The nature of students’ first encounter with the unit will condition the rest of their experience of it. With that in mind the unit begins with the concept that runs through all text and media: the nature of the epic experience. This concept ties everything together, and it’s what they should be thinking about no matter what they encounter. After establishing the concept, students begin to examine both
and a supplementary anime text to view the epic idea in context. Once the students have a level of understanding (and ideally some personal investment) a serious examination of the story of
begins. As the students work through the story they must consider each of the narrative elements and what is going on with them. Once they are confident in performing consistent narrative analyses they will look at anime texts – selected scenes, entire television episodes, or feature-length movies – paired with
. The focus of narrative analysis will shift to point of view and cultivate an awareness of how the different media convey similar ideas. As they get further into the study of both genres they’ll begin to work on their culminating writing composition, leading to a presentation of their writing that combines both written and visual elements.
The unit starts with a student-directed exploration on the meaning of “epic.” Without recourse to a dictionary, they should work together to determine and record a class definition. Epic stories pit extraordinary (but flawed) characters against extraordinary situations, and conversations around this term can focus on real-life or fictional narratives. Students can even look to their own lives and the stories they hear and tell to find the qualities that elevate a story above others. They can imagine how they would change characters to give them epic qualities, and explore how an epic flaw would complicate the story. It should be stressed to them that this is a working definition and subject to change as they read and view epic stories. Along with the definition it’s also important to stress the question of why people feel a need to create these epic stories and what makes them so compelling.
Students then examine their first text, a selection from
, Book 9, with an understanding that it is considered epic and has qualities that have drawn readers to if for generations. Book 9 is dense, presenting the story of Odysseus from his departure from Troy as he tells it over dinner on his last stop home. Even though it’s a third of the way into the story, this is an ideal place to begin reviewing and reinforcing the students’ understanding of narrative elements as it both presents the book’s protagonist and establishes the central conflict of the story. Teaching the students to identify conflict by discovering the protagonist, determining their motivation, and then looking for the forces that resist their efforts, they can get a clear handle on the plot.
After working through Books 9 – 12, students should be making progress toward the first two objectives. They should understand Odysseus as the protagonist and what is driving him on his journey. They see the misfortunes and tragedies befalling him and his men as the source of conflict, and should also see hints that Odysseus’ own character is playing a part too. Being thrust into the world of the Greek gods, they are also having to familiarize themselves with a very unfamiliar setting as they read, and this is an important experience for them. First, the students must understand setting as more than time and place but the entire environment, and in
that includes a space where supernatural beings may be encountered or called upon at any time. Secondly, students are about to view anime stories taken from the context of greater story arcs and they will need to be comfortable not knowing all the rules the story plays by when they watch. For instance, the first episode of
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
explains how alchemy works as a form of magic, that there are state-employed alchemists doing battle against rogue alchemist and other spiritual powers, and the protagonists work for the state but only to serve their own ends. However, it may be that Episode 62 compliments Odysseus' attack on the suitors in Book 22 – telling the entire backstory would be both laborious and distracting. If students become accustomed to discerning setting and being comfortable with what they don’t know while paying attention to what they can figure out, the unit will have the necessary flexibility with pairing texts.
Now that Odysseus’ story is established, it’s time to examine how other epic stories begin. At this point a variety of anime stories can be introduced to the course of study. This allows conversations about the differences in approaches and form while at the same time creating a familiarity with series that can be used later on in the unit.
Attack on Titan
(Shingeki no Kyojin
) have particularly explosive opening episodes, but
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
are interesting too, and should be considered.
and the anime selections have been introduced, and students have had time to experience, discuss, and reflect on the different forms of the epic narrative, the culminating project can be given to the students (see Tools: Culminating Project). The project assignment will show students what will be required of them to demonstrate their achievement of the unit objectives and serve as a point of focus for the rest of the study. Secondly, by thinking about and eventually choosing what kind of project they want to create, students start to commit to an approach in studying
and the anime films. It forces them to address the immediate tasks in a greater context: instead of thinking, “What is the teacher asking me to do right now?” students are disposed to consider, “How can I use this material for my project?” With this secondary goal in mind, it’s important to ask students to work on their projects continuously over the course of the unit, and provide time in class to do so.
As students view various anime, the unit can progress through
story in a variety of ways, depending on time demands or the dispositions of the student. It’s impossible to cover the entire story, so it’s a matter of deciding how to present Odysseus’ narrative. The unit can move chronologically, from Books 9 – 12, then return to Books 5 – 8, picking back up on Book 13 and his return home. After Book 13 it could be useful to visit Books 1 – 4 to introduce Telemachus and the situation at home, or ignore them entirely to move forward with the narrative, even skipping to Book 17 if necessary to deal immediately with Odysseus and the suitors. Books 21 and 22 are crucial, containing the famous test of Odysseus and the slaughter of the suitors, and they are easily compared with the climaxes of any anime film.
It’s important to remember that
is a long story: twenty-four books roughly twenty pages each. The greatest danger in this unit is getting bogged down. Time passes quickly and pacing matters. Studying Books 9 – 12 does not have to mean reading Books 9 – 12. For 11th grade students it might be appropriate to read Book 9 in class, assign Book 10 for homework, then summarize Book 11 for the students and read a selection from Book 12 the next day. The same goes for the anime: the entirety of a feature-length film or anime episode does not need to be played for the students. The focus of the unit is on the epic story and how it’s told: the idea of epic constrains the material, and the academic marking period constrains it as well.
A dedicated journal for reflective writing will prove exceedingly useful for achieving the unit objectives. This will take the place of distributed worksheets or other organizers. As students read, watch, or discuss, they will make a record of their thinking in their journal.
There are two kinds of writing that the journal will hold. First, as students read or watch, they should record their response to the text. This should be free-writing, where students note whatever they think or feel about the story. As they move forward in their culminating projects they will write notes that help them remember useful observations later. This reflective writing will help students develop a sensitivity to how the story is presented to them.
Although free, reflective writing draws out interesting ideas, the students will tend to see only where their impressions guide them and miss the fruits of a thorough analysis. For this reason, the journal should be a record of the collaborative work done in class. Whether it is working with a partner or in small groups or a discussion as a class, for every text the students should have a written record of the breakdown of narrative elements. This simple, fundamental analysis creates a common framework for understanding what each story is – something concrete and objective that students can understand regardless of the quality of their response. Needless to say, it’s important to make time both for students to respond in writing individually and for them to work together to analyze.
The composition journal also allows for synthesis and meaning-making when students are asked to consider their responses and analyses to write distinct interpretations of the stories. They can consider how the epic idea was conveyed, if there is a message or lesson behind it (for example, “Odysseus’ struggles instruct us about the dangers of pride; what is the source of Shinji’s struggles in
?”). A variety of guided questions and open-ended prompts will cultivate sophisticated, organic, and meaningful thinking in the students. Their journals will be a valuable record of this.
Before introducing anime to the students, children’s books provide a space for them to practice visual analysis. Texts that blend image and words are more useful than stories that have supplementary pictures (e.g., Lewis Carroll’s
s Adventures in Wonderland
, Mary Pope Osborne’s
The Magic Treehouse
series, or H. A. Rey’s
series, where the interpretation of the pictures is not necessary to the story). Allowing students to perform a different kind of analysis by thinking critically about a visual image with a text they find comfortable and highly familiar (and if not familiar, at least easy) creates a sense of confidence that will transfer to more difficult anime moving images. I’d also like to work with Carroll’s
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
, pairing short readings with the images of John Tenniel. These explorations would be practice runs where students write freely about the text and images for a page or so to see what they think, then we discuss as a class. The discussions would open a space for students to begin creating a discourse of reading visual images. Ideally, they will see how they can apply their knowledge of literary terms to a text by starting with these texts instead of with their terms.
As they practice this close reading, we will simultaneously begin reading the main text, and slowly students will transfer their study to it from the children’s works. The following are some suggestions for children’s books containing accessible text for study:
Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
The Magic Treehouse
, by Mary Pope Osborne
The Polar Express
, by Chris Van Allsburg
Book of Nonsense
, by Edward Lear (though unfamiliar to the students, the pairing of text and image with his songs and limericks are clear but sophisticated)
These formative assessments will have the common focus of paying attention to form and craft. Too often I read literary analyses where students write about “imagery,” “tone” or “attention to detail” without any real sense of what they are writing about. When writing about style or form, students tend to think of a literary term that they know well or have experience writing about or consider easy to find (or fake their way through), then they hunt through the text for some example that they can attach the term to. These essays are stilted and arbitrary, and a sadly too often a mockery of true close reading. I think the visual aspect of literature adapted into anime creates a different field for the students, and encourages a fresh approach. When students hear, “Analyze the author’s style,” they go to their bank of literary terms, but when they hear “What do you see? What does this look like?” “What makes this frame stand out from the rest?” or “How was that scene presented to you?” it encourages a more organic, thoughtful, and hopefully authentic response.
Essay writing is a helpful way for students to process their knowledge and for teachers to assess their progress. It holds students accountable for what they’ve learned and in many ways it formalizes the instruction. With this in mind, short but serious essays, assigned often after reflective and analytical writing, can help students grow in their thinking. Their composition journals stress reflective and analytical thinking, but an essay pushes them to interpret their analyses. Essays can be responses to specific prompts such as “Is there a theme in what keeps the soldiers from returning home in
?” or “In Attack on Titan, Episode 1, why is it important that Eren is improbably covered in his mother’s blood?”
The more difficult but more easily applied prompt, and the one that forces original thought, is the universal, “What did you find meaningful in what we just saw [or read]?” It sounds cheap at first, as if the teacher didn’t really think too hard about what they assigned, but it actually forces a sophisticated intellectual maneuver: students must, with an open mind, read their analysis while considering the text it came from, and figure out what meaning that analysis points to that is greater than itself. Students must understand what meaning is before the can look for it, and then look an answer to that concept rather than a specific answer to a given question. Forcing students to find their own meaning is the best preparation for their own independent reading of text in the future. It naturally follows that the prompt that is easiest to assign is the most difficult to provide feedback for, but it is a rewarding experience for both parties.
Students should be given a project that allows them to think about and determine the primary way they will engage with the texts as the unit progresses. The culminating project is meant to address the fourth unit objective – to engage students in creating meaningful inspired by the forms – so the students’ experience with the project is just as important as the outcome of their work. Handing the students choices for how to address their projects and then allowing them a sense of autonomy is preferable to assigning an essay. Possible projects could address the following questions:
From what you have read and seen, what have you learned about epic narratives?
Considering one scene or several we examined as a class, how does the anime form contribute to the story’s meaning?
What “epic” anime left out of our study do you think deserves academic attention?
If you were to create an original “epic” story or anime, what would that look like?
After reading a timeless classic and viewing a variety of anime films, how would you like to represent what you have learned?
The first prompt is the easiest, perhaps, but it is direct and it addresses the fundamental point of the unit, and so it deserves consideration. Students who choose the second prompt are really doing a close-read assignment, so they will have to take careful notes during class and it may be helpful to allow class time for replaying requested scenes toward the end of the unit. Some of the more artistic students who choose to create their own epic story will appreciate the freedom to create a story-board as opposed to a typed narrative: they should be encouraged to pick very specific scenes to model and then explain their deliberate visual choices in writing. The final question, being completely open, should be approved before a student begins work so that it is sure to be academically rigorous.