Balancing rigorous academic study with joy in learning, particularly when it comes to project-based learning, may seem impossible. However, in my ninth-grade English class, we manage to do just that.
Teachers often define academic rigor in English as the study of challenging works of literature accompanied by in-depth literary analysis in writing. But what about projects that allow students to delve into who they are and what they are passionate about? Is there space for these projects in academic classrooms? Can we ensure that students learn concrete skills and are challenged academically while also providing them with opportunities for self-discovery and joy?
The Muse Project
At Pacific Ridge School, where I’ve taught for the past four years, all ninth-grade students complete the Muse Project in English class. Through this project, students explore what myth is and how it connects to identity. We begin by looking at various definitions of myths, including the stories people have told to explain natural phenomena (for instance, Greek and Norse mythology), widely held untrue beliefs, and exaggerated and idealized truths.
Next we turn to our central text, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. Previously, we used Homer’s The Odyssey, which may seem like a more natural fit given that it is, itself, a myth. While myth may not be the most obvious theme in Ng’s novel, by digging deeper, students find it is central to the Lee family’s story as they consider the myths the characters have about themselves, the myths other people have about them, and the myths people more generally have about different facets of identity, including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
For instance, through James, a Chinese American history professor who specializes in American cowboys, students contend with the notion of what it means to be American, to look American, and to be viewed as qualified to teach about America. Through Marilyn, a stay-at-home wife and mother who once dreamed of becoming a doctor, students consider gender-based expectations that, for centuries, excluded women from many spaces, particularly STEM fields.
While I have found that Ng’s novel pairs beautifully with the Muse Project, any number of texts can work, so long as they provide students with the opportunity to consider the myths we as a society have about different identities.
Using this analysis of Ng’s novel as a starting point, we launch into the two-month Muse Project, which asks students to consider the role of myth in their own lives. Students subsequently create an original myth about themselves and bring this to life through an artistic creation of their own design. As students brainstorm ideas for their projects, they consider their own identities, including who they are and who they want to be in our school community. Through their projects, students seek to answer this essential question: Who am I? By answering this question, students are able to share pieces of themselves with our school community, all while having fun, developing their creativity, learning new skills, leaning into discomfort, and taking risks.
I have seen weather balloons, laser-cut planes, stunningly shot music videos, larger-than-life fantasy maps, and digital art made from math equations. Students are encouraged to utilize various teachers, resources, and technology both on and off campus, and every year, they step out of their comfort zones to try new things and create unbelievable works of art. While the projects are impressive, what is most amazing is seeing students share their passions, interests, and who they are at the MUSEum Showcase, an annual event that celebrates their work.
Students also do a significant amount of writing as part of the Muse Project. In a literary analysis assignment, students examine a specific myth about the identities of one of the characters in Everything I Never Told You. Additionally, in a personal statement, they reflect on the myth they created about themselves, how the medium they chose for their artistic creation serves as a form of mythmaking, and the connection between their work and Ng’s text. In this way, the Muse Project provides a blending of academic rigor and joy in learning, providing students with opportunities to hone their analytical, reflective, and personal narrative writing skills while also exploring their artistry and creativity.
Students Need Moments of Joy
During the 2020–21 school year, in the midst of the pandemic and hybrid learning, one of my administrators suggested cutting the Muse Project so we could focus on more academic work. I understood that there was pressure for teachers to mitigate potential learning loss, but I remained adamant that we keep the project—it’s an immense source of joy for students, and I didn’t want to give up a project that allowed them to explore who they are and the limits of their imaginations in the pursuit of purely academic work.
Ultimately, we kept the Muse Project, and seeing what students created absolutely blew me away. Despite the restrictions and obstacles they faced, including fewer resources and limited access to technology and help on campus, students rose to the challenge, using materials and guidance they could get at home to create artistic projects that left our community in awe.
As an English teacher, of course I want my students to learn how to write effectively and persuasively, to grow confident in discussing and analyzing literature, and to master grammatical concepts. But I also want them to cultivate their interests, explore aspects of their identities, and learn that they can achieve greatness even when faced with immense challenges, all while finding joy and having fun.