I had no idea what to expect when I agreed to teach Beowulf. I was a naïve student teacher visiting a high school senior class, which, I had been warned, could very well eat me alive. For some reason, I decided that the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of heroes and monsters would be a great way to start off my time in the classroom. Beowulf is one of my favorite texts, and despite the reputation it has as a soporific for high schoolers, I thought that I could bring enough life to the poem to make it as fun and interesting for the students as it was for me.
I was surprised at how well Beowulf was received. Sure, there were grumblings in the classroom from a few students at the beginning, but the vast majority was engaged with the story and what the poem taught about the Anglo-Saxon world. I worked hard to engage the students who were not initially interested, and I think that even if some students did not like the text overall, each had at least one lesson that they enjoyed. It was so exciting to see students, who had initially rolled their eyes and groaned when I said we would be reading a thousand year-old poem, raise their hands in class to ask incisive questions about everything ranging from, “Why does Grendel’s mother have no name?” to “Is Hrothgar really a good king?”
It was a natural choice to spend the first day of the unit introducing students to Anglo-Saxon language, history, and culture. I opened by asking, “What language did Shakespeare write in: Modern English, Middle English, or Old English?” The vast majority of students picked Old English, and didn’t believe me when I insisted that Shakespeare is definitely Modern English. To prove my point, I recited the opening of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, and though there were a few difficult phrases, the students understood most of what was being said. I then recited the opening to Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and a few students claimed that they thought there some recognizable words. Finally, I read the opening of Beowulf and was roundly laughed at, because that is definitely not English. It was an effective way to open up the unit and get the students interested in the text. From there, we went over the definition and examples of kennings found in the text, and I suggested a few modern kennings, like gas-guzzler and couch potato, and asked the students to do the same. They were able to come up with a number of their own kennings, though they weren’t quite proper, including muffin top and gold-digger. This introduction set the tone for Beowulf as being both entertaining and challenging.
One of the most important features in the construction of the unit was using essential questions to unify the overarching discussion on the text. These were questions that we returned to constantly to help students develop their own understanding of the themes of the text and what it all means. These questions included, “What does it mean to be a good leader?”, “What makes someone a monster?”, and “What does it mean to be a hero?” The last question sparked one of the most thoughtful class discussions, as we described what Beowulf did that made him a hero, and then compared him to modern-day superheroes. Each class period suggested a different superhero, including Batman, Iron Man, and Superman. We discussed whether Beowulf’s motivations were just as noble as Batman’s, if Beowulf has the supernatural strength of Superman, and what does that say about his accomplishments if he does or doesn’t. We talked about whether Beowulf and Iron Man would have been as successful if they weren’t supported by their father’s legacies. Each class had different questions to answer, and each class decided on a different list of criteria for what makes a hero, both today and in Beowulf’s time. The student surprised themselves with their perceptive comments and arguments, and the debate became the basis of a writing assignment that made use of their ideas.
If I had the opportunity to teach this unit again, I would make a few changes. The text we used was an abridged prose version which I had chosen in part because of time constraints since I was only going to be student teaching for a few weeks, and we had already lost a week of classes due to Hurricane Sandy. Other teachers more experienced than I had also assured me that it was the wiser choice given the classroom atmosphere. After teaching the lesson, I strongly disagree and am sure that they would have been able to handle a full translation of Beowulf just as well, if we had more time. I also showed the entire 2007 film version of Beowulf over the course of the three-week unit to flesh out the bare bones of the abridged text. If given another chance to teach Beowulf, I would focus more on the text and analysis than on the film and only show some of the film’s scenes.
When I first mentioned to my student teaching advisor that I had volunteered to teach Beowulf, she definitely had some concerns. It’s a hard text for any high school class, and even more so if the teacher is just as much of a student. After trying it myself, I believe that every student is capable of fully appreciating Beowulf, and I am so happy to have seen the students’ expressions light up when discussing such a weighty text. It was a challenge to teach Beowulf, but I believe that both the students and I learned more than we ever expected.
By Kelly J. Doran