As a society, we maintain many myths. These myths become part of our ideology and are believed to be just the way things are. It is Roland Barthes, the 20th century French theorist, who wrote most profusely on the idea of myth.
According to Barthes, myth is a type of speech and “mythical speech is made of a material which as already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication” (110). Barthes gives an example in “Myth Today”:
I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is the great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism that the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. (116)
We form opinions about everything we look at, everything we read. These opinions are based in what can be called myth. Barthes refers to myth as “language-robbery,” insisting that “Myth can reach everything, corrupt everything, and even the very act of refusing oneself to it. So that the more the language-object resists at first, the greater its final prostitution” (132). Everything is corrupted by myth, yet mythology is rarely discussed or identified.
With the intention of educating students to be not only informed but also conscientious and aware, I have designed a lesson plan which will teach students to identify the myths of our society.
Fairy tales and fables will be familiar to most of our students as they are retold time and time again in writing and on film. The morals of these stories translate to modern society, and it is because of society’s myths that we continue to buy into them. By looking critically at these stories, students will be capable of dispelling these myths and reconsidering fairy tales.
Students will be encouraged to consider the myths that infiltrate their worlds, the idea being that they will be able to view reality at a deeper level. This will be to their benefit. According to a review by Ellen J. O’Quinn, “American society tends first to group people and then to judge them according to an imposed ‘normative’ scale. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to criticism and rejection as they begin to explore, accept, or deny the encroaching complexities of life in the adult world. Without fully knowing how to respond to such intricacies and because they ARE painfully aware of the perceived images of who they are, teens sometimes overreact to situations rather than reflectively respond” (60). By assuming this ‘normative’ scale to be dictated by cultural myth, it is possible to educate our students thus enabling them to respond reflectively rather than overreact. The perceived images of teenagers, the stereotypes our culture enables, are in effect the result of cultural mythology.
In “The Rhetoric of Masculinity: Origins, Institutions, and the Myth of the Self-Made Man,” James V. Catano discusses the myth of self made wealth and success. Catano writes of myth in general: “The pressures and conflicts that inevitably arise from this gap between an ideological myth and the reality of social formation lead to difficulties for us both as individuals and as educators. To understand the damaging influences of ideological myths on social behavior and identity formation we must not only recognize the presence of such pressures and their structured gender training, we also must understand how they are aided and abetted by educational institution” (422). As teachers, it is crucial that we are aware of society’s myths, and it is also our responsibility to inform our students of them. If we were to take everything at face value, it would be unfair to our students. It is even more unfair to our students if we send them into the world taking everything at face value. Beyond teaching our students to love literature and to write effectively we have the power to enable them to look beyond the obvious meaning, beyond what we think we know is true.
Clausen and Kielbasa discuss The Little Mermaid in their article on female spirituality:
Of all the fairy tales popular with today’s generation of girls and young women, few are as beloved as The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale but liberally revised by the Disney studios for an animated version, it is a classic example of an age old formula: maidens without mothers who find meaning in life only through a man. But the plot of this particular myth is a metaphor for the reality that today’s girls face in a culture that devalues their experience, silences their voices and promotes a loss of self in pursuit of beauty, boys, and being nice. (20)
This short analysis of The Little Mermaid is what I can only hope my students will come to realize at the completion of this lesson plan. Young girls idolize Ariel unquestioningly—as teenagers they should begin to question the myth underlying her story. Clausen and Kielbasa continue, “By examining The Little Mermaid under the microscope of media literacy, we can open the eyes of girls to the power and negative influence of cultural myths. They come to understand that as they are bombarded with messages promoting beauty over brains and feminine wile over authentic self-esteem, they are actually being encouraged to give up their voices” (Clausen and Kielbasa 21). This is exactly the type of response I intend to procure with this lesson plan.
This lesson plan is intended for a 10th or 11th grade class. Because it only encompasses two weeks, students will be expected to have read The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold as part of their summer reading. This lesson plan will work with the afore mentioned work by Francesca Lia Block, as well as “The Honorary Shepherds” by Gregory Maguire and a portion of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by John Scieszka and Lane Smith. Additionally, the film Shrek will be viewed. At the end of this lesson plan, students will be expected to be able to identify the myths that surround them and to consider these myths in an active, rather than passive, manner. This is a very discussion-based lesson plan, intended, ideally, for a slightly smaller class. The nature of what we are covering requires that things be discussed in the open, and it is necessary first and foremost that students gain background knowledge of ideas and concepts.
NCTE Standards: 1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Day 1: An Introduction
Begin the class with the following questions on the board:
What is a myth?
What is a fairy tale? Do you have a favorite?
List three things you have an opinion on
Consider why you maintain these opinions
Allow students 8-10 minutes to reflect on these questions in their journals.
Pass out handout: “Considering Our Society’s Myths” (see end of lesson plan)
Have students read handout, perhaps a different student reading each paragraph out loud. Read to them from “Still confused?” through the examples of myths.
Allow time to casually discuss handout. If students have begun to get the hang of it they will ask if certain things are myths, consider what is mythical about the examples listed, and have some questions. Encourage all of this. Ask them where these myths are perpetuated, why they think we believe them, etc.
If time remains, have students begin homework.
Homework: Read “Once Upon a Time: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives” by Jonathan
Young available at http://www.folkstory.com/articles/onceupon.html
Day 2: The Beauty Myth
As students come in, have them reflect briefly in their journals about what we get from fairy tales, or more specifically what they personally get from fairy tales.
Begin the class by asking for a volunteer to briefly retell the story of The Ugly Duckling. Ask for another student to give the “moral of the story.” Allow a discussion on this. Some questions to lead discussion:
What is beauty?
How does this story play into our beliefs about beauty?
What does it mean to be ugly? For the duck? In our society?
With this in mind, hand out a copy of “The Really Ugly Duckling” from The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Have a student read the first page. Talk for a moment: Why does the duckling think he will grow up to be beautiful? Will he? Why do you think this?
Turn to the second page of the story and read it to the class. Discuss:
What does this story do to our expectations and conceptions?
What is the author trying to do?
Does this story dispel a myth?
Do we make any assumptions about this duckling? What will his life be like versus the duckling in the original story? Why?
Day 3: “The Honorary Shepherds”
Pass out a copy of “The Honorary Shepherds” by Gregory Maguire to each student. If there is a class set of I Am Blue hand this out; if this is not available, photocopies are sufficient.
Arrange the students in a circle. Have them read the story out loud in this circle, each student reading a paragraph. Obviously this is a story with sensitive content beyond cultural myth, but steer students away from this and towards the idea of myth, or only towards this content in terms of myth. If discussion arises as story the ends, allow it for a few minutes.
Like Mrs. Cabbage in this story, break students off into pairs. Have them discuss not only the myths that create their senses of themselves, but also the myths present in this story. Have them make up a list of both. Go around from group to group participating in their discussions, encouraging them to look at the story, etc.
If time allows reconvene before the class ends for a class-wide discussion of myth in this story.
Homework: Read the Grimm’s story of Cinderella available at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0510a.html along with one other version available on the same site. Bring to class tomorrow a one page summary of the story of Cinderella. This will not be graded but will count towards the homework grade as a check. Also request that students bring copies of The Rose and the Beast to class the next day.
Day 4: Rethinking Cinderella
Students have the classic story of Cinderella in their heads. Ask them to list in their journals a few cultural myths they feel may be present in this story and to keep these in mind as the class begins.
Read the story “Glass” from The Rose and the Beast out loud. Do not require students to read along: they have already read this and are required here only to listen.
Break class into five groups. Have each group discuss and list the similarities and differences in “Glass” versus Cinderella. Have them pay particular attention to the myths: what myths are dispelled? What myths are still present? Are any new myths introduced?
Assign each of the five groups another story in The Rose and the Beast. Note which classic story it spawns from. Stick to the five best known, so assign the following:
“Snow”=”Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”
“Beast”= “Beauty and the Beast”
“Charm” = “Sleeping Beauty”
“Wolf” = “Little Red Riding Hood”
Allow a few minutes for a group discussion of Cinderella.
Homework: Reread the story your group was assigned, as well as the original story, all of which are available at http://www.ivyjoy.com/fables/index.shtml. Encourage them to print the classic story, and to take notes on both.
Day 5: More Cinderella and an Assignment
Returning to Cinderella, pass out copies of “Cinderumpelstiltskin Or the Girl Who Really Blew It” from The Stinky Cheese Man. To mix things up a little, have students perform/interact with this story. Have one student serve as narrator, one as Cinderella and one as Rumpelstiltskin. This will only take a few minutes and will keep the students interested.
Once again, have a class discussion on this story. What myths does it play up? Ignore? What is the result of mixing Cinderella with “Rumplestiltskin”? What qualities of the story remains the same? What assumptions does this story dispel?
Ask students to return to the five groups they were assigned to yesterday. Have them consider the story they have been assigned much as they considered Cinderella yesterday, but this time with an essay in mind. Encourage them to make lists of myths as well as the similarities and differences between stories.
Homework: Over the weekend, students will write an essay depicting the mythology in the stories they were assigned. They should look at the cultural myths at the base of the classic story and compare this to and contrast it with the modern retelling by Block. This will be due Monday. There is no suggested length, though this should go beyond the five paragraph essay and should be long enough to contain substantial evidence and examples. Days 6 : Shrek
Most of the class has probably seen Shrek, so only part of the film will be viewed. Use this entire class period to show it. Assuming there will be 45 minutes, we can get through about half the film. Show from the beginning until the rescuing of Fiona, skip to the uncovering of Fiona as an Ogre, and end with the final few scenes and the wedding of Shrek and Fiona. As students watch, have them make note of the fairy tales which are referenced, and the myths which are played on.
Day 7: Discussing the Movie
Begin the discussion about Shrek. Point out that in order to understand the film, it was necessary that they have an enormous base of knowledge about fairy tales, cultural mythology, and culture in general. Break the class into groups of four or five students and hand out the “Discussion Group Questions for Shrek.” Allow groups time to discuss, and then run through the questions with the entire class, soliciting answers from the various groups. At this point in the lesson plan, students should be able to discuss Shrek critically and should have no trouble identifying the various myths and answering the questions thoughtfully.
Homework: Request that each student bring some old magazines to class tomorrow. Preferably teen magazines, women’s magazines, or weekly news magazines, though any type will suffice.
Day 8: Making Myth Collages
Today is a fun day, but one which will allow students to examine what they have learned in real life. Provide them with scissors, glue, and construction paper. Allow them to sit in groups and discuss what they are doing. The only assignment is that they have to create a collage that deals with a myth (or multiple myths). Walk from group to group, joining students periodically, to assure that everyone is on the right track. This assignment should hopefully generate discussion among students, and get them looking at the magazines in a new way. Giving them a very relaxed assignment for a class period will allow them to look at something from their world in terms of myth. Once they begin arranging dozens of skinny girls or tough boys or happy couples on the paper they should become very comfortable with the notion of myth and be more willing to identify myths elsewhere.
Day 9: Preparing for Writing Assignment
Brainstorm with the class. Ask them two questions:
What are some popular fairy tales we have not discussed in class?
Now that you have a better idea, what are some other myths of our society?
Write their responses on the board.
Their assignment will be to rewrite a fairy tale focusing on and either dispelling or blatantly perpetuating at least one myth. Split the class into groups of 3 or 4 students and allow them the remainder of the period to brainstorm with one another. Encourage them to sketch out the familiar story from which they wish to work and to consider myths already present in that story, or ones which lie just below the surface.
Day 10: Rewriting Their Fairy Tales
Today’s class will be devoted to working on their writing assignment. Request that in addition to simply writing the story, students should determine their audience and write accordingly. For instance, do they want to write a fairy tale readable by their 5 year old cousin? Something to be submitted to the school’s literary magazine? This assignment will be due on Monday.
A Short Reflection: Ideally, I would like to use this lesson plan at the beginning of the year and refer back to it with each book we read. As I was working on it I kept looking to my bookshelves for other usable books. Had I used everything I came across this would have been a year long plan rather than a two week lesson plan. Of the books we have read this semester, Rules of the Road, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and Holes seemed the most conducive to this topic. I was going to throw Holes (either the book or the movie) in at the end, but decided that it was too much of a squeeze. It would work incredibly well, considering the many myths that run through Sachar’s story. Going beyond adolescent literature and moving towards the canon this lesson plan would become no less valuable. For example, The Great Gatsby would have much to offer as would Lord of the Flies and even the works of Shakespeare. In keeping with the two week span I stuck with one longer work of adolescent literature (The Rose and the Beast), one short text (“The Honorary Shepherds”) and two visual texts, one a children’s story (The Stinky Cheese Man) and one a movie (Shrek). I think these works fit together nicely, but there are infinite other options. As far as movies go, I would have liked to also show one of the many remakes of Cinderella, most recently Hillary Duff’s A Cinderella Story, but I felt that Shrek did the best job of incorporating fairy tales and representing myth.
If students finish this lesson plan with a knowledge of and a curiosity about myth, I have done my job. In a world inundated with myth, and where these myths are often used against us, the ability to identify these myths is a crucial skill. Myth is everywhere, as evidenced in the collage assignment. Alerting our students to this, and enabling them to deal with myth constructively is part of our responsibility as teachers.
Handout: Considering Our Society’s Myths We all know about Greek and Roman myth (think Zeus). Thus, it seems that a myth might be a story about a superhuman being designed to explain something unexplainable. In a society where almost everything is scientifically justifiable, myths are no longer necessary to explain things like thunder and lightning or the changes of the seasons. Yet, our society still maintains many myths. The definition of myth we will be working with is a fiction, an unproven thing, which is at the backbone of a society and taken as an unspoken truth. These myths construct our world for us and support the existing power struggles. The assumption is that these myths disclose the natural way of things.
To be more specific, a cultural myth is something of an ideology. According to Wikipedia.com, “An ideology is a collection of ideas. [. . .] Every society has an ideology that forms the basis of the "public opinion" or common sense, a basis that usually remains invisible to most people within the society. This dominant ideology appears as "neutral", while all others that differ from the norm are often seen as radical, no matter what the actual vision may be.”
The dominant ideology tends to serve the more powerful class. Our myths/ideologies take root in various places, from the Bible and other religious documentation to modern magazines and newspaper articles. Much of what can be considered myth is considered in our minds to be basic truth.
We will read a story called “The Honorary Shepherds.” In this story myths will be described as the understructure of culture, “everything we have an opinion about is supported in one of our cultural myths” (71).
Naomi Wolf wrote about The Beauty Myth: “The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists Women must want to embody and men must want to possess women who embody it. Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.”
Still confused? That’s to be expected. Don’t worry, these are just some ideas.
Some myths in our culture:
Teenagers are lazy
Smoking is cool
The racial myth (black vs. white)
Myths about aging and getting old
Myths about disability
The American Dream
Rubric for The Rose and the Beast essay
Keen analysis, above and beyond what is expected
Shows reasonable effort and analysis
Failure to complete assignment
Understanding of Theme
Obviously understands the idea of myth, articulates this in at least 4 examples
Seems to understand myth, articulates this in at least 2 examples
Understanding is unclear, gives less than 2 clear examples
Shows no understanding
Student’s perspective comes through clearly in final product
Student’s perspective is apparent but not definitive