One of the frustrating things about teaching English is how much time we spend looking for what to teach–the timely article, the thought-provoking poem, the text that will make an idea come to life for our students. But finding them takes time. And the more time we spend looking for what to teach, the less time we have to think about how to teach.
I’m not saying I want to teach out of textbook, because I’ve never been that kind of a teacher. But sometimes I fantasize about a really good app–put in some facts about yourself and what you teach and out come really great companion texts. And yes, I know about Common Lit, but I would describe it (at least currently) as “merely serviceable” rather than “really great.”
Because when it comes down to it, matching up texts is part of the art and science of teaching English. And it’s hard. So one of the things I would like to use Next Time Teaching for is to share some of my ideas on companion texts and hopefully save some people time looking for what to teach.
Let’s start with The Odyssey. The Odyssey can be tricky because it’s already so long that you probably don’t have a lot of time to spend on related texts. So poems can come in handy.
Poems with allusions to The Odyssey
Louise Glück is probably the author who has done this the most. Her collection Meadowlands features many poems exploring the relationships between the characters in The Odyssey. 3 I think are best suited to the classroom:
- “Circe’s Power“
- “Telemachus’ Kindness” (good for talking about empathy) and
- “Parable of the Hostages” (about leaving the Trojan War, and good for talking about the appeal of war and adventure)
Four others are
- Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “An Ancient Gesture”
- Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song” (there’s also an AP Lit essay question that asks students to compare this to the Siren passage from The Odyssey)
- Derek Walcott’s “Sea Grapes” (brings up some interesting questions)
- C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaca” (a classic if you want students to think about their own journeys)
Songs with allusions to The Odyssey
Understanding the time period
Two poems I like that aren’t explicitly about The Odyssey, but help students see how ideas they are probably familiar with might appear in different times and cultural settings
- Deborah Gregor’s “Armorer’s Daughter” (gender stereotypes)
- Sappho’s “It’s no use” (an accessible poem that lets students predict what might be similar and different about daily life in ancient Greece)
Other thematic connections
- Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” (good for identifying the mood of missing home)
- A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” (interesting discussion starter about the value of glory)
- Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (a dark exploration of the motivation behind war)
A few classics I wouldn’t teach
Kudos to anyone brave enough to try them, but I find these poems take too long and are too difficult for students to connect to.
- On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by Keats
- Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters
- Tennyson’s Ulysses
Also check out 8 Non-fiction Articles to Pair with The Odyssey, Hero Stories Featuring Girls and Gods and Goddesses in The Odyssey!
Also, “Penelope” by Dorothy Parker is a great poem to teach how gender plays a role in our perceptions of courage. My sophomores tend to appreciate Penelope far more than Odysseus after we discuss this poem.
Thanks, Adyan! I’d never run across that poem of Dorothy Parker’s before!