Wednesday, August 27, 2014

EngageNY Grade 6, Module 1, Unit 2, Lessons 1–2: Mythology At Last?

Unit 2 of The Lightning Thief module begins auspiciously:

Grade 6: Module 1: Unit 2: Lesson 1

Reading Closely to Build Background Knowledge: “Myths and Legends” 

Really? I'm actually looking forwards to that. Unfortunately, after doing the requisite inferencing from the novel itself, we are presented with the first myth, entitled:

In appearance, the gods were supposed to resemble mortals, but they were more beautiful, strong, and tall. They resembled human beings in their feelings and habits, marrying one another and having children, and needing daily nourishment and refreshing sleep.

The Greeks believed that their gods were much smarter than men, but that the gods still had human feelings and passions. We often see the gods motivated by revenge, deceit, and jealousy. But they always punish the evildoer, especially any mortal who neglects their worship.

We often hear of the gods descending to earth to visit mankind. Often, both gods and goddesses become attached to mortals and have children with them. These children are called heroes or demigods, and were usually known for their great strength and courage. But although there were so many points of resemblance between gods and men, only the gods were immortal.

They possessed the power to make themselves invisible and could disguise themselves as men or animals. They could also transform human beings into trees, stones, or animals, either as a punishment for their misdeeds or to protect the individual from danger.

Most of these divinities lived on the summit of Mount Olympus, each possessing his or her individual home, and all meeting together on festive occasions in the council-chamber of the gods. Men built magnificent temples to their honor and worshipped the gods with the greatest solemnity

Not terribly encouraging, and this isn't because the information here is wrong, or even inappropriate for the book, but it's inappropriate considering we're nine chapters into the book! We've been talking about gods sine the first chapter! This would have been a fine introduction to gods before chapter 1, but now?

Speaking of which, who are those gods? There's mention of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Ares, Athena (my favorite), and Dionysus, so where is the background knowledge? Who are these gods? That's what makes this unit so frustrating. It's either assuming sixth-graders know this (and most of them don't) or that it's unimportant, which is also wrong.

Of course, a handout can never just be informational. We now need to parse it for as much as much vocabulary and paragraph structure as we can get. But once that tedious review of test-taking skills is dne, we're on to lesson 2, the myth of Cronus!

Cronus was the son of Uranus and Gaea (Mother Earth), and was the youngest of the Titans. When Gaea gave birth to other children, such as Cyclops, who looked monstrous, Uranus was not proud of them and put them in a pit under the earth. This made Gaea very angry, and she asked Cronus and his Titan brothers to rise up against their father and save their other brothers. Cronus did overthrow his father, but he did not save his monstrous brothers. Gaea, who loved all of her children, was so angered that Cronus did not help his brothers that she began to plan Cronus’ ruin.

Cronus was the god of time. He married his sister Rhea, and together they had three sons and three daughters. Cronus was afraid that his children might one day rise up against his authority, as he had against his own father, Uranus. His father had predicted that this would happen. In order to be sure that he kept power and the prophecy did not come true, Cronus attempted to escape fate by swallowing each child as soon as it was born.

This filled his wife Rhea with sorrow and anger. When it came to Zeus, her sixth and last child, Rhea was determined to save this one child at least, to love and cherish. She asked her parents, Uranus and Gaea, for advice and assistance. They told her to wrap a stone in baby-clothes and give it to Cronus. She did, and he swallowed the stone without noticing the deception.

Anxious to keep the secret of his existence from Cronus, Rhea sent the infant Zeus secretly to Crete, where he was fed, protected, and educated. Priests of Rhea beat their shields together and kept up a constant noise at the entrance, which drowned the cries of the child and frightened away all intruders.

Grown to manhood, Zeus determined to make his father restore his brothers and sisters to the light of day. The goddess Metis helped him, convincing Cronus to drink a potion, which caused him to give back the children he had swallowed. Cronus was so enraged that war between the father and son became inevitable. Zeus eventually dethroned his father Cronus, who was banished from his kingdom and deprived forever of the supreme power. Cronus’ son now became supreme god. 

And there are a lot of problems here. Oookay, where do I begin? The first this is that it contains a factual error. This sheet gives the impression that Cronus was the only surviving male Titan when in fact there were many. Some, like Atlas and Prometheus, figure prominently in later myths.

When retelling this myth you have to do a certain amount of editing. Cronus defeats his father Uranus by castrating him, a detail certainly not appropriate for sixth grade. (The severed genitals fall into the sea and give rise to Aphrodite, hence the many depictions of the goddess rising out of the "foam".) Moira Kerr and John Bennett retell that detail in this manner:

“As soon as Uranus grew dark upon the earth, Cronus leaped upon him and and dealt a terrible wound that maimed him forever. From the drops of the crimson blood that seeped into the earth sprang the Erinyes or Furies, those relentless beings who persue and torment the guilty. And as the multilateral parts of the body of Uranus floated on the waves of the summer sea, they broke into a white foam from which was born a young goddess, Aphrodite." ("The Beginning" excerpted from Literature, Green Level, revised edition, McDougal, Littell & Co., 1987)

There's really no question as to which is a superior selection. This short piece is evocative with powerful language. Why discuss this specific detail? It's a gory one, but these are the kinds of details that get kids interested. When I'm telling my students the (very much abridged) story of The Illiad, I make sure to read some of the gorier killings that are in the poem. Yes, it's gross, but it also works. It also makes theoi t that Greek mythology is earthy and relatable. These stories are about vulnerable people, just like the kids.

Will discussing how we use context clues within a sentence to understand vocabulary words do this?

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