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The Herculean tasks of a preteen

To redeem himself for killing his wife and children in a fit of rage, Hercules fought off man-eating animals, Amazon warriors and a multiheaded hydra.

But the mythical Greek hero isn't the only one who ever had problems. The average hormone-spiked seventh-grader faces Herculean challenges, too, fighting daily battles with bad skin, nascent romance and homework-happy teachers.

At least Hercules was an adult when he fought his 12 labors.

The presumption of adolescent struggle is the golden urn of inspiration for a creative mythology curriculum at Walker Middle School, where seventh-grade teacher Sara Jones recently assigned students the task of creating their own real-life myths.

Following units on six ancient tales, they sat down to write and illustrate the "7 labors of a 7th grader." Jones, 24, said the exercise adds excitement to the usual classroom routine while reinforcing important themes.

"Kids in middle school are still very creative," said the third-year teacher and University of Florida graduate. "Any interaction is what hooks these kids in. It's really quite funny what they came up with."

Students eat up the soap-operatic tales of gods, goddesses and heroes, she said. Feeding off a rich supply of conflict and character flaws, Jones explored the themes of origin, morality and quest.

Because myths are so pervasive in popular culture, such as Disney movies, Jones believes the course work helps students understand how stories are altered for commercial gain. On another level, she says they gain insight into satire, such as the works of Monty Python.

A student favorite was the origin myth of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld. When she was taken down to his realm, the world stopped blooming, giving rise to autumn and winter. Her ascension to the surface brought spring and summer.

The class drew to a close last week with a reading of the story of Hercules. With that, students began compiling their own list of labors, such as pimples, crowded hallways and detention. Jones assured them they wouldn't be graded on their drawing ability.

Chelsea Slater, a 12-year-old from Northdale, said eating school food is one of her greatest challenges. For Dakota Fraser, a 12-year-old from Land O'Lakes, it is doing "a lot more homework."

In addition to the illustrations, honors students had to select personality traits for Demeter or Persephone and cite book passages that support them. Other students wrote out plot lines on large posters of Persephone and her mother, Demeter.

Professor Dick Puglisi of the University of South Florida's College of Education praised Jones' approach. Generally speaking, middle school students are too energetic and independent-minded to enjoy lectures, he said. They like interactive learning.

"She's trying to tie mythology to their own life experiences," he said. "And that's exactly what she should be doing."

At one point, Jones stopped looking over students' shoulders and addressed the class.

"I like what I'm seeing, guys," she said.

_ Josh Zimmer covers University North, Keystone/Odessa and Citrus Park. He can be reached at 269-5314 or zimmersptimes.com.

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