Looking for advice on how to teach the Hero’s Journey in your secondary ELA class? Between a unit outline, a list of teachable titles, and engaging activities, this post is just what you need to get started.
What defines a hero?
That’s the simple question I love to open with when teaching the Hero’s Journey in secondary ELA. The best part? As students partake in an engaging discussion about their favorite heroes and the qualities that make them so great, they are unknowingly laying the foundation for your lesson. Because what your students might not realize is that all heroes, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what heroic quest they complete, all have something in common.
And that, my teacher friend, is the essence of the Hero’s Journey.
Keep reading to learn more about teaching the Hero’s Journey and my best tips for making it an engaging voyage for your students.
What Is the Hero’s Journey and Why Is It Important?
The Hero’s Journey is a classic narrative pattern that traces the transformative trek of a protagonist from their ordinary world into the unknown. During this journey, the character sets out on some form of adventure, meets mentors along the way, faces various obstacles, and overcomes challenges. In the end, they return home a hero equipped with newfound knowledge, perspective, or a physical object for the greater good.
This archetypal structure is as old as time and can be found in myths, legends, and stories throughout history. However, it’s widely used in modern literature and cinema as well. Luke Skywalker? Hero. Katniss Everdeen? Hero. The same can be said for characters ranging from Harry Potter to Spiderman. The Hero’s Journey can be traced throughout movies like Finding Nemo, The Lion King, The Wizard of Oz, Moana, Frozen, and even Shrek. I mean the list goes on and on.
Why Teach the Hero’s Journey?
By exploring this archetypal pattern, students can recognize and analyze the deeper meaning behind a wide variety of narratives, fostering critical thinking, empathy, and a deeper appreciation for storytelling. However, the importance of The Hero’s Journey extends beyond literature—and that’s really why it’s important.
The Hero’s Journey is a reflection of a universal human experience of growth and self-discovery. (What teenager can’t relate to that?) Therefore, students can apply the monomyth to their own lives. They can take what they learned and use it to see their inner hero as they answer their own calls to adventures, face challenges, conquer their fears, and come out on the other side with newfound insights and knowledge.
It’s this real-life connection that gives the Hero’s Journey its true power and explains why the literary framework has stood the test of time.
What Are the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey can be broken down into 12 main phases. While not all heroes experience every stage in the same way, it goes a little something like this:
- The Ordinary World: An introduction to the protagonist’s everyday life, relationships, and any challenges or limitations they face are first introduced.
- The Call to Adventure: The protagonist receives a compelling invitation or challenge that initiates the on the heroic journey.
- Refusal of the Call: The protagonist resists the call to adventure due to fear, doubt, or a sense of inadequacy.
- Meeting the Mentor: The protagonist encounters a mentor figure who provides guidance, advice, and assistance needed for the journey.
- Crossing the Threshold: The protagonist leaves the familiar and ordinary world behind and enters the unknown.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The protagonist encounters various obstacles,enemies, and allies that test their will, determination and character.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: The protagonist prepares for a significant challenge or confrontation, symbolizing their innermost fears, doubts, or weaknesses.
- Ordeal: The protagonist is pushed to their limits when faced with their greatest challenge, undergoing a transformative experience.
- Reward: After overcoming the ordeal, the protagonist is rewarded with something, often knowledge, that empowers them to continue their journey.
- The Road Back: The protagonist begins a journey back to the ordinary world.
- Resurrection: They face a final challenge, where they must apply everything they have learned and experienced.
- Return with the Elixir: The protagonist returns and is reunited with the ordinary world, having been transformed by “the elixir”—an object, knowledge, or insight—for the greater good.
How to Teach the Hero’s Journey
Want to maintain student engagement throughout the trek of teaching the Hero’s Journey? Read through the steps below for an easy-to-follow outline to bring the narrative pattern to life in your classroom.
Step 1: Begin with a Conversation
Before formally introducing the concept, get students thinking (and engaged) with a simple conversation. Consider your essential questions for the unit and let them guide your initial discussion. Have students reflect on the heroes in their lives, asking them to work together to define what makes a hero in the first place.
Here are a few questions you can use to get started:
- What does it mean to be a hero?
- Who do you consider as heroes in your life?
- Do all heroes share certain traits?
- Are heroes born or made?
- How can an individual change by taking heroic action?
- Do heroes have responsibilities to themselves? To others? To Society?
- What draws us to stories about heroes, real or fiction?
Step 2: Introduce the Concept
Next, provide students with a clear definition of the Hero’s Journey and explain its 12 stages. It’s helpful to use visual aids such as diagrams or infographics to help students visualize the structure as a full circle and transformative journey. Additionally, you can incorporate brief videos, like this TED-Ed, to provide an overview of the journey, too.
Step 3: Start with Low-Stakes Application
Once students understand what the Hero’s Journey is, have them work together to think of relevant examples of characters or plotlines that follow the pattern. As a class, create a list of familiar characters in popular movies and books that they believe represent the Hero’s Journey. This is a low-stakes way to get them to start applying the concept. Note: You do not need to dive into deep analysis here. Don’t worry, that comes next.
Step 3: Analyze Examples
Before diving into a more complex text, check for understanding using examples from well-known stories or films. Analyze a popular movie plot, working as a class to identify each stage of the Hero’s Journey. Pause to discuss the significance of key moments and check for comprehension. Encourage students to share their observations and interpretations of the Hero’s Journey along the way.
Strive to incorporate modern examples of the Hero’s Journey that resonate with your students’ interests and experiences. This will heighten student engagement and help them see the relevance of the Hero’s Journey in their own lives.
Step 4: Bring in the Literature
Whether you decide to teach the Hero’s Journey using short stories or a novel, select texts that provide clear examples of the narrative pattern. If this is the first time your students are working with the Hero’s Journey, analyze the selected literature together to ensure understanding along the way. Scaffold the analysis by using a mix of read-alouds, turn and talks, group work, class discussions, comprehension questions, and quick writes. Additionally, have students track the progress of the Hero’s journey in their notes or using a graphic organizer.
Step 5: Apply Student Knowledge
Provide students with various opportunities to apply their knowledge of the Hero’s Journey through writing assignments, creative projects, or group presentations. Start with simple tasks, such as identifying the stages in a short story, and gradually move towards more complex projects, like crafting their own Hero’s Journey narratives or writing a literary analysis essay.
What to Read When Teaching the Hero’s Journey?
Whether you’re looking to pull excerpts or to dive into full-length texts, here are some engaging titles you can use in your secondary classroom when teaching the Hero’s Journey:
● The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
● Life of Pi by Yann Martel
● To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
● The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
● Lord of the Flies by William Golding
● The Odyssey by Homer
● The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
● The Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum
● The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
● The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
● Holes by Louis Sachar
● Divergent by Veronica Roth
● Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
On the other hand, if you’re looking for short stories for teaching the Hero’s Journey, read this post here.
Exciting Activities to Engage Students with the Hero’s Journey
Whether you’re looking for formative check-ins or summative assessments, here are some engaging activities that give your students an opportunity to shine as the Hero in their learning journey:
- Hero’s Journey Roadmap: Play up the “adventure” element by encouraging students to design a creative roadmap to express the various stages of the Hero’s Journey. Adapt this activity to reflect the 12 stages or the narrative structure in general or map out a specific character’s experience. Either way, encourage students to use images, quotes, and symbols to enhance this visual representation.
- Everyday Heroes: While we associate the term “hero” with characters from comic books and movies, there are plenty of heroes among us. Therefore, this activity encourages students to take a closer look at the essential question, “What makes a hero?” Have students identify real-life heroes and present what their real-life version of this journey looks like. These figures can include historical figures, athletes, changemakers, activists, or even everyday people in their own community.
- Hero’s Journey Comparative Analysis: Assign students two texts, characters, or films that follow the Hero’s Journey. The twist? The plotlines should differ in genre, time period, or cultural context. Ask students to write a comparative analysis essay, exploring how the stages are portrayed in each text while highlighting that heroes come in all different shapes and sizes. To set students up for success, encourage them to start with a simple Venn diagram before translating the information into more thorough writing.
- Hero’s Journey in the Twitterverse: Students these days document everything on social media. So, why not document their learning? After reading a text, have students represent the character’s Hero’s Journey through a series of Tweets (or Instagram posts). Each post should highlight a specific stage in the journey. By the end, students should present 12 posts that showcase the character’s heroic transformation from start to finish. You can have students create dummy accounts or complete the activity using social media post templates.
- A Multigenre Monomyth: Rather than completing a classic character analysis, challenge students to create a multi-genre representation of a character’s Hero’s Journey. Whether students analyze a hero from a classroom text or from pop culture, have them explore said character’s journey through various genres. Each stage of the Hero’s Journey should be represented and analyzed through a different genre. In the end, they’ll have a multigenre representation of how the character undergoes transformation and overcomes challenges throughout the story.
Examples of genres include poetry, journal entries, abstract recipes, formal analysis, song lyrics, artwork, comic strips, maps, news articles, and more.
- Create Your Own Hero’s Journey: Encourage students to write their own Hero’s Journey stories. They can create original characters, outline the stages, and craft a compelling narrative that follows the pattern. Students can share their stories with the class or in small groups. As an alternative, have your students create the outline or story map for a short story that would follow the hero’s journey.
The activities above provide diverse ways for students to showcase their understanding of this narrative structure. Whichever activities you choose, your students are sure to showcase creativity, critical thinking, and engagement.
Final Thoughts on Teaching the Hero’s Journey
Before you begin your own heroic journey of teaching this beloved narrative pattern, remember that the Hero’s Journey is about much more than literature itself. Use the Hero’s Journey to engage students in the power of storytelling and self-discovery. Talk about real-world application!