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A Hero’s Journey for the 21st Century

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stefan's picture
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education

Thanks - this is the best blog I've read recently... and a step ahead from the dull and empty enthusiasm about "disruptive innovation (reduced to ICT)" is saving us and our schools/universities.

Stefan's picture
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education

Yes - thanks for asking! I published a book on this topic (in fact, on narratives, imagination and education... long time ago) and couple of articles. I also had the chance to work in the past with the Imaginative Education Research Group and with the Center for Narrative Studies Starting from this experience I see how important is the discussion you open here and how your post is bringing substance in a discourse dominated by fads and simplistic statements.

Michael Seymour's picture

Great post Betty - I am the founder of a new startup company addressing several issues you have so passionately identified. I can share with you that our focus is safe interaction for students sharing media. By creating relevant tools for collaboration and knowledge sharing, the focus elevates from one of individual expression to safe community involvement. Enabling students to join in the storytelling process, provide a more germane media perspective, and define themselves in new powerful ways 'in the new realities of the 21st Century'. I look forward to sharing our progress with you and Edutopia in the near future.

Joseph McCaleb's picture

Thank you for your post. I'm working and playing with college students in a course called Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice. We use Brian Boyd's Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, & Fiction to ground our own narratives in our emergent capacity as humans to choose to cooperate. I do believe it is a hero's journey to construct ourselves in playful and serious narratives that imagine ways of living together in better ways. That's what we do in the course. We draw upon archetypal models in oral tales & in written narratives (especially with Idries Shah's World Tales), and build from these and our own hearts in making digital media productions. To support this I also curate a space on Scoop It that sources the resources coming out every day and just added your item ( ). I also occasionally add items related to this work in my blog (e.g., ). Storytelling is not automatically good or effective; it needs careful nurturing. Thanks again for your support.

Gail Desler's picture
Gail Desler
Technology integration specialist for the Elk Grove USD (south Sacramento)

Thanks, Betty, for this inspiring piece. I hope it's OK to quote you widely, starting with "Indeed, the heroes of the 21st century will need different skills and abilities than those of yore..."

I think it's really important that students have opportunities to compare heroes and heroic deeds of the past to today's challenges, as you have done with, for instance, with your reference to "cyberbullying." Having multiple hero's journey models to draw from will help today's youth step up to "be the change" in their real-life communities.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

While capability and access have increased, overall form and content quality has not kept pace. Having taught video and film production at the university level for 10 years, I see lots of stuff on youtube that exhibits poor production fundamentals, especially with camera work and audio recording/mixing. The content will not be effective if the form is lacking.

David bigpicture1's picture
David bigpicture1
Multimedia professional - teaching through CTE.

The allure of digital media constantly available to our youth has become a modern-day version of the legendary Pied Piper. Without a proper lens of discretion the spectrum of Internet content can become mind numbing. Teachers, using computers within the k-12 classroom environment, know a percentage of their students will improperly use them for viewing negative content.
After seeing these distractions in digital media classrooms, I put together a series of photo/video essays using original content for inspiring students to create their own narrative stories. As a form of 'blended learning,' these essays involve: current events, science, history and travel. Leading by example, has proven over time a most successful teaching method. Please see my web-based, E-Learning site at:

Once upon a time, when I was in school, the teachers who most inspired me were the best storytellers.

Jeanne Meyers's picture
Jeanne Meyers
Co-founder and Director: The MY HERO Project

Hi Betty,

re: The MY HERO Project

Read your excellent article about "The Hero's Journey" and wanted to share our resource with you and your readers.

MY HERO was launched in 1995 to provide a space in the media for people of all ages (especially children) to share and discover stories about those making a positive difference in the world.

The MY HERO Project is a not for profit that uses media and technology to celebrate the best of humanity and empower people of all ages to realize their own potential to effect positive change in the world.

We have a large international archive of online hero stories, art and film celebrating heroes from all walks of life.

Teachers who have used MY HERO in the classroom share their lesson plans and resources in our Teacher's Room

Although we still receive many hero stories about the celebrities du jour, we are impressed and inspired by how many students eagerly share their unsung community and family heroes with our international online community.

We find that students are guided by deep family connections, caring communities and teachers. They are inspired by individual stories of struggle, strength, kindness and selflessness. For those students who are still searching or adrift, we hope that we can offer them hope and inspire them by finding out how many different kinds of heroes there are in the world.

Hope you will look at MY HERO and consider sharing your essay with the many teachers who visit the web site.

Look forward to speaking with you.


Jeanne Meyers

David bigpicture1's picture
David bigpicture1
Multimedia professional - teaching through CTE.

After seeing Jeanne's comments, I visited her referenced "MY HERO Project." Wow, very inspiring, with a good selection of well crafted film, art and stories. In particular, I enjoyed the site's videos produced by young students. The young hero, Jemma Brown video is a sweet story and it reflects quality story telling without being overproduced. Thank you for sharing the site, I'll add it to my educational resources along with Edutopia.

Thanks again, Betty, for this universal topic of "A Hero's Journey." The fact you're still getting comments several months after it was posted, suggest it's a theme that has lasting value. Hopefully you'll consider posting more topics related to heroes and education.

Some thoughts occurred to me while reflecting on the student's "Me at the zoo" video, which you used to help illuminate the story's theme. As you pointed out, the video shows a trend of narcissistic and thoughtless story telling, which is diluting our cultural narrative or the hero's epic journey. Convergence of media technology allows almost anyone who desires to stream video content -- 24/7. Futurist Marc Pensky describes students of today as "digital natives" -- a distinction for the latest generation, which has grown up with technology as opposed to learning how to adapt to it. The "media standards" which were in place when today's teachers developed and learned their technology skills were more clearly defined and appreciated.

Contributing to the current fall of the universal narrative is found within the field of journalism. In the past 10 to 15 years a negative trend has accelerated in an industry, which was once highly respected by people of all ages. It's not an encouraging conversation with journalism teachers about their views on the sliding standards of print and TV news ... cynical "gotcha journalism," fact checking and corporate influence in news reporting is rarely questioned. The shameful, illegal shenanigans of Rupert Merdoch's News Corporation in the UK are an example of how far the deck chairs have slid in the industry. Unfortunately, sensationalism and celebrity gossip has for the most part, clouded the vision for better understanding the world around us. And this myopic view has helped to distract our culture from seeing the true heroes, which are always near us and potentially within us all. Projection of misbehaving celebrities and sports personalities as idols worth imitating can influence an impressionable youth's sense of values. There are a some celebrities, who live up to being heroes with their selfless generosity and by contributing needed resources to their communities. However, media attention usually reports on celebrities behaving badly, often glossing over the negative role models they play out in real life. Portraying an irresponsible lifestyle as means of getting attention has a negative impact on a young person's perspective with how to get noticed. I've seen more than my fair share of "Me at the Zoo" from teaching video production in high schools. My first reaction to this type of video in class was... what am I doing wrong in my lesson plan or in explaining the assignment? After further conversations with students and talking it over with teachers, it appears part of the issue stems from the cultural trends mentioned above.

Counteracting the negative inertia caused from undesirable cultural trends is one of many challenges the hero within each teacher faces. For me, I can only share with students my understanding of what a hero is. Inspiration motivates a hero's actions, which helps protect and guide others before satisfying their self-interest. Examples of these heroes are all around us, as in most men and women who wear a uniform in the Armed Forces and in law enforcement. Heroes are found day-to-day, in our neighborhoods as social workers or as teachers in our classrooms. A year ago, last January, was the 25 anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. After just 73 seconds into its flight, a catastrophic structural failure of an external tank resulted in death of Christa McAuliffe (the first selected member of the Teacher In Space Program) and six other hero crewmembers. These examples of heroes are those who deserve media attention, to positively influence our culture and our young students' values. What motivates heroes is from the heart, not from the ego, which looks for superficial rewards of material fortune or illusive fame. Until our culture's limited attention span can return to the universal inspirational values of the true hero, its narrative will continue sliding down with more "Me at the zoo."

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