Closer Readings Commentary

Notes from NCTE 2014: Stories as Landscapes of Knowing

This past weekend seven thousand English teachers, professors, and scholars from across the country converged on National Harbor in Washington, D.C., to explore the many dimensions of story as the landscape of knowing—story as literary and informational text; story as cross-disciplinary collaborations; story as multiple literacies and genres; story as memory and identity; story as teacher knowledge and research; story as community and culture, story as marginalization; and story as resistance. 

National Gallery of Art and EDSITEment workshop “It Came from Mythology: Archetypes in Art and Literature” 

One of the main causes of its popularity is the simple fact that no other book (except possibly the Old Testament) contains such a wealth of fascinating stories. The Metamorphoses is, first and foremost, an extraordinarily fecund resource for narratives, especially stories of human personalities in conflict.

It is true that most of these stories obviously do not originate in Ovid. … But here they all exist together, rather like an encyclopedia of mythology, giving direct access to a magical world of fiction which provides all those interested in art a resource without equal.

—I. Johnston “The Influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses

As EDSITEment’s literature and language specialist, I teamed with Melanie Harper Spears, interpretive projects manager at The National Gallery of Art to co-present a Saturday afternoon session utilizing the masterful stories of the classical poet Ovid to straddle the divide between English teaching and visual art. Indeed, as we discovered, the classical myths emanating from The Metamorphoses are a powerful vehicle to unlock meaning and engage students.

In a room overflowing with 90+ English teachers, Melanie opened the session with a guided practice on how to “read” a Tiepolo painting inspired by Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne myth. Participants responded to what they saw, thought, and wondered about the painting, then had an opportunity to compose and share “I Am” poems, centered on one of its mythic figures.

For the hands-on activities, we were joined at the podium by veteran teacher, NEH Summer Scholar, and EDSITEment curriculum writer, Eileen Mattingly, who led the participants through an analysis of two versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. She had teacher participants compare Ovid’s passages to an early 20th-century poem, “Eurydice” by H.D. They were stunned to learn that this poem, so feminist in tone, was written in 1916—decades before the women’s equal rights movement. For a broader context, I shared a host of mythology resources in the EDSITEment repository designed to enhance visual literacy in the English curriculum. We then highlighted 2015 professional development opportunities for school teachers and professors available through NEH and NGA. A number of participants gave testimony to the profound impact these summer programs have had on their teaching and personal lives. A lively Q&A session ensued.

This weekend’s presentation offered EDSITEment an opportunity to unveil our newest CCSS literature and language curriculum unit: The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A Common Core Exemplar. The lessons in this unit comprise a series of comparisons to align with Anchor standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

The first lesson compares Genesis and The Metamorphoses by having students consider similarities and differences in the elements within these two stories of creation, as well as the destructive elements within two stories of the great flood that all but obliterated humankind. Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

The second and third lessons consider how the characters, stories, and themes in The Metamorphoses have been used as a source for later poets and artists. Students conduct explorations of these artistic representations of the myths and compare how the same story can be rendered in two different mediums. Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare) and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

Our NCTE session drew a large number of attendees to investigate classroom applications based in the mythology of a two-thousand-year-old storyteller and pieces of artwork composed hundreds of years ago! Clearly these stories retain the ability to move and inspire 21st-century teachers looking for ways to make connections between art and literature with their students.

The popularity of the session also underlines teachers’ interest in finding new vehicles for interdisciplinary collaboration. Participants came away with an understanding that the discussion of visual art extends well beyond the art history lecture hall—to find a place in the English classroom as a dynamic means for comparative analysis and as a launch pad to imaginative creative writing.