— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
One Wednesday last month, the conversation around the teachers’ lunch table was about the novel coronavirus. A few of us were starting to talk about canceling spring break plans, but most were still in the “this is just a bad flu” camp.
By the next afternoon, our principal had called an emergency after-school meeting to discuss plans for AMI, or Alternative Methods of Instruction, in the event schools were closed.
On Friday, we told the students to take all their books home — just in case.
By Sunday our governor had closed all schools in the state.
To say the first week of AMI was hectic would be an understatement. I hurriedly created practice pages to help my middle-schoolers review punctuation and sentence structure. But I knew that as much as I love grammar, this wasn’t going to cut it indefinitely.
In the classroom, I take pride in my ability to make the comma interesting and the semicolon engaging — and don’t even get me started on the fun we have with the em dash. But teaching my students from home isn’t just a matter of picking up where we left off. It doesn’t mean simply changing my curriculum or finding some cool online grammar games. Conducting a virtual classroom long-term means rethinking what and how I will teach, and even how I will relate to my students.
In these challenging and frightening times, it also means deciding what my students really need to learn right now — what will help them process what is happening and maybe even help them come out on the other side of this a little stronger.
What my middle-schoolers need — and what I would argue all kids need right now — is a Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a narrative pattern found in many of the greatest stories of all time — from classic mythology to fantasy to modern dystopian literature. Identified by historian Joseph Campbell, it refers to the stages through which heroes commonly pass during epic adventures. While there are variations on the number and specifics of these stages, the Hero’s Journey always follows roughly the same pattern.
It begins with a call from an ordinary life that is often boring or bleak to a life of adventure. After embarking on the journey, the Hero will undoubtedly face uncertainty. They will become afraid and begin to question their ability to carry out the task at hand. They will want to turn back.
At this point, the Hero usually meets a mentor, an older, sometimes magical helper who will guide and encourage them on their quest. From there, the hero faces a series of dangerous encounters. Sometimes they will succeed. Sometimes they will fail. But each encounter will serve as a lesson that will help them face their ultimate challenge.
Eventually, the Hero must face their greatest ordeal. They will confront their deepest fears or perhaps even death. When they have triumphed, the Hero claims their reward and begins the journey home.
Often this journey is fraught with danger as well, and the Hero is tested one last time. This final test serves as a sort of death and resurrection, purifying the Hero before they return to ordinary life.
Finally, the Hero returns home with a reward that they use to help others.
Yes, these narratives can provide kids with wonderful stories to pass the time. But why do children stuck at home for weeks on end specifically need to read a story about a Hero’s Journey? Because it isn’t primarily about a journey. It’s really about bravery, fear, struggle and, ultimately, triumph.
For kids who just weeks ago were leading ordinary lives, the great adventure they are being called to is the pandemic and this new life of social isolation.
Right now, they are probably feeling uncertain, worrying about what lies ahead. Their mentors will be their parents and their teachers but also, if they are lucky, the characters they will meet in great works of literature.
They won’t face dragons or sorcerers or evil tyrants. But they will face other challenges — boredom, fear, loneliness. Sometimes they will be brave and resilient. Other times they won’t, but that’s okay. There are always lessons.
For many kids, there will come a moment when it all seems too much. It will sink in that baseball season isn’t going to happen this spring. Their family trip to the beach has been canceled. Or they didn’t get to have their eighth-grade graduation. They will miss their friends and their teachers and their grandparents. Some of them might even get sick or have a loved one who does. Some of these things are a big deal. Others might not seem terribly significant, but in their young lives and in these frightening times, even a seemingly small hardship can feel like a great ordeal.
Great literature has always provided readers with a means for understanding their own experiences. So in the coming weeks, I will guide my students through a Hero’s Journey and help them apply the lessons to their own lives. And now, when we have so much time and so much fear, I can think of no better way for parents to help their children cope than curling up together with a good book. So I’m also encouraging all parents to explore one of these stories with their kids right now.
And when this is over and these young readers have faced their boredom and disappointments, their fears and their frustrations, their reward will be that they, perhaps with a little help from Frodo or Dorothy or Percy Jackson, will return to their ordinary lives a little braver and a little stronger and ready to take on their next great adventure.
Hero’s Journey novels for family reading (that don’t involve a 17-year-old girl trying to decide which guy she will pick before she saves the world):
- “The Odyssey” by Homer
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
- “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis
- The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling
- “Redwall” by Brian Jacques
- “Inkheart” by Cornelia Funke
- “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle
- “The Giver” by Lois Lowry
- “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak
Laura Hanby Hudgens is a teacher, freelance writer and mom of four. She lives with her husband and children on a buffalo farm in the Ozark Hills of Arkansas. Find her on Twitter @charmingfarming.