Home            Mythology & Reader's Theater
 
 
ABOVE:  Snapshot of the floating Mount Olympus, home of the gods
 
BELOW:  Snapshot of Edith Hamilton, author of the popular textbook Mythology
 
  
 
MY EXPERIENCES WITH READER'S THEATER
BY ZACHARY HAMBY
 
PART I:  THE DEPTHS OF HADES
 
The faces of the souls of the Underworld could not have been more death-like.  It was five years ago, but I remember it well.  In a matter of weeks, I had gone from un-experienced student to full-time teacher.  Smack dab in the midst of my student teaching experience, my cooperating teacher gave me some startling news.  Because of a worsening medical condition, she would be leaving soon—then it would be all me.  Even more startling:  four long years of college had not prepared me for the subject matter I would be required to teach—two classes, one called World Short Stories and the other Mythology.  I remembered plenty of short stories from my survey literature courses, but with mythology, I was drawing a blank.   In my cobwebbed memory there stood a woman with snake-hair and a psychedelic image of a wingéd horse—but that was it.  Not to worry though.  I had two whole weeks to prepare.  I needed to fill a whole semester with mythological learning.
    
As any competent educator would, I turned to my textbook for aid.  At first things looked promising.  The book had a classy cover—black with the aforementioned wingéd horse on it.  Bold gold letters tastefully titled it Mythology.  Edith Hamilton—in the same lettering—was apparently the author.  Yes, my judgment of the cover was encouraging, but what I found inside was anything but.    
    
When I opened the text to read, I quickly realized I was doomed.  Edith Hamilton had written her book in code.  It was the same indecipherable language used by those who write literary criticism and/or owner manuals for electronic devices.  Every sentence was a labyrinth, curving back in on itself, confusing the reader with many a subordinate clause and cutting him off completely from context with an outdated aphorism.   If she wasn’t randomly quoting Milton or Shakespeare, she was spending a paragraph differentiating between the poetic styles of Pindar and Apollonius.  It was as if Edith Hamilton was annoyed at having been born in the twentieth century and was using her writing style as some kind of literary time travel.  I knew if I could barely understand her language, my students were going to be even more lost than I was.  
    
Not only was her language a barrier but also her intent.  Hamilton had written Mythology in the years before Cliff’s Notes, and her text was basically a glorified Cliff’s Note on Greek mythology.  For those readers who could not read Greek or Latin, she summarizes the Greco-Roman myths for their enjoyment.  Yet enjoyment was almost nowhere to be found.  In the process of summarization, the voices of the characters had been lost.  The drama was missing.  It was all “telling” instead of “showing.”  For me this posed yet another dilemma:  Even if the students made their way through the complicated syntax, would they find something there they deemed worth learning?  
    
Mythology was a junior-senior elective designed for average learners—the kind of class that was supposed to be entertaining and somewhat interesting.  With Edith Hamilton tied around my neck, I was going down—and going down fast.  It was at this point that the stupidly optimistic part of my brain cut in.  “Maybe it won’t be so bad,” it said.  “Don’t underestimate your students.”  My ambitions renewed thanks to this still, small voice, and I laid Edith to the side, somehow sure that everything would turn out all right in the end.  
    
Before I continue to tell how my tragic flaw of youthful optimism lead to my ultimate downfall, I should take a minute to say a kind word about Edith Hamilton.  In a time when interest in the classical writings of Greece and Rome was waning, Edith Hamilton revitalized this interest by writing several works that attempted to capture the creativity and majesty of Greco-Roman civilization.  The creatively titled Mythology was one of the first books to take a comprehensive look at the Greco-Roman myths.  The popularity of mythology today owes a great deal of debt to this book and its author.  Fifty years after its publication it is still the predominant text used in mythology courses throughout the country.  Though it was at one time, Mythology is unfortunately no longer on a high-school reading level.  As I mentioned earlier, Hamilton’s writing style with its ponderous vocabulary and Sphinx-worthy inscrutability further alienates any but the most intrepid of readers.      
    
My first semester of teaching mythology was a disaster.    If I hadn’t been so idealistic and gung-ho, I would have probably given up.  Instead the new teacher within me stood up and said, “No!  I’m going to do this, and we’re going to make it fun! After all Greek mythology is filled with all kinds of teenage interests:  family murder, bestiality, incest, etc.  It’ll be just like watching MTV for them.”      
    
Utilizing every creative project idea under the sun, I threw myself into the class.  Somehow I was going to make it work.  We drew pictures, we read aloud, we watched related videos, wrote alternate endings to the stories—yet every time I kept coming up against the same brick wall:  the text.  It did not matter how enjoyable the activities were.  Whenever we turned to the actual stories—cracking open that dreaded book—the life was sucked out of my students, and I was staring at their Underworld faces once again.  
    
At last I resorted to giving lectures that summarized each and every story.  Even that was better than actually reading them.  One student, possibly sensing I was seconds away from cracking, made the comment, “I didn’t know mythology would be a bunch of notes.  I thought it would be fun.”  Here was a student who genuinely wanted to learn, and I was giving him nothing.
    
When I look back on that semester, I realize that I failed a whole batch of students.  They came and went thinking that mythology was no fun, that it had no influence on the modern world, and definitely no relevance to their own lives.  Perhaps the failure of that first experience would not have been so stark if a sudden success had not come along the next year.

PART II:  THE HEIGHTS OF OLYMPUS

The second time through the class, I was determined to not repeat the mistakes of the past.  There must be some way of avoiding the text—relating the stories without actually reading them.  But then I thought, “Isn’t this supposed to be an English class?  If we don’t actually read, can it be called English?  What has this outdated text driven me to?”     
 
When I looked into the stories, I could see excellent tales trapped behind stuffy prose.  How could I get the students to see what I saw:  that there really was a good story there?  How could I set those stories free?
    
On a whim I decided to try my hand at rewriting one of the myths.  I had dabbled in creative writing in college, so I was sure I could spin one of these tales better than Edith Hamilton had.  I decided to give it a shot.  The idea of dividing the story into parts struck me as a good one.  Maybe that would foster more student involvement.  Also, it would not be only my voice droning on for a whole hour.  As I rewrote the myths, I made sure that the original story stayed intact and that the characters I created were congruent with the ones from Greek mythology.  In the textbook Hamilton’s summarization had left them voiceless.  I was simply giving them a voice.  A few hours after beginning the process, I had created my first Reader’s Theater script.  
    
At the time I had no idea that there was an actual term for this type of play, or that there was sound educational research behind reading aloud.  Part of me was excited.  The other part was skeptical.  “These kids are high-schoolers,” I said to myself.  “They’ll never go for this.”  I looked at some of the elements I had included in my script:  overly-dramatic dialogue, sound effects, cheesy jokes.  What was I thinking?  Since I had already spent the time and energy, I decided to give it a shot.
    
There are those grand moments in education when something clicks, and those moments are the reasons that teachers teach.  My script clicked.  It clicked quite well, in fact.  The students loved reading aloud.  They were thrilled beyond belief to not be reading silently or taking notes or even watching a video.  They performed better than I ever dreamed possible.  They did funny voices.  They laughed at the cheesy jokes.  They inhabited the characters.  They even did the sound effects.  They became the voices of the characters.
    
As I looked around the room, I noticed something that was a rarity:  my students were having fun.  Not only that, but they were learning everything that Edith Hamilton could have offered them—and more.  When the script was done, I encountered a barrage of questions:  “Why did Zeus act like that to Hera?  What were insatiable loins?  Why did Aphrodite choose to marry Hephaestus?  Did the Greeks have any respect for marriage?”  Did my ears deceive me?  Intelligent questions—questions about character motivation, vocabulary, and even historical context?  I couldn’t believe it.  I was also struck by another startling fact:  they were asking about these characters as if they were real people.  After the questioning then came the obligatory quiz over the subject matter.  Result:  nearly all the students scored 100%.
    
On that first day I didn’t realize the reason behind the script’s success.  On further analysis I pinpointed it: the students were able to treat the characters as real people because real people had inhabited their role.  Zeus was not some dusty god from 3,000 years ago.  He was Joe in the second row doing a funny voice.  Something had come from the abstract world of mythology and become real.  And when something becomes “real,” it gains weight and relevance in the minds of the learners.  
    
On top of all this, the class dynamic had changed.  Before they were a group of isolated learners.  If they had a question about the text, they were too bashful to ask it.  Using the Reader’s Theater script, the students experienced the story at exactly the same time.  They heard the questions of other students.  And in this environment they were not afraid to ask their own.  They also heard the pronunciations and intonations of other students, mentally correcting or reinforcing their own.  The class had become more like a team—laughing and learning together.  
    
After the success of that first script, I realized I had created some kind of teaching drug.  I had just had an incredible teaching experience, one that I wanted to create over and over again.  I wouldn’t and couldn’t go back to the old world of bland reading.  So I didn’t.
    
The great moments of Greek mythology flew from my keyboard, and I created play after play.  Despite my overweening enthusiasm, I knew that too much of a good thing could definitely be bad, so I chose stories that would spread out the read-aloud experience.  We would still use Edith Hamilton in moderation.  After all, a few vegetables make you enjoy the sweet stuff all the more.
    
Over the course of that semester, I discovered a new enthusiasm in the students and myself.  They enjoyed learning, and I enjoyed teaching.  I had students arguing over who would read which parts—an unbelievable sight for juniors and seniors.  Laughter was a constant in the classroom.  The students could write effectively about concepts such as Heroism, War, Love, and even National Identity, using the characters of mythology as their guides.  As the Greeks would say, it was a golden age of learning.
    
PART III:  THE MUSES MAKE A CLASS VISIT

While I had immediately noted the change in student retention and interest, I had not anticipated the effect that the scripts would have on the students’ ability to write creatively about the characters of mythology.  During the Trojan War unit, a unit I had recently infused with new Reader’s Theater scripts, I asked my students to write a series of formula poems that captured either the essence of a certain character or the Trojan War as a whole.  They could use one of three poetic formulas:  haiku, cinquain, or tanka.  The results were astounding.  Students that had previously produced lackluster writing were suddenly creative, insightful, and ultimately good at poetry.  Through the use of the scripts, the students had come to inhabit the characters, to understand them on a whole new level.  Because of this, they were able to write about them in a new and moving way.  
    
One student deftly captured the agony of a dying warrior with his haiku.

It covers his face
And trails down a river’s way
His blood, his last breath

    
In her cinquain another student tapped into the despair that the Trojans must have felt when they saw the fall of their great leader, Hector.

Daylight
Neglects damp space.
Anxious stares request hope,
Looking to the fallen leader.
Darkness
    
    
Wit was now no stranger to their writing.  One student saw the comedy in the nymph Thetis, the over-protective mother of Achilles, who attempts to render her famous baby boy invincible by dipping him in the River Styx.  Unfortunately, she forgot to dip the heel by which she held him.

“Thetis”

Lady of the Sea
Who dips her child in greatness
You have missed a spot
    
    
Students who barely understood imagery were cranking out excellent images—images that showed a real connection to the story and its characters.


Sweat gleams on his brow
Dull, dry blood cakes his spear’s edge
Death comes from behind
    
    
The final and most impressive example came from the most unlikely of poets, a student who had never shown any interest for anything but sports.  Yet he produced an edgy and witty poem.  He chose for his subject the cowardly Trojan prince Paris, who runs away from battle more often than he confronts it.

“Paris”

Just like a weenie
He has to be protected
By a small Trojan
        
    
In short, my students’ writing had definitely improved.
    
Since the mythology scripts had worked so well for me, I decided to pursue publication.  I sent them to a variety of publishers. With each submission I included a write-up of my own adventures with the plays.  One publisher was kind enough to publish my materials—with a few additions, of course.  They didn’t want a collection of plays; they wanted a textbook featuring those plays.  Mythology for Teens was the result.  
    
It was around this time that I discovered the term Reader’s Theater.  Apparently, there was a whole area of drama devoted to this concept.  Vocal acting with limited sets, costumes, and props was not a new idea.  I was amazed.
    
As I began writing my textbook, I looked at the progression of events that had led me to this point.  What would have happened if I had never tried something different?  What if I had given up?  What if I had let Edith Hamilton beat me?  Now I was creating my own textbook—one that I could fill with my own particular brand of teaching.  It was a dream come true.  
    
And I owe it all to Edith.  
 
 




  
 
 
 
 
 


 
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