am convinced that a properly-implemented and an appropriately-leveled Hero’s Journey is one of the best ways to deliver comprehensible input to students. If we want learners to get serious about reading fiction on their own in L2, this compelling introduction will help them learn to love doing just that. As an aside, who doesn’t want that? Reading self-selected books in L2 exposes learners a wealth of comprehensible input, and will help them develop proficiency on their own, even long after they have left our classrooms.

If you haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with 1000 Faces“, I highly recommend it. This book helped me discover a new depth to the power of myth, and made me want to be a better storyteller. In his book, Campbell closely examines the stages that occur during almost every Hero’s Myth.
I think it is required reading for anyone serious about getting better at storytelling.

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