Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Hero’s Journey for the 21st Century

Happily ever after looks different today.

February 22, 2012

Once upon a time . . .

There were very special people. These were the bards, sorcerers, and magicians who conjured webs of intrigue and excitement; treachery and death; rebirth and forgiveness. These people were our writers, filmmakers, musicians and folklorists, and they were the keepers of our social and psychological well-being. Their words created our cultural narrative, guided us through adversity, and illuminated the darkest caverns of our collective subconscious. They helped us navigate to happily ever after.

Then . . .

Along came the internet. In the mid-nineties -- the dawn of the internet -- blogging software made it easy for anyone to publish their stories to a global audience. Then in late 1999, internet audio enabled anyone with a computer to create an entire radio network and reach far more listeners than even the largest, single, traditional AM/FM station. Today, we live in a world where the average first world teenager has more video production capacity in her pocket than all three TV networks circa 1955, combined.

So our stories - our cultural mythologies - which were once the domain of a handful of beknighted, priestly, or just plain lucky people, are now in the hands of the masses.

This democratization of storytelling is engaging our kids at new levels. But it also means that everyone is a storyteller. And when everyone is a storyteller, our cultural narrative begins to shift from a sweeping epic hero's journey to "here's me @ the zoo."

Now, when it comes to a cultural narrative, the sheer volume of "me at the zoo" videos is enough to make a literate person either cringe or initiate preparations for the impending apocalypse. These stories are often narcissistic, badly shot, cruel, and/or just plain dumb. Indeed, for every 1,000 Greatest Proposal Ever!!! videos there are 300,000 #epic fails. If this is our cultural narrative, we're clearly doomed.

But before you flee to rural Montana and stockpile canned goods, consider the notion that there's another way of looking at this: Maybe our cultural narrative is shifting, and these videos are the baby steps?

Indeed, the heroes of the 21st century will need different skills and abilities than those of yore. They need a narrative that helps them orient in the increasingly complex world in which they live. They need flexibility to deal with ever-changing social and technological landscapes. They need listening and negotiation skills to be able to work with others whose opinions and needs may differ. They need to reframe the terms of the battle from "us vs. them" to "where do we share a common goal, and how can we collaborate to create something bigger than each of us?"

As educators, we have an opportunity to help our students develop appropriate 21st century narratives to take with them on their journey.

The Student as Protagonist

I am not advocating that we give up Homer or Star Wars. Indeed, it is critical that students are exposed to meaningful heroics and story so they know what they look like. But we can build upon these great works of literature by giving students an opportunity to design their own stories and place themselves squarely in the role of protagonist.

Especially given the complex challenges our students face today, it behooves all of us for kids to take a more active role in shaping their own stories. When students are their own protagonists, they get first-hand experience reflecting on their choices, identifying and overcoming their own obstacles, and knowing their own strengths and limitations. They get first-hand experience being a hero.

The Changing Role of Community

Back in the olden days, there was a clear distinction between storyteller and audience. Now that we have literally hundreds of new social story platforms, we are co-creating stories with others all the time. As such, our new heroes are no longer lone warriors. Instead, they can witness each others' epic wins and fails, and offer support to one another from worlds away when the going gets tough.

Of course, the social storyweb creates all kinds of new quests for our young heroes. We have new issues of identity and digital citizenship. (What is "real"? How do I know who I can trust?) And as our ability to self-express becomes limitless, our privacy is increasingly negotiable. (Is it convenient or creepy that Google and Facebook know more about me than my husband does?) And, finally, what can we do together to make the world a better place?

Our young heroes of today need new experiences, myths and tools to help them be successful in the new realities of the 21st century, and these myths are being written and re-written as we speak. I would love to hear how others are working with kids to help them build their own narratives, either in groups or as individuals. Please share your favorite resources and ideas in the comments area below.

A New Hero's Journey in the Classroom

Kids need to know the basics of story creation -- character, conflicts, resolutions etc. -- before they can write their own. Have them read, watch, and play video games with a critical eye towards identifying these basic story elements. Then you can use life timelines as way of uncovering their personal narratives. Have them identify heroes of their own from real life or fiction as inspiration. You can go as deep as you have time for here! There are myriad tools available for actual story creation (see Resources below).

For younger kids, have them create their own super hero and dream up their own adventure. Media has given us a bunch of great superheroes already, but it's a fun challenge to have them come up with fresh ones. Have them team up and collaborate on making books or writing songs about their heroes and perform them for each other.

Questions for Reflection

  • What is your ordinary world?
  • What are your challenges?
  • What strengths (or superhero powers) are you using to overcome these challenges?
  • Who are your helpers?
  • Whom are you helping?
  • How do you and others benefit from your actions?
  • Who am you online vs in person?
  • Are you "real" online? Are others?
  • How can we use our community online and off to prevent cyberbullying?
  • What else can we create together?

(Thanks to Todd Finley and Gaetan Pappalardo for assistance on this blog.)

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • English Language Arts

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