GreeceOnline Study Guides Resources News About Us Contact Us
Program Impact
<empty> <empty> <empty>
  Program Overview  
  Program Significance  
  Program Impact  
  Special Events  
  Mission Statement  

On this page, we have reprinted articles and commentary by Greek Study Fellows so you can gain an appreciation for the impact of The Examined Life program on Fellows' perceptions of Greece, the development of curriculum, teaching students, and teaching colleagues. These articles also express their responses to such texts as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the writings of playwrights, philosophers, and poets.

Articles on this page (click a link to read the full article):

Impact on School Leadership

Lessons in Contemporary School Leadership from the Greeks
By Robert McCarthy, ’05 Greek Study Fellow


For several years I have worked with secondary school principals on leadership development. Rather than focusing on "how to" recipes to encourage, nurture, and support the development of leadership traits, I have favored an approach designed to encourage introspection. I believe that a school leader who has learned the habit of living an examined life, will become more effective. Just as a group of young people can learn to become more thoughtful by having a thoughtful teacher, a school community can become more thoughtful when led by a discerning leader.

In the sessions, I remind participants that a person who accepts a leadership position has determined on a personal level that he or she possesses the ability to develop traits desirable in leaders, among them courage, good judgment, sensitivity, integrity, an awareness of what motivates people, and the capacity to be reflective and thoughtful. Many new leaders are not sure which traits they already possess and which they need to develop. My approach to leadership training is to encourage individuals, in the company of colleagues, to access leadership traits through self-reflection and examination, rather than by learning the generic "7 Effective Ways to be a Good Leader."

I use short stories, poetry, and drama to prompt school leaders to confront of leadership issues, and ask such questions as: When does a decision have moral implications? What motivates the members of a school community? What do they yearn for and how can I raise the level of their expectations for their own behavior? How do I feel about being a "public figure"? How do I resolve the tension between community expectations and my conscience when they are in conflict? How important is it to seek "third opinions"? What behaviors does the school community expect of me as a leader and how can I fulfill them and keep my integrity?

In this informal essay, I would like to give examples of how the The Examined Life program has deepened my thinking about the complexities of leadership and how I can enrich my leadership work through the great heroes of the Homeric epics, the writings of the Greek dramatists, and the questions posed by such philosophers as Plato and Socrates. To illustrate, I have chosen three works: a short story, a play, and a poem.

I. The Conflict Between Glory (Kleos) and Home (Nostos)

In 1990, Tim O’Brien, a former foot soldier in Vietnam, published The Things They Carried, a book of short stories, which received great popular acclaim and several literary awards. In one story, "On the Rainy River", O’Brien details the mental and emotional conflict confronting a young man as he wrestles with the decision about whether to go to Vietnam, as summoned by his country, or to flee to Canada, as his conscience urged him. By fleeing to Canada, he was being true to himself, yet severing relations with home; by going to War he would be honored in his town.

Until The Examined Life, I encouraged participants to discuss the story within the parameters of a decision-making dilemma, encouraging them to uncover motivations for making decisions and to become more thoughtful about the forces impinging on the decision making process.

In the Iliad, Book 9, Achilles recounts the words of his mother, the goddess Thetis, as she presents him with the consequences of a choice he must make between Kleos (glory - dying young as a hero in battle) or nostos (home - living to a ripe old age in the sanctity of home). Achilles chooses Kleos and lives and dies with that choice. In the Odyssey, however, the tension is played out differently as Odysseus seeks both nostos and Kleos. His attempt to straddle both desires is one of the central conflicts in the Odyssey.

For school leaders, my use of O’Brien’s work will be greatly enriched by readings and background information on the Homeric epics. Without trivializing the great struggles of the protagonists in the Iliad and the Odyssey, I will encourage those in leadership positions to think about the choices they make, the consequences of those choices, and how they resolve existing tensions. This, I believe, will lead them to dig deep into their motivations and the consequences of accepting leadership positions.

II. Identity and Leadership

In Book 9 of the Odyssey, Odysseus exhibits the traits of a Greek epic hero. He is daring, cunning, a master strategist and a brave fighter. He also does something that almost results in his downfall. After escaping from the Cyclops by telling him that his name is "Nobody", Odysseus ignores the pleas of his men and taunts the one-eyed monster. Establishing his identity as a leader in the Greek heroic tradition, he must reveal his name, so that the Cyclops knows "the wily Odysseus" bested him. By revealing his name, he makes it personal. By casting aside his anonymity, he allows the son of Poseidon to ask his father, the sea god Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and prevent him from getting home.

Continuing the theme of Identity and Leadership, two poems I have used many times with school leaders are Emily Dickinson’s I’m nobody! Who are you? and Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant. The poems provoke spirited discussion of the dilemma of a school leader as a public figure, on the one hand, and the need to be judicious and circumspect, on the other.

Introducing the Odyssey Book 9 episode into the discussion will create a much larger issue of the need of a "community of followers" to know a leader’s personal identity, and the two sides of such knowledge for the school leader.

III. A Leader’s Responsibility To Maintain the Public Order

Sophocles’ Antigone is a timeless tragedy that allows us to confront our responsibilities to the State and the State’s responsibilities to us. After reading the play, one principal commented that reading Antigone is like waiting for a car wreck to take place. Another said that Antigone is a high school principal’s worst nightmare. After marveling at the stiff-necked positions of Creon, they begin to recognize the principles of governance that he represents. By being required to read his words more closely, they develop a greater understanding of the philosophical position he has taken, the context of his decision-making, and the equally stiff necked, but principled position of Antigone. They see the increasing isolation of Creon and wonder about the sense of inevitability portrayed, despite the intervention of several mortals such as Creon’s son, Haemon, Antigone’s sister, Ismene and the seer Tiresias.

As a result of my participation as a Greek Study Fellow in The Examined Life program, I can bring a much richer background to my teaching of the text. The historical context is important. Within recent memory, Athens had overthrown a tyrant; and this play, in many ways, is a reminder about the dangers of tyranny.

IV. Ithaka

The great poem by the modern Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy also provides an enormous opportunity for busy school leaders to step back, to recognize the goals of life and work, and to grow in their understanding about the knowledge, experience, and wisdom accumulated in their own lives during their personal odysseys. In the use of this poem with school principals and teachers, the discussions were profound, thoughtful, and full of insight and reflection.

Through my work in The Examined Life program, I have come to understand that the Greeks saw the Homeric epics, the great dramas, and the philosophical discourses as the way to teach their young the traits--all in their own way "heroic"--that makes a person Greek. By sharing my knowledge with school leaders, they can recognize that the events in their journeys to Ithaca should teach all that come in contact with them, the heroic traits of a good person.

Impact on Teaching

Adventure, Reflection, and Transformation: On Teaching the Odyssey
By Elizabeth Craig-Olins, 1999 Greek Study Fellow

In a talk given at the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (ALSC), on November 4, 2005, Elizabeth Craig-Olins, 1999 Greek Study Fellow, tells why she loves the Odyssey and why she never tires of teaching it. In this excerpt from her presentation, she shares her approach to teaching the Odyssey.

Every time I teach the Odyssey I rediscover why I love this text. It is a great story, and it is a story about the art of storytelling. It is about what it means to be human. It is about coming home, physically and spiritually, and about transformation, literally and figuratively. It is the archetypal heroic quest– a journey story that helps us to understand ourselves as we read it and as we read modern stories that still follow its pattern. . .

I say something along these lines to my students before we plunge into the reading, and hope that these promises will be in some way fulfilled for them by the end of the unit.

Engaging a wide range of students

It may have been the challenge of engaging a wide range of students that inspired me to create a multi-media project with flexible parameters, and why the Odyssey project I am about to describe is one part of my curriculum that I have not substantially changed over seven years. The richness of the Odyssey, as well as its influence on artists through history, has enabled me to craft a unit that serves a multitude of purposes. In an effort to enrich my students’ reading of the Odyssey I offer an extensive project that involves researching a character, locating a variety of artworks, and creating a power point presentation requiring technological skills, visual design, and art and text interpretation that employs voice and music.

A word on translations

Before I continue with the project description, I would like to say a word on translations. In my ongoing search for a text that would engage as many students as possible, I have experimented with prose (Rouse, Christ) and poetic (Fitzgerald, Lombardo) translations of the Odyssey. Because my struggling students in standard level classes had a very difficult time even with excerpts from the Fitzgerald translation, I resorted to a simple version by Christ. The students had no problem reading it, but they were neither inspired nor challenged. The Rouse version tells a better, more complex story than the Christ, but I knew by this time that I wanted to work with a poetic translation. I found the Lombardo translation to be just challenging enough for standard students. Its accessibility gives less engaged readers the opportunity to read a classic epic in a sophisticated style without getting completely lost or turned off. [Though even with its extended similes highlighted in italics, many students really struggle to understand the comparisons]. Still, Lombardo did not provide enough interpretive challenge for my more advanced students, so I will return this year to the Fitzgerald, where I began, because I find the language richer and the imagery stronger, and because it offers a fine introduction to interpretive reading for young high school students who are willing to grapple with the text. As well, the reading challenge and poetic elements offer discussion points on the focus question about when story becomes literature.

Multi-media project: the Odyssey in Power Point

Perhaps because we live in a visual age, many students have trouble imagining the characters and situations described in the poem’s verses. While it can be argued that this is precisely why we should focus our efforts on text rendering, the thousands of images inspired by this text that exist all over the world are too wonderful to ignore. They bring the stories to life, and with them my students bring their study of the Odyssey to life. The hands-on audio/visual projects that they create serve to deepen their understanding. The Odyssey in Power Point also raises their awareness of the deep fascination humans have held for mythology through the ages, in part because of the essential truths about humankind they reveal.

1. Pre-Odyssey exercises

Prior to reading the Odyssey students team up to present background information on the Trojan War. Then they read the story of “The House of Atreus”, and I follow up by retelling the Atreus story. (This serves the dual purpose of continuing the oral story-telling tradition as well as clarifying an extremely complicated tale.) I confess I also retell the story because I love to. Students at this age are old enough to handle the shocking events and still young enough to be shocked. If there are any sleepers in the class, they always wake up when Pelops is served up on a platter to the gods by his father. The characters in this darkly cursed family are alluded to so often in the Odyssey that it is worth the time spent on it, and once we start reading the Odyssey students will see how Homer works with allusion in the narrative.

Additionally, the suffering of Orestes at the hands of the Erinyes, and his redemption through the mercy of the Eumenides at the close of the saga, introduce the concept of transformation which we will encounter literally with Proteus in the Odyssey, and later, literally and figuratively with Odysseus. Though these are complicated ideas that may run over the heads of some students, the story holds its own even if students do not follow this line of thought in all regards. We also discuss such relevant terms as nostos (homecoming) and aidos (a complicated relative of compassion), and cover a bit of ground on Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), her daughters the Muses, Themis and Dike (divine and worldly justice), and Nemesis (righteous anger), as these personified concepts will come up in the reading.

Just after the pre-Odyssey material and before students read the story, I introduce the text with a slide show summing up the events that precede, the story such as the wedding of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis; the sacrifice of Iphigenia; and the various murders in the household of Agamemnon, and pointing out features and themes they will encounter in the reading.

In particular, we take a close look at a Rubens painting of the Judgment of Paris, where I can model identifying symbol and gesture to understand what is going on in the painting. [I point out Paris offering the apple to Aphrodite, somewhat tentatively, while infuriating Athena, identified by her aegis and her owl, and Hera, with her attendant peacock, who spits at Paris’s impassive dog. Hermes is of course known by his winged helmet and wand. Meanwhile we see that frightening image of the Fury Alecto in the sky, threatening war).

Students will have to do the same in their own slide shows.

2. Reading the text and preparing for the slide show

Once launched into the text, the readings and class sessions are carried out conventionally. By the time we get to Book 12, I assign the Power Point project and the paper that precedes it. Students choose a character from the story to research and then write a paper that includes a biographical sketch (in, as well as outside of the Odyssey), a passage from the Odyssey featuring the chosen character, and an explanation of that passage establishing its context and the relationship of the character to Odysseus.


Research must include books and electronic sources for both the written and visual contents of the project. Not surprisingly, the best resources for solid (in depth) information on the gods and heroes can be found in the older books in the library. (I have recently been surprised to see how lost kids can be in front of a shelf full of books: Apparently they are so used to internet searches that browsing the books without a key word search has become daunting.) But for an extensive variety of good color representations of gods and heroes the Internet is most obliging. Students download images or scan them from high quality art books and save them for use in the slide show.

Visual Literacy 1: art

This is where the project comes alive visually, and where students can apply their newfound expertise to the interpretation of a painting. They have to know their characters well enough to recognize the traits and symbols of these subjects in works of art, and to at least guess at the story being depicted. I explain that this is a kind of “visual literacy,” where I am asking them to interpret the artwork in much the same way I ask them to do close reading of poetry or narrative. They learn to look closely at gesture and expression. And by selecting a variety of works to illustrate their projects, they learn to see how different artists, at different periods of time, have interpreted the same mythological characters and events from different points of view.

In the abduction of Helen, for instance, a Greek vase shows her running away. The painter Reni portrays her ambiguously– perhaps victim, perhaps not, While a David painting shows her as Paris’s willing paramour.

3. Creating the slide show

While the written report serves as the basis for the text in the multimedia project, students learn to distill their information to make it suitable for a slide show. To make optimal use of the visual capability of this format, students must illustrate each slide with the images they have researched. Variety is important. They are encouraged to find art from periods that span ancient to modern. The objective for the slide show is for the student to create a project that others can learn from, much like an interactive museum display.

Visual Literacy 2: design

The second kind of visual literacy I explain to students is about the graphic display of information. Students are encouraged to think carefully about how they want to reach their audience. What is an appropriate amount of text for each slide? How can the relationship of visual elements and “background space” affect the viewer’s understanding? How does the organization of font sizes, color, and placement of elements bring the reader into the show? How can transition sounds and background music be used to evoke character, setting, or events?

Vocal Interpretation

Finally, there is a vocal component. Students select a short passage to read that highlights their character’s role in the Odyssey. Recording the reading should appropriately dramatize the situation and mood of the character they have now come to know so well. As they record their own voices reading their selected passages, students must consider how voice, tone, mood, and rhythm are appropriate to the passage, and reflect those elements in their vocal inflection.

Beyond text: the slide show reveals hidden talents and levels of engagement

One of the rewarding results of this project is discovering talents that wouldn’t surface in a text-only response. The multimedia approach always reveals expressive and interpretive talents of students who are not necessarily shining stars of written work. The project-based approach allows for a broader base of skills and talents and values visual and auditory creativity, as well as playful responses. It is hard for a student not to be engaged fully in the process. Some get very involved in the technical tricks of the program; others enjoy closely examining art. Some get involved in finding the right music; others in aesthetic design considerations. There are always surprises, and sometimes I am bowled over by results.


Ultimately, has this approach been more effective than the traditional class lecture/discussion model that is solely text based? I don’t have an answer, but in end-of-year evaluations, students often hail this multimedia project as a highlight of their work in the class. Students who are particularly comfortable presenting their work in multi-media format bask in their success, and can be inspiring to peers. The kids learn a lot from each other, and in the end, learn from each other’s projects. The atmosphere in the lab is usually chaotic, but most often productive. By the time they’ve finished with the Odyssey unit, they have practiced close textual analysis, employed vocal expression, learned technological presentation techniques, found a variety of artistic interpretations of a single character or event, and learned from each other. Some, at least, have increased their interpretive skills (which are tested when we tackle such poems as Louise Glück’s “Circe’s Power” or “Odysseus’ Secret”). Others are satisfied to have put Calypso’s seduction to music. Most, I hope, have reflected on the epic and their own response to it.


Documentation is an important facet of the project and also sometimes a frustrating one, particularly citing works of art. If the art is found in books, the documentation is easily accessible, but on the Internet art sources are often at best elusive, if not missing altogether. Recent work with our librarians has helped to account for web sources, but finding the artist, dates and locations is still a problem. Interestingly, the process of creating a bibliography just got easier; instant bibliography is just a keystroke away using the library’s Bibliography Maker.

Project components

Each project consists of a slide show of 10-30 slides that tell the story of the character selected and his or her role in the Odyssey. All slides should be illustrated, and at least three of the visual images must be explained through extended captions with a voice-over recording. A 6-12 line passage should also be recorded. Background music and transition sounds should be applied judiciously. A final bibliography slide should document all texts used as well as all artwork.

Ancillary materials available:

  • List of project components
  • Instruction handouts
  • Peer evaluation sheet
  • Student comments on the project

A Note on the Process

Two class periods are dedicated to research in the library, and 6-8 classes are devoted to developing the projects in the computer lab. Some students do a significant amount of work outside of class. Students who are technologically sophisticated often help the less adept, and employ techniques that inspire classmates to try inventive animations or visual effects.

Technical difficulties

There are always technical difficulties– outdated machines, compatibility problems with home and school computers, software variables, downloading images from the internet, scanning images from books, and so on. Scanned images and sound take up a lot of memory; crashes are not uncommon. Time constraints and lab availability can be frustrating, especially for students who need more time to produce projects to their satisfaction.

Before we sort through the difficulties of compatible word-processing programs and suitable forms in which to save artwork, I still have to teach many kids how to use the program– and be sure the instruction sheets match the version of the program in the lab. Some students want to work at home because they usually have newer versions of the program; how, then, to make their class-time productive. The lab sessions are generally chaotic.

Somehow we adapt to the flaws and get over the frustrations, and sometimes we settle for less than we’d envisioned because of technical or time limitations. But there is always high energy and high excitement when the day of sharing projects arrives. In musical-chairs-like fashion, students move from computer to computer to learn from and critique their peers’ work. My hope is that by using technology to explore one facet of the Odyssey in depth, students’ understanding of the general text will be enriched, and their consciousness raised about artistic interpretations of classical stories. Emphasis on interpreting symbol and imagery in art has lent itself well to interpreting poetry, and teaching close reading of text in general.

HomeGreeceOnlineStudy GuidesResourcesNewsAbout UsContact Us
Copyright © 1999-2016, The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools
c/o Newton Public Schools, 100 Walnut Street, Newton, MA 02460, Ph 617-851-4286, Fax 617-559-9040, Contact:
Web pages designed by corenDesign, Inc. and Barbara Harrison. Minotaur logo by Peter Cho