When Mikaela was 5, we ran out of fairy tales.
Of course, I turned to Edith Hamilton. Yes, that Edith Hamilton and her 1942 classic Mythology.The very same book that nearly made me abandon English class completely and swear off literature forever in the 7th grade. The very same book that, as a first year instructor without any "cred" to choose the curriculum, I found myself having to teach to ninth graders. (No way around it, the department chair insisted, plus it was the year's required first unit - couldn't have some of the 9th graders doing different things, could we? No, that would be utterly unthinkable, I agreed silently.) Reluctantly, I searched for my old, battered edition with its drab, mostly missing, black & white cover, in disbelief that I was put in a position to try to present this deadly-dull stuff to others. But, once I confessed these very feelings to my students, all of us unwillingly embarked on our Greek mythology misadventure together. Probably because of this shared sense of dread and the "freshman naïveté" of both students and their 23-year-old teacher, we had a fantastic time, employed any and every creative approach to get through the material and learned more Greek & Roman mythology than even good ol' Edith could bunker. (And that's no Bullfinch's.)
Years later, I again pulled out Hamilton's Mythology, this time its cherished remnant of a cover barely hanging on, askew from its binding despite numerous applications of scotch tape. Little colored post-it notes were peeking out from between the pages now, tempting my daughters with all the hidden intrigue and secrets they suggested. We began with my favorite stories, sometimes reading the text verbatim, but mostly picking out only a descriptive line or two and then breaking off into old-fashioned storytelling mode. We also supplemented with the children's classic D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, geared for kids so Mikaela could read it aloud to her sister, but the girls preferred Edith's detail-oriented prose interspersed with my elaborations. Soon, they knew the stories as well as my high schoolers and thought it was super fun to take the "so easy" quizzes they found folded up in the back of the book.
But, after a while, we ran out of those fairy tales, too. Luckily, it just so happened that we were studying ancient Greece anyway - my subtle segueway to get the kids primed for watching the 2004 summer Olympics (a very educational experience to be had while sitting on a couch eating potato chips, btw).
So, I turned to Homer. After all, he was Greek to me. Why not share?
For about 20 minutes each morning, we started the day with a book from The Odyssey, taking turns reading significant passages aloud and learning new terms like epic simile, extended metaphor or "gray-eyed Athena" epithet (that last one sidetracked us for a full day, suspending all other activity, so M&K could dwell on making up fitting nicknames for various stuffed animals, playmates and relatives). We used Robert Fitzgerald's translation, the version college profs liked when I was a t.a. & that I then taught to those Greek-lovin' 9th graders. For, despite my unorthodox practices to make literature accessible & engaging, I'm not a big fan of retellings which lose the writer's voice or "dumb down" the story. "Big words" do not have to belong to adults-only - as the experts say, young kids can soak up language more easily than at any other age, so why deny them the joy of knowing those 25 cent words (that mean the same thing as the ones they already know - so there is some context - but the new, fancy lingo provides entertainment because it "sounds funny" rolling off the tongue... and, bonus, these words, now memorable because they were learned in small doses, will then be all-too familiar when they show up again on that all-important SAT). Admittedly, it's a strange combo - I'm somewhat of a purist as far as text goes & retaining the beauty of an author's poetry, but, once we've paid homage to the language, I have no problem digressing from there, freely taking poetic license & following things out to their illogical conclusions... My focus this time around was simply to expose the girls to The Odyssey as an exciting story, the way it was originally meant to be sung (no, c'mon, I didn't really do that to them - the way it was meant to be told, I should say), before it became nothing more than a dry topic for a Humanities essay or was reduced to a cram session for some loathed final exam. And, besides that, there was just a certain something about our Homer boy's bardy humor that inspired us to go 3-D with our homeschoolese aMusements...
Our Homeric tale began where all great sagas do - in a plastic hotel. Inexplicably, someone had thought (and this was well before our "globeschooling" began) that it was the perfect present for our girls - Barbie and Ken meet the Radisson? For a long time, we did not properly appreciate the pleasingly pink - with aquamarine décor highlights - toy or its inherently transcendent & imaginative qualities. Until at last we realized, by Zeus, this playset was just the thing to stage our production of The Odyssey!
In Homer's version, Athena cleverly crafts a bronzed-tan Odysseus to better secure Princess Nausicaa's favor. Similarly, in our version, Odysseus is played by a perfectly sculpted, god-like 'Ken' knockoff, with the words "Made in China" imprinted on the back of his head. Close enough, right? In Greek, I've been told, that phrase translates to lead-in [Pb] man (though I wouldn't want to be tested on it). His son, Telemachus, was the hotel's nondescript and very stiff - a suitably immovable action figure - bellboy, who doubled as the elevator operator in the one nifty feature of this wonderful motel de résistance (somehow it included an ingenious crank & pulley elevator system, excellently illustrating that scientific principle for our Simple Machines study). Of course, it wasn't long before we began Trojan horsing around. Odysseus had to trick Troy into letting him enter their fortified Lincoln Log walls, did he not? Yet, the hotel did not come with a horse - after all, it was no New England bed and breakfast. Alas, the playtime must go on so we improvised. Oh, what would the "wily Odysseus" do in this situation? (Aside: we watched several Wile E. Coyote cartoons to reinforce that vocab word - or actually, in the case of the coyote - and, an often shockingly obtuse Odysseus - the antithesis of the word.) Why, isn't it obvious? He spied Mr. Potato Head! Surely you've noticed that discreet trap door on the potato gentleman's posterior, where all of the spudly accessories belong (but are never properly stored since they most often are used to provide invaluable traction on the playroom floor instead). Into the hatch went the Greek soldier-sailors (aka, NASA playset astronauts - isn't it remarkable how the connections abound since that's a Greek word, thus indisputably, authentically Homeric?). Later, in a pinch, Mr. Potato Head had to step up again, for he was the understudy in a second minor role, that of Cyclops. The Playskool makers had mistakenly left out a single myopic eye when they boxed ours up, but we made do with a Halloween eyeball eraser secured with some Tacky glue (fyi, I see no correlation there). Odysseus then speared Polyphemus' eye with a handy pick-up stick, rendering the giant's gangly, permanently outstretched white-gloved arms ineffectual in snagging any more of the manly morsels strapped beneath the escaping sheep (combined herds from our Noah's Ark and Old MacDonald's Farm).
Oh, please, will this duality never cease? No. But to summarize: The effect of Circe's magical powers, which subtly revealed the inner nature of Odyssey's men, was portrayed by our family's cute & cuddly male chauvinist pet pig, the mechanized walking & snorting "Oinky" (another thoughtful? gift). The sirens were represented by the motel's complimentary bikini-clad young lady with her alluring Madonna-esque tunes (I ask, who wouldn't want to crash into some rocks after listening to that? OK, I hear ya - going back to minding my own beeswax). For Charybdis, we first tried constructing a "tornado in a bottle," which, like so many of our science experiments, turned out to be a disappointing failure. So, we reconciled ourselves with the dramatic realism afforded by watching Odysseus in his (Captain Feathersword pirate) ship swirling around our bathtub drain. Argos was our very own panting dog, complete with feebly wagging tail, waiting patiently on the patio until we could tear ourselves away from the non-stop action to let him back indoors. And, finally, after twenty agonizing years (condensed into 3 weeks) of this off-oh-so-off Broadway production, the Kenly Odysseus returned to his hotel and identified the tree (well, sort of a neon green, ferny, Triassic period tree) that grew right through the lobby so he could be recognized by the ever faithful Penelope - duh, Barbie. For months afterwards, M&K referred to all of these assorted toys and dolls by their Greek-given names, effortlessly reinforcing the events and our lessons from Homer's Odyssey. Sadly, they eventually learned to put away such childish things as "ancient history" (unlike their mom, who kept busy figurine out ways to exhume them for the occasional Iliad-conceived revival).
When we'd nearly finished our little odyssey, Mikaela let slip what we'd been doing to another homeschooling mom. "Ah ha," she accused, "I knew you followed The Well-Trained Mind!" I had no idea what she was talking about. She didn't really believe me, but proceeded to inform us that I was obviously following a very particular kind of "Classical Education." The truth was that I was blissfully & quite intentionally ignorant of homeschool teaching methodology or factions. Moreover, I had no plans to change my approach - we were already too busy trying to cover all of the topics Mikaela had thought up once we'd decided to homeschool & I'd unwittingly asked her, "So, whaddya want to learn this year?" However, within days, I found myself at the library reviewing the gigantic tome of classical education, at first impressed by its weighty reading list - indeed, it did include The Odyssey (though not for kindergarteners) - if not the sheer "heaviness" of its 764 pages of content suggestions.
Yet, based on my cursory review, it seemed the primary exercise for children's history lessons was showing mastery of a subject by outlining chapters. Parents could feel assured that following this rigid format would instill discipline, plus provide superior college preparation to boot. I have no doubt it succeeds at both, but my overriding impression was "You choose to homeschool your kid so you can do this?" Displaying the kind of hubris which only emerges when one feels fully threatened & insecure, I made Chris listen as I droned on about the mind-numbing potential of chapter outlining for the rest of that evening. Three or perhaps four hours later, Chris had finally achieved deep REM sleep and I was wide awake, once again absolutely confident that I was right to summarily dismiss this approach....
The next morning, I sat Mikaela down in her little school chair at her little school table, which was laid out with clean, lined paper, sharpened pencils at the ready. I made her read a few pages of a children's typical history text. I demonstrated how to outline the first paragraph. Then I told her to outline the next two. No pressure. Just to prove she could. Pshew, she could. I then promised her that she would never, ever have to do that again. Our sole attempt at "classical education" was exhausting.* That's so Classical.
Meanwhile, back at playgroup, when an unrestrained Mikaela explained a bit more about the specifics of our Homeric similes (ie, personification by Ken & Barbie), a different mom felt obligated to let me in on yet another sacred educational theory. "Oh, I NEVER allow my daughter to play with plastic things. Not good for the tactile sensory functions, you know? Waldorf encourages all-natural toys - like from nature, you know?" No, I didn't know. Oh, the shame and embarrassment. Sensing my distress, she empathized, "Honestly, I just threw out our plastic toys a couple of months ago. Replaced them with only natural toys, so we can reconnect with nature - like our seashell collection. I got a whole bag of 'em on sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond!" Immediately, I realized what a fool I'd been... if only we'd told the Odyssey using mollusks, river rocks & twigs, imagine the superior learning & retention possibilities. A lost cause, I didn't dare tell her that I'd already planned our next storytime - Beowulf - based solely on the fact that we'd recently acquired "Rex," a tyrannosaurus puppet that came with a fast food kids' meal to promote Toy Story 2. Turned out, he served very nicely as the terrorizing dragon.
*Despite my protestations, our reading selections probably do align most closely with those considered 'Classical Education' or, at least, "the classics." But, our approach to learning from & experiencing the material resists formality or static categorization. Like many homeschoolers, we take the "easy out" and, if forced, define ourselves as 'eclectic homeschoolers,' picking & choosing from a variety of styles (most often, our own).