It started in the Spring of 2011, and is still here. Ancient Greece. Now Ancient Rome. Cinder and Flora getting as thorough a grounding in Greek mythology and the foundation of Western civilization as the average first-year university Classics student. Here’s how it happened. Read the boring paragraph, please. You need it as a straw man to enjoy the rest of the piece.
D’Aulaires Greek Myths Study Guide (grade 3-6)
“This program explores this classic of Greek mythology following the same in-depth approach used in other Memoria Press guides. Designed to be used for one year (although you may choose to go faster by combining days), each of the 30 lessons is broken down into five days. Students read the selected pages from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths on the first day. On the second day, students familiarize themselves with the “Facts to Know”―key people, places, and objects. The goal is for students to memorize these items and retain them through the end of the year, although there is no final test in this program. The third section holds vocabulary words for students to discuss and define with their teacher and may also be used as spelling words. The fourth day holds comprehensive questions, written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers. The final section uses the fantastic illustrations found in D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a springboard for further discussion questions. Review lessons appear after every fifth lesson; all vocabulary and facts from the preceding lessons are tested and recurring activities encourage children to draw a picture of their favourite god or story and work on a list of things from today which borrow the names or symbols of Greek gods and goddesses. A pronunciation guide in the back breaks down al the tricky Greek names for smoother reading. The teacher’s guide is identical to the student book except the answers are filled in.”
The above summary/review―titillating, was it? Enjoy reading it? Or did you stifle a yawn or two?―comes from the Rainbow Resource Center’s Homeschool Catalogue, and you can buy the D’Aulaires book, student and teacher guide for $40.50.
D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is a beautiful book. I have it on our bookshelf, in fact―a gift from my good friend Lisa, who passed it on to us after her kids were done grooving with the Greeks and mine were in full Greco mode. I was thrilled: we had just maxed the number of renewals on our library copy. Flora loved sitting down with the book and looking at the pictures, and we spent many evenings with it as our bedtime reading… or morning reading… or mid-day reading.
But we never did get the study guide. Because Cinder and Flora never studied Greek mythology―and I never taught it.
This is what we did instead.
It all started in the Texas Panhandle. That’s where Hank the Cowdog hails from. Hank the Cowdog is a wonderful series of books by John Ericsson about―who else―Hank the cowdog, his sidekick Drover, his enemy Pete the barn cat and an assortment of very fallible human characters. There are 50-plus books in the Hank series, and while extremely amusing and well-written, they do tend to be just a bit… repetitive. Formulaic. After months and months of reading and listening to Hank (the author’s produced a series of audio books as well, which accompanied us on every car ride and serenaded us pretty much anytime we were in the kitchen), I was very actively looking for another obsession with which to replace Hank. Harry Potter did it for a while―we read the first four books and watched (most of) the first four movies, but he didn’t have the repeatability of Hank: the kids didn’t want to read him again and again. Once―twice for book one―was enough. (They are pretty thick books for a six year old to listen to!)
Enter Percy Jackson. He was mentioned by another homeschooling family when we were swapping favourite book stories. I filed the name away to look into―and a few days later, Cinder and his friend K watched Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief on Netflix.
Usually, I’d have us read the book before watching the movie―but here, the Fates intervened. There’s nothing wrong with The Lightening Thief as a movie―it’s a perfectly good kids’ movie. “That guy playing Percy Jackson, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen,” said a star-struck Flora. “Luke is an awesome villain!” said Cinder. But if we had come to the movie after the books, it would have sucked. As it was, the kids enjoyed it, and were eager to read the Percy Jackson books.
There are five of them, written by author Rick Riordan, whose first career was an an adult thriller writer, and who―like most great children’s writers seem to―invented Percy Jackson as a character about whom he spun bedtime stories for his sons. As The Lightening Thief opens, Percy is a 12 year old kid with ADHD and dyslexia―a really good kid who somehow or other keeps on getting into trouble in school after school. Weird things happen to him and around him, and not an awful lot in his life makes sense, until one day, his substitute teacher turns into a Fury and tries to kill him, his best friend turns into a satyr and tries to save him, his Latin teacher turns into a Centaur, a Minotaur appears out of nowhere and kidnaps his mother… and Percy finds out he’s the son of Poseidon.
And the adventures begin. Percy finds himself in a world where the Greek gods are real and still peopling the earth with godlings―or half-bloods or demigods in the Riordan vernacular. Percy finds a sanctuary of sorts at Camp Half-Blood―the place where demigods go for combat training―then a quest… and in the end, of course, saves the world, and Olympus. And, in the last book, when he’s 16, gets the girl.
Cinder and Flora were swept away by the story. We read the hefty Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief in three nights, and then read it again while we waited for the library to deliver the second book in the series, Sea of Monsters. They couldn’t get enough of Sea of Monsters―I took out the audio book of it as well, and when I wasn’t reading it to them, they were listening to the audio book in the kitchen, in the car―not wanting to get out of the car because they wanted to keep on listening. Battle of the Labyrinth, The Titan’s Curse and finally, The Last Olympian followed. They fell in love with the heroes of the books―Percy, the son of Poseidon, Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Niko, son of Hades. They met Zeus, Poseidon and Hades―the “Big Three”―as well as Hephasteus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, Hera and, of course, Dionysus―the god of wine who for his transgressions (he ticked off Zeus by going after the wrong nymph) was the cranky and totally inappropriate headmaster of Camp Half-blood. (“Maybe if you go on this quest, you’ll die and I’ll never have to deal with you again,” he tells Percy Jackson once.) They got to know all about the “real”
Perseus, Percy Jackson’s namesake, and Theseus, and Herakles, and Dadealus, and so many more.
When we’d go to the library for the new Percy book, we’d also come back with handfuls of other books on Greek myths. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths was a quick first favourite, as was Atticus the Storytellers 100 Greek Myths. So was Michael Townsend’s amazing Greek myths of wonder and blunders : welcome to the wonderful world of Greek mythology, a pun-filled, blood-filled comic book introduction to the world of “Greek gods, dumb sheep and people who hated pants.” George O’Connor’s amazing graphic novel series retelling first the story of Zeus, then Athena―we’re still on hold for Hera!―offered different, modern reinterpretations of the myths. The kids learned about source material and the fluidity of oral tradition. We read Homer for Children, and they got to know the heroes of Troy and the Odyssey. Flora adored the story of Persephone, so I found her all the versions of the story, including one in which Demeter is an over-bearing mother who won’t let her daughter marry and move on with life! Cinder really liked Odysseus and the dangerous sea voyages: we watched Kirk Douglas’ Ulysseus, and talked about what happened to the Greek gods―and the world―when the power of Rome rose. We watched the History Channel/A&E documentary Clash of the Gods―and we watched a few episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. I found them audio books of the various myths, including a BBC radio production of The Odyssey.
And we went back to the Percy Jackson books and read and re-read them, and re-listened to them.
Over… how long? Complete immersion lasted about two months―May and June of 2011 had them scorning anything and everything that didn’t have the taste of ancient Greece. It continued into the summer, capping with me organizing a Percy Jackson book club meeting, in which Cinder and Flora hosted a get-together for three other families also currently obsessed with Percy Jackson. They prepared a list of questions they wanted the kids to talk about (“If you were a demigod, who would you want your godly parent to be? What sort of weapon would you want? What monster would you most want to slay―and which one are you most afraid of?”). The kids all brought weapons to the meeting―and after the discussion, went out on our Common to sword fight. (“You know it’s a good book club if there’s a sword fight afterwards.”)
And then the obsession started to wane―just in time, because we were number 89 on the wait list at the library for Rick Riordan’s next book, Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero, and we had read pretty much every good book on Greek myths and Ancient Greece in the library by then―several times over. “I need something to get the Greek gods out of my mind,” Flora told me. But Percy Jackson set the bar high. For several weeks, everything I offered them was a dud. Chronicles of Narnia? Boring. Treasure Island? Nah. The Mysterious Benedict Society? All the other kids in our Percy Jackson book club had read it and loved? Boooooring. This really cool book about samurai? Warrior cats? Killer owls?
They were mythed-out… and it took me a while to figure out, also fictioned out. We went back to Horrible Science as bedtime reading. I got The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child out of the library as an audio book for in-car listening. Ancient Greece retreated into the background.
Until… last week, we finally got The Lost Hero. And devoured the 550 page book in about a week. The library doesn’t have a copy of the next one, Son of Neptune, in yet… but Costco did. We’re reading it now. We can’t stop. Something weird’s happening: Gaea’s waking up and preparing to make war on her Olympian children again. And her Olympian children are shifting between their Greek and Roman aspects. Zeus is Zeus one minute and then he’s Jupiter. Hera’s becoming Juno… and they’re not precisely the same in those two aspects. Because Greece and Rome, well, each as a culture valued and focused on different things…
By the most fortuitous of coincidences―or was it the Fates intervening again?―The Story of the World volume we just finished covers the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. I need to check in with the library to see what they have in stock―on DVD, I think―covering the transition period. And next time we’re at the grandparents’ house, I should pull out our photo albums from Italy―standing in front of the Coliseum.
So… have Cinder and Flora explored Greek myths in depth? Hell―sorry, Hades―yeah. But they didn’t read a myth a week. They didn’t memorize “Facts to Know” with the goal of demonstrating that memorization at a test. They didn’t review vocabulary words nor endure spelling tests of the Greek gods’ names. Comprehensive questions “written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers”? Well―they talked at length about all the stories. They asked us questions, and of each other. We asked them. They offered interpretations and impressions to interested adults, and inflicted them on completely uninterested playmates. At one point Flora wanted to learn to speak Ancient Greek―so I got out a couple of books, and they looked at the Greek alphabet, and listened to the names of the letters―and memorized what Omega and Theta look like. Poseidon’s trident led to the triangle to geometry to Archimedes (“Hey, I know him―that’s from Mythbusters! The Archimedes’ Death Ray? Remember?”) to the Greek roots of English mathematical, and other, words. There was a brief segue into the planets even before Riordan started phasing the Greek gods into their Roman aspects (“I know why Pluto’s named Pluto! Because it’s dark and rocky and barren and kind of depressing, just like Hades!”).
Could I have asked for a more thorough exploration of Greek myths, as a teacher or as a learning facilitator? No way. Could I have designed this program? Nope, no way again. I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that if we had come to the Greek myths through the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths study guide, brought to the children by me because I thought we should study Greek myths now, our experience would have been, well, vastly different. They probably would have enjoyed the stories: it’s hard not to. But would we have managed to work our way through the entire 30-week study guide before they thought the project mostly drudgery? Would they have been inspired to delve as deeply into them as they did because they loved the Percy Jackson books and wanted to experience them as fully as possible?
Maybe. The Greek myths are powerful; they resonate. But having watched Cinder and Flora immerse themselves fully in the world of the Greeks―and now discover Ancient Roman with the same joy―I’m again ridiculously grateful that we’re able to let them do this. Take six months to read and re-read Percy Jackson. Take three years to obsess about dinosaurs. Play with baking soda and vinegar every day for 40 weeks, and then spend three weeks obsessing about nothing but the periodic table. Take a break from everything that looks like “work” because there’s important internal digestion happening and just colour and listen to books on tape and play video games for a while.
Gotta go. Cinder just came downstairs holding Son of Neptune. Percy, Frank and Hazel are on this quest to Alaska, because the giant Alcyoneus has imprisoned Thanatos, the god of death… Read the book. Come to our book club meeting. There’ll be a sword fight after.
First published on Nothing By The Book.