Visualizing Mythology: Using Universal Design for Learning to Teach Greek Mythology 

Sketch note of Homeric Hymn to Demeter. CC-BY Alison Innes @InnesAlison

The Classical Association of Canada/Société Canadienne des Études Classiques
McMaster University
7 May 2019

Lianne Fisher, Centre for Pedagogical Innovation, Brock University
Twitter: @liannefisher

Alison Innes, Brock University
Twitter: @innesalison

The relationship between learning, note taking and class preparation is not always articulated, or explicitly taught to students. These skills can be challenging to teach along with course content in introductory classes. Our recent redesign of a first-year mythology course sought to introduce students to a variety of note taking skills, while practicing close reading and textual analysis.

By incorporating the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), we encouraged students to engage with various methods of organizing information including Cornell notes, annotating text, and sketchnoting. Over the course of the semester, students practiced visual note taking skills alongside traditional written responses in weekly assignments. Such assignments challenged students to translate their knowledge of a text into a non-textual format, challenging and deepening their learning experience. Visual note taking is a natural fit for the teaching of mythology, as myths were experienced in audio and visual formats in the ancient world, through storytelling, art, and theatre.

A key part of UDL is allowing students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning beyond the traditional essay format. Students were given the option to submit their final essay as a visual essay. We developed clear assessment guidelines to ensure such assignments were equally rigorous to written essays. A selection of these were digitized and displayed in the university library, allowing students to participate in the production and mobilization of scholarship. With the students’ permission we will share some of these educational artefacts in this session.

Key to the success of the course was supporting the Teaching Assistant team. Through a series of workshops, TAs had the opportunity to learn ways in which they could model information organization strategies in the classroom. This provided first-year graduate student TAs the opportunity to engage critically with pedagogy.


  • Dr. Anton Jansen, Instructor, Brock University Department of Classics
  • Darrin Sunstrum, Course Coordinator, Brock University Department of Classics
  • Giulia Forsythe, Associate Director, Brock University Centre for Pedagogical Innovation
  • Teaching Assistants and students of CLAS 1P95, Fall 2017

Download slideshow PDF

Alison’s Cornell Note Resources

Worksheet: Timeline

Worksheet: Comparison

Worksheet: Annotating Text

Visual Essay Assignment Instructions

Visual Essay Reflection

Teaching students how to student

There’s an expression about how the shoemaker’s children have no shoes. Well, the social media consultant is terrible at her own social media!

I’ve clearly fallen behind in my New Year’s resolution of a blog post a month. I thought I might catch up when I had a month off work this summer, but somehow social media was the last thing I wanted to work on.

But I’m back at work now and busier than ever. In fact, this fall will be the most paid work I’ve had at once since I quit a full time job to go back to school a decade ago.

I’m have resumed my social media work with the Faculty of Humanities at the university and what a difference a year in the job makes! I feel really comfortable in the position, now that I’ve figured out what I need to be doing, and I’m seeing the benefits of the connections and network I’ve been building. I’m really looking forward to the year ahead!

I’ve also been fortunate to pick up several other small contracts to flesh out my hours and paycheque. I’ve just started working with our Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI) where I’m helping out with a number of very interesting projects, including TA training, support for those teaching large classes, and research into the perceptions of the value of teaching. I have a lot of experience as a teaching assistant (TA) in the classroom and even helping professors develop pedagogical resources, so it’s exciting to be thinking and learning about pedagogy from a different perspective.

Finally, if enrolment numbers permit, I may get to spend a little time in the classroom again this year as a TA.

Which relates to the Twitter thread I want to share with you. @atrubek shared this really great thread tonight and it so important! I think when we’re teaching it’s so easy to get caught up in the transmission of content and forget about the transmission of skills. I don’t mean discipline-specific skills, but the “how to be a student” skills.

It’s easy, when we’ve been academics for 5, 10, 15 years or longer to forget that we, too, started someplace. We didn’t enter university knowing everything. Sure, we like to think we were more self-sufficient and self-starting than “today’s students” but hindsight can have a gloss superiority to it.

Our students come to us from a wide variety of backgrounds and face a diversity of pressures that we may not have faced.

In my case, for example, my mother had attended university and I had two older sisters in university as well, so I had lots of support at home in navigating the system and knowing what I needed to do.

But not every student has that privilege. Some will be the first in their families to attend university. Some will be far from home and perhaps struggling to make friends and navigate a strange system with strange titles like “registrar” and “dean” and “chair,” never mind the myriad of acronyms we use without thinking!

High school today is different from high school “back in our day.” Again, students will have had a diversity of experiences and come with–or without– skills we deem necessary.

So @atrubek’s thread is such a timely reminder. We need to not assume that our students know how to navigate the system socially or how to access resources. We need to teach them how to take effective notes, how to use the library, how to identify a scholarly resource, what a database is.

Because after the final exam, the student may very well never think about our course content again. But they will be taking other courses, and we can equip them with the skills they need to succeed there, too–whether it’s something we teach directly, or we direct them to campus resources.

We don’t just teach content, we teach students how to be students.

Seminar Strategies 1: Exploring heroics by writing thesis statements

I mentioned when I was hosting @wethehumanities on Twitter that I have a number of stock seminar (class) activities that I pull out from time to time, and, as requested, I plan to write about some of them here on the blog. This is, hopefully, the first in an occasional series!

Seminar Strategy: Thesis Writing

The activities are not tied to specific texts and require little in the way of , so I can switch them up as I need. For example, if I have just finished marking essays, or students are about to start writing essays, I can pull out an activity that addresses some of the common problems students have. If my concussion headache is particularly bad, I can pull out an activity that is more student-driven and relies less on me interacting with the entire class at once.

The list, of course, is an ongoing project. I have been building it for almost a decade now and there are frequent additions and variations and the occasional deletion. I imagine most educators have similar lists they draw from. I like to provide a variety of ways for students to engage with materials over the course of the semester. This is not just to keep them entertained and interested, but to also teach them the critical writing and reading skills that are integral to a humanities course.

Painting: The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier, 17th century. Public Domain.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier, 17th century. Public Domain.

Today for seminar we were discussing Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. I forget how wonderfully complex this play until it comes time to teach it again; I am enamoured with Medea, so that week always tends to the highlight of the semester for me. But there are so many interesting explorations of heroic nature and the role of fate to be had in Iphigenia in Aulis and its complex plot of twists and turns, misunderstandings and missed timings, decisions and changed minds, makes we wish our first year seminar was 2 hours long, not a mere 50 minutes.
This week, I decided to pull out my essay writing activity (I’m afraid I don’t have a more exciting name for it) and I added a twist to it that actually worked very well.

Introductory discussion

The seminar is pretty straightforward. I usually start with getting a sense of how many students have ready, or tried to read, the play, how far they got through it, and how much of it they understand. Experience has taught me that only a few will make it all the way through (and that number is significantly less when class is on a Friday afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day!). A number will say they have attempted it and others will admit they didn’t.

I’m careful not to shame or lecture for students for not doing the readings. I need the students to be honest with me about how they have prepared so I can make the most of our seminar. Students know they need to do the reading, and I do emphasize to them that they will get more out of seminar if they come prepared, but unless unpreparedness is a widespread, consistent issue in a seminar, I try not to pay it too much mind. (Unless it’s Medea they haven’t read. Then I might tell them they have made kittens cry 😉 )

So the first part of any seminar is going over the plot of the play. Sometimes I outline on the whiteboard, sometimes I don’t. I find students are generally quite good at the broad strokes of a myth, but I question and encourage them to go into more detail than they do naturally. I’m not sure why students are averse to details, but this is a consistent problem I see across classes, essays, and assignments, and part of what the essay activity is designed to address.

Whiteboard--Discussion of Iphigenia at Aulis & key characters
Whiteboard–Discussion of Iphigenia at Aulis & key characters


Activity Preparation

I then move into preparing the class for the actual activity. With the theme for this week about expanding and exploring the complex definition of the hero, we briefly reviewed the cast of characters from the play (Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Achilles, Menelaus) and their roles in the play, eg, daughter, sacrificice, father, husband warrior, king, general, wife, mother, etc.


Students are paired off and each pair is given a sheet of paper. Working together, they will need to come up with a thesis statement in response to my prompt question. In this case, my prompt question was to argue how each character was heroic. Each pair did a different character, and some characters were easier to develop a thesis for than others. While on one level the activity is to help them develop better thesis writing skills, on another it is more about the discussions they have with each other about the character.

I circulate among the groups, checking in with each and offering feedback and suggestions on improving their theses. As I know a certain number of students won’t be prepared, I make note on the board of some key passages in the text related to each character.

This time, I added a new element to the activity. When students seem to be mostly finished this step, I ask them to pass their papers to the pair on their right. Again, my focus isn’t on the the perfectly written thesis, so if students haven’t quite got it finished, it’s ok.

The students now look at the new thesis for the new character. They are invited to make any improvements to it that they think are necessary, and then to proceed to outlining one supporting point. They must include references to line numbers that back up their point.

I continued this as time permitted; each group got to look at three characters (including their first one) before we had to wrap up. During the activity, I circulated amongst the students, listening to their ideas and offering suggestions of other things to consider or passages to look at.

The nice thing with this activity is that it can be made as long or as short as time permits; whether students only get to look at one other character or whether they examine all five, they are having valuable discussions about the heroic nature and constructing arguments.

Wrap Up

To wrap up the class, I had students share the page that was in front of them with the rest of the class. For the sake of time, I didn’t have students give line numbers in their presentation, but they did need to share the thesis and supporting points.

I encouraged students to provide additional feedback, particularly if I heard someone discussing something that did not make it on the page but was still important. I also provided some feedback on key ideas that may have been missed.

In Conclusion…

I aim to use this activity at least once a semester. As I mentioned, I find students are reluctant to engage with specific details of a text to support their idea. Engaging with the text is a skill and habit that has to be taught and reinforced over the course of the entire semester. By presenting the activity as an essay activity, but having students work with pairs, they practice articulating their ideas and supporting their arguments.

Iphigenie, by Anslem Feuerbach 1862. Public Domain.
Iphigenie, by Anslem Feuerbach 1862. Public Domain.

Adding the rotation of the papers was an excellent addition. Not only were students practicing expressing their own ideas, but they were also practicing critiquing and editing others’ writings. In addition, it gave students the chance to have a series of short but focused conversations about several different characters, so they were examining the idea of the hero from multiple perspectives and, hopefully, developing an appreciation for the complex nature of heroes and fate.

The nice thing with this activity is that it can be made as long or as short as time permits; whether students only get to look at one other character or whether they examine all five, they are having valuable discussions about the heroic nature and constructing arguments.

A thesis statement is the hero of any good essay!

statement of teaching philosophy

As I prepare to re-enter the classroom this January as a Teaching Assistant, I thought it would be a good opportunity to review my statement of teaching philosophy, which I first wrote in 2010, update it, and remind myself who I seek to be as a teacher. I share it here.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy


Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.
(Chinese proverb)

I believe that learning is a partnership between the students and the teacher.

Learning is a cooperative experience between student and teacher as well as between students. All parties must engage with the process to make learning happen. I see my role in the classroom as that of a facilitator who guides students through the learning process rather than solely as an expert on the subject matter at hand. I encourage peer-to-peer learning by emphasizing participatory learning and planning activities which meet a diversity of learning styles.  In my seminars I attempt to break the teacher-student power dynamic by creating a supportive atmosphere where all students can learn from each other. I believe it is important to meet students where they are and guide them to where they need to be while still allowing them to take ownership of their learning.

All tutorials were well put together with opportunity for discussion. Themes of lecture were reinforced in class. (Student, Fall 2008)

I thought that you didn’t ‘sugar coat’ your comments and feedback. You provided examples and were very thorough. This was extremely helpful. (Student, Winter 2009)

Since learning is a partnership, students share the responsibility for their learning. They have the right to not engage in seminar and to fail assignments. Students have the right to set their own priorities, and while I encourage students to engage in the learning process by using a wide variety of teaching techniques, I also recognize that there will be some who choose not to make my seminars a priority. I offer my students all the support I can, but I also respect their right to not participate and I recognize that I cannot force a student to learn.

I don’t think the main issue is the activities you provide or your seminar style, but rather the issue is that most people don’t participate/read for class. I’m not saying that I am not a part of the problem (I know I haven’t kept up), but that is probably the overlying issue. (Student, Winter 2010)

I believe that the classroom atmosphere is critical to learning and teaching.

Learning cannot take place if the students do not feel comfortable in the classroom. Every person in the classroom brings something of themselves to the class that can enhance the learning environment. By tapping into this resource through student-centered, cooperative and participatory teaching techniques, I aim to give all students the opportunity to fully participate in seminar learning.

One way in which I do this is by using small group discussions. Because the group size is less daunting, quiet students feel more comfortable voicing their views and more students are able to adopt leadership roles. Students learn from each other in the small group settings and teach their fellow students when they are brought back to the large group. While I circulate among the small groups to pose and answer questions as necessary, I encourage students to take an active role in guiding their discussions. Using such peer-to-peer learning techniques balances the classroom power dynamics between teacher, student and curriculum and encourages the students to take ownership in their learning.

I enjoy the overall flow of class, participation is nice as a whole class with the whiteboard activities but nice to talk in smaller groups as well. People have different comfort levels so this is nice.(Student, Winter 2010)

I endeavour to create a classroom atmosphere where everyone is treated with respect and students feel comfortable and free to participate fully. As a part of this, I give my students a clear description of what I expect of them and what they can expect of me. In addition to basic information such as my office hours and my email address, I outline what I look for in terms of participation so students know from the beginning what is expected of them.  By providing students with university’s grading guidelines (as presented in the undergraduate calendar), I am letting them know from the start what they need to do to earn an A or B on their assignments. I attempt to be as fair as possible in my marking and I encourage students to come see me after they have reviewed their assignment if they have a question or concern about their mark.

I endeavor to set realistic expectations which encourage the students to expand their abilities without becoming overwhelmed. For example, I use in-seminar exercises to equip students to move beyond the simple five paragraph essay style taught in high school and to refine their theses and ideas into tighter arguments. When students come to see me individually about their papers, I will often indicate certain grammatical structures or styles of writing that they can use to further their papers. I refer students who are struggling with basic essay writing skills to campus workshops and drop-in hours. Such students are often embarrassed about the difficulty they are having so I do my best to mitigate feelings of shame and remind them that asking questions is a part of learning!

Good attitude, friendly environment. (Student, Winter 2010)

I found it very helpful when we read/review the readings as I sometimes have a hard time understanding some of the readings when I read them on my own. The group work is also helpful. (Student, Winter 2010)


I believe that the skills students learn are as important as the material they learn.

Since I TA for a humanities context credit course, I recognize that very few of my students will continue in the field of Classics. I therefore attempt to show my students the relevancy of the discipline while emphasizing the development of skills which will be useful regardless of their academic course. I place high value on my students’ development of critical thinking and reading skills. As I guide students through the literature of Greek mythology, I teach them how to interact with their texts to get a deeper understanding of the poems and plays we read. I show students how to mark up and annotate their texts, since this is a skill that is not always intuitive. I give students plenty of helpful feedback on their written work so they can improve their writing skills. I incorporate writing activities and essay-writing workshops into my seminars so students can get comfortable expressing their ideas in writing. The skills of reading, thinking and writing will help them whatever they choose to do.

I believe it is necessary to remember that students are whole people.

Students bring all kinds of different experiences and skills to class. Some students come with strong reading and writing skills, while others come terrified at the thought of writing anything. I let my students know that in a first-year course I expect them to only have first-year abilities. Depending on class dynamics, I will sometimes structure group work so that students with stronger writing abilities can help those with weaker abilities. This provides stronger students with a way to stay engaged when the material may be familiar to them.

Thought it was helpful that anything you were unsure of, you found out. (Student, Winter 2009)

My words and actions as a teacher can have a larger impact on students than I might expect. One of my most poignant reminders that I teach the whole person came from a mature student in the winter semester of 2010. I could tell from her seminar participation that she sincerely desired to do well in the course and was working hard. Part way through the semester she disappeared from class and a while later I received a very anxious email from her. Some rather tragic events had happened in her personal life and she was now distraught as to how she could finish the term. I immediately reassured her that not all was lost and, after consulting with the supervising professor, proposed several strategies we could use to help her finish on time. I also directed her to on-campus resources that could help her academically and personally during this difficult time. While ultimately she withdrew from the course, the email of thanks I received from her (quoted in part below) showed me that my instinctive response had a far more profound impact than I expected. While fortunately circumstances such as these do not arise every semester, it is a good reminder that every student I teach has a life beyond the 50 minutes a week I spend with them.

Alison, Thank you so much for your help with this, a large weight has been lifted off of my shoulders… I have been to Brock before but I have never honestly met someone so caring and helpful as you, and it has been a great relief to have someone like you helping me… Thank you again for being a kind and amazing person, this will come back to you threefold. Thank you, thank you. I cannot express how amazing you have made me feel. (Student, Winter 2010)

I believe that learning to teach is an ongoing process.

Teaching requires constant development and reflection. I incorporate reflective practices into my teaching so I can remember which approaches worked and which didn’t. At the start of each semester, I lay out my personal goals for how I want to improve as a teacher. At the end of each semester I write a summary of the things I did and how students responded to them. This gives me a resource to draw on in future classes. I also share particularly effective lessons with my supervising professor and with fellow TAs.  In addition, I encourage feedback from my students over the course of the semester. I provide them with the opportunity to offer me written, anonymous evaluations during the semester so I know what needs to be change to improve my seminars. I also work closely with my fellow TAs and my professors to ensure that my marking is fair and the material I am teaching is relevant and accurate.

Professional development workshops are invaluable since they give me the opportunity to connect with TAs from other faculties and departments. Hearing the experiences of other TAs encourages me to reflect on my own teaching practices and look for ways to improve.

I am really enjoying this course. You make the 8am seminars painless so thank you! (Student, Winter 2010)