Students see Odyssey through eyes of immigrants

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Oak Park and River Forest High School students who just finished reading Homer's The Odyssey. will take something away from it other than tales of great wars and mythical creatures. Thanks to the innovative teaching methods of James Lessing and Ira Bell?#34;and the film work of Oak Park-based director Steve James?#34;90 OPRF freshmen have viewed Homer's epic from the present-day perspective of immigrants.

"We wanted to find a more direct connection to the students. So we started looking at immigration as an odyssey," Said James Lessing. To find out about the odyssey of immigrating to America, students had to go to the source. Each of the 90 students interviewed someone who has immigrated. The students then took their interview and used it to create an oral history about the journey of their subject. The students could compare the tragedies and triumphs of Odysseus to the immigrant's adventure.

"It was important for the kids to see what the obstacles in these people lives are and if they are anything near what Homer is writing about in The Odyssey. For me, reading literature always evokes something about now. I think that is what this project is focused on," Bell said.

The culmination of the project was an all-day workshop, held last Friday, during which the students combined all of their individual stories into one gigantic project which is being called "The Modern Day Odyssey."

The workshop was attended by some special guests, including OPRF parent and award-winning filmmaker, Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie). James' most recent film happens to be on the subject of immigration. The New Americans, which aired on PBS earlier in the year, follows the struggles of immigrants who are attempting to better their lives in America. The film was a collaborativ effort by several filmmakers, some of whom were present at the workshop. And a few of the immigrants featured in the film were also present. At Friday's workshop, portions of the film were shown.

"I think that what Mr. Lessing and Mr. Bell have done with this is find a way to connect a very contemporary story with great literature. I suspect that it can help bring to life an age-old process of migration, of change, or escaping persecution, and chasing your dreams. I think that to be able to tie these things together, however loosely, is great," James said.

While Lessing and Bell developed most of the curriculum, it was James who presented them with the idea of doing the oral histories. James and his fellow filmmakers have developed a variety of scholastic exercises to go along with their film.

"In doing these oral histories, they did what we do. They found a subject, they interviewed a subject, and got them to tell their stories. Now they are putting it all together. They've experienced firsthand the kind of thing we go through as filmmakers," James said.

Bell and Lessing believe that the most important thing their students will take away from this is a different outlook.

"To me it is about figuring out the universality of people," Bell said. "There is difference, but we need to find out what those differences are and find out what other people's obstacles are, so that you can begin to be empathetic to someone else. I don't feel like we do a very good job of that in our country right now. If we can't do it in our classroom, how can we do it out there?"

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