Student Engagement

The Shield of Achilles Project: How I Used Digital Video to Make Classical Lit Relevant

Blogger Kenneth Olden shares the thinking and feeling behind a project-based learning unit that brings Homer’s Iliad to life and increases student engagement.

October 25, 2011
Photo credit: jsawkins via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

"The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." -- Douglas MacArthur

Why Teach Classical Greek Literature?

Near the end of the 2008-2009 school year, I had started reading The Iliad with my students and was struggling to connect them with the text. The language of the poem, the extended metaphors, the repetitious patterns of phrases and names bogged my students down, and they constantly questioned to the value of reading the text. I spent weeks answering questions about Greek culture and the Trojan War, showing short videos and PowerPoint presentations and rereading passages with them -- but the buy-in still wasn’t there.

But as we read The Shield of Achilles (Book 18), one student finally had the "Aha!" moment I was hoping for. I had asked why this shield, a god-created artifact worn by the mightiest of Greeks was inscribed, not with icons of strength, death, fear, or other paragons that might represent the "Be All You Can Be" of a Greek soldier, but instead with scenes of Iron Age civilian life: farming, music, the democratic process. Why did Homer choose these images? Why have "man-killing" Achilles carry a shield into the final bloody battle of the book inscribed with scenes of a peaceful and pastoral life?

Defining Values

This student realized why. Like my family, this young man's family had a history of military service and he knew that the duty of a soldier was fighting for the rights and privileges of others, even if you might not live to experience those privileges yourself. When Hephaestus crafted the shield for Achilles, he did so for a soldier fated to die at Troy. When Achilles carried that shield into battle, he did so knowing he fought for a life he was doomed to never see.

Through Homer's words we are confronted with a merging of cultures -- the values of the Greek Iron Age and their reflection in our modern Western culture: to live by the fruits of our labors, to defend our homes from those who would take from us, to enjoy a peaceful life. But we need people who are willing to fight for those cultural values -- and we often forget the price they pay on our behalf. Through his description of the Shield of Achilles, Homer reaches across the millennia and reminds us how little we have changed as a people. I challenged my students to put themselves in the shoes of these soldiers and ask themselves: What do I value? What would I fight for, even laying down my life? How can I honor the sacrifices others have made for me?

Like flipping the switch, the mood in the classroom shifted. They got it. They understood then why I was having them read this text and dove back into it with renewed vigor. They responded to my challenge by creating personal films, crafting digital "shields" that represented what they valued most by using a series of short video clips, still photographs, and inspiring music.

The Takeaway

We are now in year four of The Shield of Achilles Project. By understanding the core values of Greek culture through the lens of the soldier, as seen in The Shield of Achilles, and then demonstrating that connection through personal films, students have personalized the material and developed a deep understanding of The Iliad. What has continued to make this project so successful?

For the Students

  • Deep personal connections make them care about the quality of the work
  • An opportunity to experiment with different forms of media (film, music, photography)
  • An engaged audience to view their work, inc. family and community members

For Myself

  • Increased student buy-in when reading classical texts
  • Higher motivation = higher student achievement
  • A chance to share my students' work at the Microsoft Innovative Educator Forum
  • A powerful real-world example of this project that really hit home *

Homer's Relevance in 21st Century America

This year the project underwent several revisions, starting earlier and with new resources that allowed us to read more of the text. Rather than leaving the films as a summative assessment, I started having students blog every few days, each post focusing on enduring personal values. My students haven't yet begun work on the actual films but are building up the story behind them already, mixing their blog posts with family pictures, interviews, and short video clips. For Veteran's Day, students will be given the opportunity to make movies for our soldiers, thanking them for their service. These films will be included as part of a letter writing and gift-box giving campaign that my school is participating in this year, honoring soldiers stationed overseas.

This spring the focus will shift outward as students begin exploring the cultural values of their town. Through weekly blogging students will narrow their focus onto one element of the local community that they feel has value, is worth protecting, maintaining or restoring. Students will create a project based around this local value and promote it through the use of social media and social action organizations. Hopefully these projects will become a reality and my students will have a chance to make a difference where it matters most.

In the coming months I hope you will all take a moment to view the work of my students as they continue their work on this project. They are very proud of the work they have done so far and are eagerly anticipating feedback from a new, wider audience. For more information about the project and examples of student work, please check out the Shield of Achilles Project page on my blog.

* After graduation, my "Aha!" moment student joined the US Marine Corp. In April 2011, he died from wounds caused by an IED while stationed in Afghanistan. In a sad moment of life imitating art, he had given his life upholding the very values he had helped his classmates connect with in The Iliad. I'm not sure this project would still exist without his help that first year and for that I am eternally grateful.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Curriculum Planning
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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