On Teaching Mythology with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

I used this book, along with Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green, to teach mythology to a class of sixth graders during the summer. Working our way through the myths of Hellenic mythology, the kids remained very excited throughout the earlier discussions because of my use of multiple media depictions during the lessons, and their anticipation of the book based upon the excitement of those classmates that had seen the movie previously.

Once we had finished reading through the various myths that are referenced to throughout the novel, I purposefully decided to show them the movie, The Lightning Thief, before reading the book. Once I had done so, I was able to read the book, either orally as a class, or by using the audio book while they read along. They remained engaged throughout the readings, and, as a trick, I played muted video clips from the adaptation, or other movies set in mythology, which depicted the events we were reading that day on a loop. The students that I found were watching the film instead of reading along with the class would then be the ones subject to the critical reading questions that I would ask, which quickly taught them to keep their nose in their books. While doing so, I would also walk around the classroom with Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide or The Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel to show them characters involved in the scene, especially those that were deleted from the movie. As I said, I had determined previously that I would show them the movie before reading the book, breaking the cardinal rule of film adaptations, because this allowed us to have a group discussion of the book, the film, and the graphic novel where they thought critically about the variations of the different media forms, and allowed us to also spend time discussing the process of adapting books into movies.

The class, which was made up of students from low-income urban households, was part of a program organized by Pennsylvania’s Workforce Investment Act Youth Program and the Erie CareerLink. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, and once it was over I thought that they should be rewarded. I have found that the students do not read often at home because their parents either work shifts that do not allow them to spend time together as a family, or that their parents cannot read themselves. Since the kids had become so excited by their experiences with Greek mythology and Percy Jackson, and I could not give them the school districts books, I gave them each a book from my own personal collection. The students were humbled by the fact that I gave them each a book that I had read previously, along with an award certificate for what I termed “The New Old Book Award,” which I have adopted from my tenure at Virginia Tech, where each professor in the Classical Studies department would give one of the graduating seniors a book, into my classroom. Since I had given each student a book, I decided to give the class’ best student a box set of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Boxed Set.

Moving Away From the Fast Food Model of Education

It is commonly accepted that the educational system in America is broken, but the debate continues as far as how we should address reforming our educational system. High school dropout rates are increasing, while the value of a college education is decreasing. The educational system, established to develop students that can transition into Industrial Age careers, has become inadequate in its role to produce citizens capable of utilizing and fulfilling the needs of the Information Age. Among thirty developed countries, Americans education levels have slipped to twenty-fifth in math and twenty-first in science, according to PISA.

Not only have our schools fallen behind those of other developed nations, but they have also shown major gaps in the extremes that our educational system fosters. The United States performs at above average levels of students qualified as “top performers” in math and science, but also has a comparatively large portion of poor performers, at 24.4%. In an attempt to rectify this crisis, 87% of all US schools practice ability grouping for some, or all, subjects. Programs like “No Child Left Behind” have attempted to promote charter schools in order to give children a better education than they would receive in a traditional public school setting. However, the greatest threat facing our students is not what type of school that they attend, but rather, their socio-economical background. In fact, once socio-economic factors are accounted for, public and private schools show no performance differences. While this occurs, businesses, which have a large impact on school curriculums compared to foreign schools, have stressed the need to further math and science programs, while administrators cut art and music programs their budgets. Our educational system has shown that we try to make students conform to our expectations, as opposed to cultivating their natural talents and abilities. In an attempt to produce well-rounded students and citizens, we have lost the creative edge that cultivates the advancement of societies.

As Sir Ken Robinson argues in his presentation to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, an education revolution is needed in order to reform the American school system. However, while the debate continues in the political spectrum regarding how to improve the education of our children, very little is done to improve the situation temporarily. The American economy is shedding hundreds of no qualification jobs every day, while teacher and student standards continue to rise, but the rate at which the economy is getting rid of low skill jobs means that we have to raise our game. Meanwhile, our society seeks a quick fix solution, such as charter schools, but the true effect of charter schools in the US has been to lower student achievement, because more schools have gotten worse results than better results. Large structural changes to the school systems have been unsuccessful at producing the education for our children that our society desires.

The question then arises, what does work to fix education? The subsequent proposal has often been to increase teacher qualification standards, or to release those teachers that are deemed the most inadequate. However, the RSA & BBC have found that our increased teacher standards only influence the students’ scores by 1/400 of a grade. The result has been that we are pursuing policies that are not likely to produce the desired scale. The goal of our educational institutions should be to help every single teacher, the ones already hired within our schools, not on professional development that give them new facts, but a focus on professional learning about practice. Changing practice is hard, because it is changing habits. As an educational institution, we have a lot to learn from Weight Watchers, because nobody needs to know what they need to do to lose weight when it is something as simple as “eat less and exercise more.” Everyone knows that, but what is difficult is changing habits. We need new models of professional development, and new kinds of teacher learning, that are relentlessly focused on improving what happens everyday inside of the classrooms. If we do that, then unprecedented achievements in education is possible.

The old paradigm that if you worked hard, went to school, and worked towards a college degree, a job would be awaiting you is no longer true. The ideology within the development of the public education system enabled assumptions about social structure and capacity that there are two types of people: academic and non-academic. The Industrial Age, taking advantage of the Enlightenment’s intellectual model of the mind, was able to process these students into society as middle or working class citizens. However, as the outsourcing of our “blue collar” jobs continues, our education system has not been as quick to evolve to the current economical and technological situation.

Standardized tests have sought to improve science and math scores, which are the subjects that have the most direct impact on a country’s future economy. However, today’s math curriculum is teaching students to expect, and excel at, paint-by-numbers class work, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them. The current system of science and math education creates impatience with irresolution, by giving students a word problem where they have all of the numbers and information needed, and they subsequently only need to plug those numbers into the correct positions within a mathematical formula. The textbooks are written in such a way that the conversation serves the math, instead of the math being capable of serving the conversation. Albert Einstein said, “the formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill,” yet in the US we simply give problems to students, instead of involving them in the formulation of the problem. Teachers then must create ways, such as Dan Meyer demonstrates, that prompt students to use mathematical reasoning and problem solving techniques to formulate their own sub-steps and mathematical problem.

While our textbooks and styles of teaching must begin to adjust to society’s educational needs, the elder generations need to recognize one quintessential fact: our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth. They are besieged by information from computers, iPhones, television, and are condemned in the classroom for being distracted by a curriculum that does not properly engage their minds given the revolution in time that has occurred within the past generation. The technological revolution that occurred during the computer evolution of the 1990s and 2000s has significantly altered the pace of life between our current society and the generation that we are attempting to educate. In America, a child drops out of school every nine seconds. This statistic is worse for those in minority backgrounds, as well as for boys compared to girls. There is currently a disaster recipe developing among boys in America, where studies have shown that by the time a male reaches the age of 21, he has spent ten thousand hours playing video games alone. Not only does this mean that they have not properly developed the social skills required to adjust to the society around them, but they also live in a world which they create. Their brains are being digitally rewired, which means they will never fit in a traditional analog classroom, where they find themselves bored because they are unable to control anything within their passive environment. While traditionalists suggest that we must go back to the roots of the educational curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic, this will only continue the disastrous path for adolescent males, who need to be placed in a situation where they are controlling something. Another purpose of education has been to take children, who are born with present hedonistic mindsets, and transform them into future oriented citizens. However, we are underestimating the role of technology in rewiring our children’s brains to be about the second, where waiting is a waste of time, and preventing the next generation from becoming future oriented. Adults are unable to realize that kids are very different than they were, and it is because of this revolution in time.

The educational system is becoming inadequate, therefore, on two fronts: differences in pace of life as well as the economy from which the system was developed and created in the image of. It is for these reasons that I believe we must begin to transition to the Whole Education system. The Whole Education aims to enable the necessary changes needed in education policy that will cultivate the minds of our next generation to meet the demands of a fast changing work place that requires independent thinking, creativity, employability, and collaboration. We need to begin to equip students with the skills and personal qualities that they need to handle the major transitions that they endure throughout life, so that they no longer need to educated on how to learn when they pursue a college education, or have to be taught how to learn and think for themselves once they join the workforce. While doing so, children need to be developed as an individual, with a curriculum that enables every young person to achieve their own potential, rather than produce students from a “fast food” or assembly line model, where conformity and standardization are promoted, at the cost of our students’ creativity and divergent thinking ability. Students also need to learn to fail while in school so that they are taught the social and emotional competencies needed to collaborate and forge strong constructive relationships with others, including self-awareness, empathy, resilience, self-respect, persistence, and self-discipline. Young people should learn in an atmosphere that is relevant and engaging, not passive, and should be encouraged to work collaboratively to stretch themselves and work with others, and develop the ability to question and present their arguments, findings, and knowledge in a coherent and literate manner. In order for such an educational revolution to occur, parents and administration heads need to have more trust placed in the teachers who are best positioned to design a learning process that raises attainment and encourages the best from each young person, while understanding the requirements of the young people they teach.

The Whole Education equips students to think for themselves and makes the best of their talents, by building the belief that what a person does, and how much effort they invest, can and will produce positive results and rewards. Once students are shown that their contribution matters, they will be more likely to get involved in their community and become active citizens. Further, each student needs to take responsibility for their own future, but with the support and commitment of parents, the school, and the greater community, which may require the support of local support services and schools that can act as catalysts in this process by being accessible and operating without boundaries.

The adaptation of these techniques can begin in a single classroom, by individual teachers, who are ambitious and committed to their students’ education while the educational system in place begins to undergo a restructuring program necessary to fulfill the needs of our young people. These implementations are not meant to eliminate preexisting standards regarding what students should learn, but rather offer alternative ways to apply and supplement the existing education that is offered. As previously documented, the ability to make the learning of mathematics and science into an active learning environment, where math is able to fulfill the needs of a conversation, equating the skills learned to real-life situations, will provoke interest and improve, not only their capabilities to understand the formula, but also enable them to have the capacity to recall those abilities to be successful in the future. The social sciences also need to adapt in order to show students how the humanities are always evolving and progressing. Programs, such as Dream Catcher, allow children to capture children’s dreams by recording their creative play and imaginary worlds, opening up powerful channels of shared communication and learning with parents, other children, and grade school professionals through a Dream Blog, fostering creative ideas through art and literature. The redesign of history textbooks to demonstrate how social changes were controversial, that history is not black and white, while implementing historical fiction, under the pretext that historical inaccuracies and artistic license is accounted for, to enable the readers to imagine themselves in that time, is a necessary advancement, and a tool that has been used since antiquity beginning with the use of Homer. Literature classes would introduce blogging, which is already accepted as having affected the journalism media, as a way of enhancing writing abilities, while also utilizing personalized class wikis for collaborative efforts within the student body, as a supplement to the study of world literature. Accessible schools and teachers should also embrace social media and networking, by utilizing them to create openness through the system, while safely introducing children to these networks.

The educational system needs to be transformed to fit the requirements of the 21st century, and now is the time to act to ensure that we give our children the bright futures that we promise is awaiting them once their formal education is fulfilled.