Hero’s Journey as a Narrative Structure Tool

YouTube Clip – The Collector’s Call to Adventure

In the Spring of 2016 I decided that my class narrative that year was severely lacking. I had some storyline that was introduced at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year and each unit would start with a description of story. It was called Reconstitution and dealt with a government agency trying to recollect and ‘reconstitute’ (get the pun 😌) historic memories lost after a computer virus attacked our cell phones. By the Spring, students (and myself) were uninterested. The story flopped because it was boring, detached from class, and it didn’t connect to the student’s real life experience. It needed to be scrapped and replaced

At the time, I was also interested in fixing my Flipped Classroom delivery by adding narrative into the delivery of the content. My inspiration came from an app called “Zombies, Run”, an app that gamifies running, as well as the QWIQR method I had been workong on. In the Zombies app, each run starts with an introduction of the mission that explains the purpose of the run. During the run a piece of the storyline comes into the runners ears every 3-4 minutes. The longer the run, the more story is told. Last about 30 minutes and the runner is rewarded with the full episode which is tied into a metanarrative that runs through about 15 episodes in a “season”. This matched my QWIQR goals of short 2-3 minute recordings that students would watch nd summarize. The narrative would slot nicely in between the short video segments! 

I began writing in earnest and I stumbled into what I now realize is the Hero’s Journey Narrative Structure. Recently I have come to the realization that this structure is also an excellent description of a well run Gamified unit structure.

First, here is a (very) brief description of the Hero’s Journey Structure:

  1. Call to Adventure/Accepting the Call – The story begins with the hero in what appears to be an ordinary world. The character might be seen as a bit odd or perceive the world as odd. Think Neo in the Matrix or Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The call to adventure can happen by accident, a discovery, or an event (Luke discovers R2D2s message, or Gandalf arrives at the Shire). In either situation the hero is transported, sometimes after a refusal to answer the call, away from their old world into a new world of mystery and danger. (Dorothy enters Oz or Harry enters Saigon Alley)
  2. Crossing the Threshold/Entering the Unknown – after accepting the call the hero begins the journey in the new world where the ordinary rules do not apply. Neo leanrs about his abilities the Matrix, Luke learns about the Force, Dorothy listens to the Munchkins). This is often intermingled with meeting the mentor (Morpheous and Neo, Dorothy and Ga-Linda, Luke and Obi-Wan, Harry and Hagrid)
  3. Supernatural Aid/Meeting the Mentor – After entering this new world the hero meets someone who has mastered the rules of the new place. Sometimes magical (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandolf) sometimes not (Katniss’ mentor Haymitch) this supernatural aid provides the hero with the means of completing their task. This might be wisdom, a magical weapon, or some other object but in the end it proves necessary for success.
  4. The Road of Trials – The hero begins a journey that will eventually lead him or her to a final conflict. On this journey the hero will face a series of challenges that will make them stronger; on the yellow brick road Dorothy finds her allies, after his uncle and aunt die Luke finds Han and rescues Princess Leia, Katniss’ time training and in the arena.
  5. Approach to the Innermost Cave – “At the threshold to the inmost cave the Hero may once again face some of the doubts and fears that first surfaced upon his call to adventure. He may need some time to reflect upon his journey and the treacherous road ahead in order to find the courage to continue.” (http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html)
  6. Final Ordeal/Final Test/ Final Boss– This is the event that all of the training and narrative has,been building towards – a final test of abilities. Inevitably the hero is able to overcome this final ultimate challenge. A sense of relief and release is achieved with the victory.
  7. Reward (seizing the sword) and Journey Home – The hero emerges from the battle transformed – stronger, often with some prize full of meaning or power. The celebration though is short lived as they must then make the journey back home with the prize. Acclaim may come, but so too might another temptation which the hero must overcome for a higher purpose. Think of Frodo returning to the Shire (in the book not the movie) and having to put right problems he returns to.
  8. The Return Home – in the end the hero returns to his or her home changed with a new understanding and new power.
  9. The Sequel – ok, this isn’t part of the official narrative device… But we all know a sequel is coming these days (and it will help a point I want to make later… So…)

When I started what would eventually become the History Underground storyline I was thinking of current YA fiction, like The Hunger Games, Mazer Runner series, the Divergent series, and Harry Potter series. Even if they haven’t read the books my students have all seen or know about the movies. YA fiction has some cliches and tropes that I thought would be useful to incorporateinto a high school class narrative. Most YA stories revolve around a nearly mystic transition of a normal teenager from a relatively weak nobody into a savior figure. I figured this element would tap into my teenagers’ self interested nature. Most YA also usually has a “big bad” figure that the central character has to defeat, often after discovering some hidden conspiracy. Again, most students seem to think that there is a conspiracy against them (see dress-code, the). What I was really interested in though was that each of the book series had a universe with its own guiding principles and rules. 

Movies like Harry Potter and the Hunger Gamed create rules that, while ordinary to the characters, are unusual in our own. In the Hero’s Journey narrative device the hero is also new to the world’s rules and he or she must learn and adapt. As a classroom tool this is parallel to the notion that students have to learn new rules and procedures in my classroom. Creating a more detailed world with a narrative structure would allow me to organically explain and integrate my power cards, avatar types, XP grades, ranking system, and all the other game mechanics in the same way that Daigon Alley showed Harry Potter (and the viewer) all of the awesome and terrible powers the magical world held in store. 

Another important feature – these series have Sequals! Harry Potter had 7+ books (8 movies), the Hunger Games had 3 (and 4 movies), etc… This feature creates a student schema for the inclusion of a meta narrative for the whole class while also having individualized stories for each unit. In October last year a student mistakenly asked me what season we were on. He meant standard but a new vocabulary term was born! I refer to my flipped lecture recordings now as “Seasons” (standard units) and “Episodes” (sub-standards or indicators).

This post is getting a bit long on my reflections on my particular class structure. My next post will dive into using the Hero’s Journey as a unit design structure. For now though, I will leave you with this. My narrative began as a derivative of YA fiction which is itself based on the Heros Journey narrative device. By placing the student in the center of the storyline I was forced to consider how to build the class around each students’ experience; not just in the storyline but in how they interacted with me, their classmates, the material, the daily bureaucracies of receiving and submitting assignments. We often talk about a student centered classroom but the process of transforming my mentality from how do I prepare for a “student in my class” to how do I build a world for “Collector 10” has revolutionized every structure and mechanic in my daily teaching experience. I can’t bring myself to kill of a minor supporting character in the story. How in the world can I give less than the best experience for “the Collector!”

(In the original post I forgot to cite that I synthesized much of the 8 steps above from http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html and The Hero’s Journey – Mythology Teacher)

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