The work of the English Department at The Storm King School sets the bar high for academic excellence and exemplifies how our faculty strives to achieve deeper learning by actively engaging their students in innovative, interdisciplinary ways.
A recent addition to the English course roster called A Hero’s Journey-Science Fiction & Fantasy does just that by combining the elements of more traditional creative writing and literature classes with history, theater, folklore, and art–all from a hero’s perspective.
The theme of a ‘Hero’s Journey’ has been taught in high schools and colleges everywhere, but none have done so quite like the teachers at SKS. Based on mythologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’– a storyline involving a hero who embarks on an adventure, faces a crisis, emerges victorious, and returns home changed or transformed– SKS’ version of the class allows students to examine and experience the deep, metaphorical transformation that heroic figures in every place and time period seem to share, then introspectively apply what they’ve learned to their own lives.
Juniors and seniors who choose the class are asked to “imagine themselves as heroes who are awakening and already on a journey” and given a blank sheet of paper as a class syllabus with the phrase “We are going to create together!” The course kicks off with the exploration of classic heroic journeys from around the world including Beowulf, L’Morte D’Arthur, and William Wallace as Braveheart, before moving to more contemporary tales, metaphors, poems, and myths including William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” Whitman’s “Oh Captain, My Captain,” Coelho’s The Alchemist, The Lord of the Rings, and The Matrix among others.
Throughout the course, students explore these works while completing a variety of challenges, literary exercises, and ongoing comparative analyses including essays, creative writing assignments, oral presentations, and short films. Each student also keeps a written journal of their learnings throughout the class.
One important and powerful writing exercise is the “Letter to my Future Self,” which is designed to help each student create a framework for their own personal transformation. Once their letters are complete, the students submit them to an online platform which will send the letters back to them after five years.
Graduating senior Xuechun Iris Zhang ’19 was influenced by Braveheart in her letter to her future self: “There was a great line in Braveheart: ‘Every man dies, but not every man really lives.’ I hope you can really live instead of just making a living, and make your life meaningful.”
Another senior, Yen-Tin Ling ‘19, wrote a compelling message to his future self: “What are the values you hope that you have lived your life by? What is your dream? Have you followed your bliss? Have you visited the places you said you would? Or, are you caught somewhere in the “belly of the whale” or The Matrix? Have you been making time for the things you really love? What is your worst fear? What are the character flaws that you have successfully overcome?”
Toward the end of the course, the students’ final quest is the creation of a unique, heroic character based on their own personal journeys. The course culminates in an out-of-the-box final presentation where the students ‘become’ their characters and present their personal transformations to the class. This spring, the Enchanted Forest above Ogden Hall was the perfect location for a series of twilight readings during final exam week which counted for a large portion of the students’ final grades.
The campus came alive as the newly-formed heroes converged around a campfire surrounded by burning torches to assume their roles and talk of their transformative, sometimes emotional, journeys. Aside from everything they learned, many of the students commented that the course benefited them on many different levels. “It was the closest thing I’ve seen to a high school philosophy course. I guess the biggest thing I learned is that I should heed the call to be a hero, not deny it, and follow my heart,” said Steven Muller ’19 in his final monologue.
Kolby Braxton ’19, another graduating senior, presented an eloquent speech for his final monologue: “The journey involved great pain but the boon was undoubtedly worth it. Through it all, I was able to restore bonds with my family. By letting go of my obsessions, I was able to mind my exit. Now I follow my own path. The road ahead is difficult, but, like Sisyphus, I will carry on. I will soar with complete freedom towards my dreams with a heart braver than that of any Geat. But a hero is nothing without his companions. We are all knights of the same roundtable and we have each been called to complete different quests. And quest we will until the day comes that we meet again.”
Yet another student, Noah Mendlewski ’20, summarized his feelings in his Hero’s Journal that perhaps best describes the value of the class from a personal perspective: “The class is much different than any others you have taken or will take at Storm King, or at any other school. It has taught me to open up, and be the person who I am truly meant to be.”