Sunday, April 28, 2013

Greek myths, epic poems, and....Trojan turtles


Earlier in the year, when the children were conducting their seed and plant investigations, we explored the story of a seed by introducing them to a few ancient Greek myths about the mysteries of the natural world:  the transformation story of Clytie, the water nymph who turned into a sunflower, and the abduction of Persephone, whose appearance and absence from the Earth marks our seasons and growing cycles.   This exposure to the world of myth led to a year-long fascination with ancient Greek goddesses and gods, and we soon turned our sights onto Homer’s epic poems, the Odyssey and The Iliad.  One of my own sons fell madly in love with Greek mythology in his first grade year of school and it was quite astonishing to see my own class beginning to fall under its captivating spell as well.  What is it about Greek mythology that speaks so clearly to a first grade child in the 21st century and sparks that deep connection over the millennia?  Perhaps in these stories the children see their own innate desire to make sense of the world around them, and to embrace and wonder about its mysteries and challenges.  

The Odyssey and The Iliad might seem to be rather sophisticated choices for a first grade read aloud, but the stories are timeless, inventive, and exciting.  It tickled the children to know that the Sabot seventh graders were also studying the Odyssey as well this year.  While we didn’t read the original texts (which I remember reading as an undergraduate), we did read the child-friendly versions:  Mary Pope Osborne’s Tales from the Odyssey, Parts One and Two and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy:  The Story of the Iliad.  The Obsorne books (written by the author of the famous Magic Treehouse series) were helpful in that they reiterated the main story line and themes over and over again throughout the chapters, in a supportive way that reminded the children of the essential plot points and characters.  

Part One introduced them to Odysseus, on his way home from the long Trojan war and his exciting encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclops, his visit to the Land of the Dead, and his entanglements with Circe, the enchantress, who warns him of the sirens, the whirlpool monster, the Charybdis, and the monster Scylla.  In reading of his increasingly difficult task of getting home to Ithaca, we discussed how Odysseus used his cunning and wits to deal with a multitude of frustrations.  It was helpful for the children to see that life is full of difficult situations and that it is important to refrain from reacting too rashly.  At each turn in the story, when Odysseus was presented with another monster, another loss, or another challenge, the children were asked what they would do in similar circumstances.  Life is all about the choices we make and our willingness and drive to soldier on.  That’s a lesson as pertinent for first graders as it is for their teachers and parents. It is especially relevant for many children as they navigate their way through often difficult social situations, and the metaphorical connection was not lost on our students. 

Part Two of the story of Odysseus revolved around the conflict back at home in Ithaca:  the plight of his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, as they contended with troublesome suitors who hoped to jockey their way into favor.  Throughout the tale, the grey-eyed goddess Athena interjects herself - during Odysseus's time as a captive on the sea goddess Calypso's island and interspersed through the travails that lead him back to his palace in Ithaca.  Both Penelope and Odysseus's patience through life's trials offered great opportunities for discussion amongst the children.  Their perseverance, calm, and wit allowed the children to see that response can be a measured thing, and that character can shine through without grand gestures or grandiose battles.  

After reading the two Odysseus books, the children adamantly requested that we read the prequel story of the siege on Troy. While I was initially reluctant to read them a story of long-term misery and warfare, it gave them additional insight into the seemingly endless trials of Odysseus and the meddling nature of the gods and goddesses into the affairs of humankind.  What struck me most about this story - more so than the last - that, amid all the warfare and senseless tragedy, the children deeply connected to characters on both sides of the conflict - the insensible Helen, seemingly ensnared by love, her fate sealed by the gods, and helpless to escape the conflict - the tragic Greek heroes Achilles, Ajax, Patroclus, Menelaus, and Odysseus - Troy's own Hector, a brave counterpoint to his cowardly brother Paris.  When many of the warriors met their death, the children sometimes would cover their ears, not because of the details of battle, but because they had so deeply empathized with the characters and their plight.  

Of course, for many people reading the Iliad, the final culmination of the battle is of utmost importance (and highest drama) once the Trojan horse is created by the Greeks in the final end game - the penultimate trick by which the Trojans are ultimately defeated.  Many children had heard of the Trojan horse and had patiently waited until this part of the tale.  When the battle (and the story) were over, many of us (myself included) were left wishing that the Greek epic poem would continue onward.  It was then that the story took on a new life in our classroom. 

As seen in a previous post, we had a first grade family bring in baby chicks to our classroom. We asked the children to create some observational drawings of the chicks, and to our surprise, we had one student create a wooden Trojan chick:


This got the ball rolling:  if you could create your own Trojan animal, what would it be?  It didn't have to be a horse...what would be a very appealing animal figure, how would it accommodate people inside, and what would its story be?  Once the children created a plan and a sketch of their animal, they were invited to make their Trojan animals out of materials.  Most used clay or plasticine:

 

 T's winged turtle

(Above:  K's Trojan Sphinx)

Several students (O.F., O.P, D.H.) were enamored of the idea of making Trojan turtles.  Three children worked individually to make their own turtles, but then combined them to make a chariot driven by the three Trojan turtles:


N. created a Trojan turtle that incorporated its own rollers - the means by which (we had read that) the Trojans brought the Trojan horse into the city of Troy.  He made sure to use rollers (corks) in his own Trojan turtle design:


This is what it looks like on the inside (admittedly, pretty posh):

  
F's Trojan Chicken
L.M.'s Trojan chicken

F. and L.M. decided that their Trojan chickens needed rollers to be easily transportable 
as well.


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