Teaching Beowulf: A Mead Hall Celebration

The 2011 TEAMS Teaching Prize Winning Lesson Plan

Demaree Peck (Parry McCluer High School, Buena Vista, Virginia)

I teach English at Parry McCluer High School in the rural, low-income school district of Buena Vista, Virginia, a financially struggling town that has recently declared bankruptcy. Resources for our students and teachers are limited (even paper is strictly rationed), while the needs of our students are daunting. With average SAT verbal scores of 420, my seniors in English 12, the standard “on-grade level” course, have poor, below grade-level reading and writing skills. As a consequence of a cycle of failure in English classes, they also have low motivation. The global needs of my students, most of whom are socio-economically disadvantaged, and many of whom are intellectually challenged, require me to make accommodations. Typically, my “case load” in one class will include three or four students with IEP’s, two others with 504 plans, a couple of students with court records, at least one who has been to jail, several from unstable family homes, a teen mother with an infant, and another girl who is pregnant. Many students work long hours after school and on weekends, and find little time to do homework. In the reading interest inventory I administer at the beginning of the semester, students indicate that they do little or no reading outside of school, with the rare exception of the Twilight series or hunting magazines. “I don’t like to read” is the typical response to this survey. Distracted by video games, facebook, and text messaging, many of my students have short attention spans and resist reading, failing to comprehend what they do read, even on a literal level.

So when I announce that we will begin our survey of British Literature with Beowulf, the long Anglo-Saxon epic poem that even in translation presents formidable difficulties in vocabulary and syntax, the students grumble in protest. Even the special education classroom aide sighs with reluctance, admitting in private that she has never liked Beowulf. In order to stimulate interest in this off-putting work, and to engage all of my diverse students, I know that I need to devise a creative and socially interactive plan that will fulfill a dual pedagogical purpose: to enlighten students about a work of great literature and at the same time teach basic literacy skills.

First, I spend one day providing background on Anglo-Saxon culture and language, supplemented by excerpts of the film, Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons, which helps to hook student interest in the period and let them hear Old English from the poem spoken. Then we spend about a week reading aloud the entire poem, as translated by Burton Rafel and excerpted in the standard Prentice-Hall textbook, British Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. We discuss and closely analyze the poem’s language, stylistic features, imagery, and themes. I assign two writing projects, due at the end of the unit: more advanced students keep a double-sided log of Christian and pagan elements in the poem, and then write an essay arguing whether Christian or pagan values predominate; less proficient students write a short, researched report on either the Sutton Hoo burial and treasure, Viking Artisans, or the Loch Ness Monster (or monster of their choice). While the students are working on their essays, we watch the contemporary film Beowulf for purposes of comparison. Students write an informal journal in response to a prompt: “Consider Beowulf’s comment to Wiglaf, ‘We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is over.’ How does the modern film adaptation represent the enmity between men and monsters so as to complicate the contest between good and evil?” To grab the students’ attention, I frequently have them write short creative exercises in class, such as their own original kennings to name the sea, modeled on “whale-road,” or Beowulf’s epitaph, using a kenning and a parallel series of three noteworthy achievements (e.g. “Here lies Beowulf, Strong-handed Wrestler, Who Led the Geats Across the Sea, Surprised Grendel in Heorot, and Slew Grendel’s Dam with a Magic Sword”).

After all of this groundwork, at the end of our unit on Beowulf, I devise a climactic project aimed to help students synthesize, internalize, and retain the poem’s key time sequences, episodes, and details. Learning is social, particularly for adolescents, and research has shown that cooperative learning nurtures motivation and engagement (Marzano, 84). Thus, I seek to make the culminating project truly collaborative—that is, student-centered and student-directed– so as to employ the principles of reciprocal teaching whereby the students, instead of being passive recipients of information, take the lead in teaching their peers. In past classes, I have divided the students into small groups to paint murals depicting Beowulf battling the three monsters. While the nonlinguistic representation was valuable, I have found that students are more engaged in the vital and dynamic process of dramatic performance. Recent research has indicated that when students observe or are involved in dramatizations of details, they retain information much longer than they do through either verbal or visual instruction (Marzano 131-132). When I first taught the epic, I staged arm wrestling matches between Grendel and various Beowulf challengers, including female students, which enlivened the class. The next year, after reflecting on the origin of Beowulf as an oral tale passed down over centuries, I decided to act out not the content of the story, but rather, the delivery of the story itself: we would stage a dramatic reenactment of the telling of Beowulf back in tenth-century or earlier Anglo-Saxon England. Each student would take turns playing the role of the scop, or traveling minstrel, who told the story to the warriors gathered around the hearth in the mead hall, so as to warm their imaginations on a cold winter’s night. I found that the project helped the students to appreciate the literary and historical context of the poem, and moreover, to experience the magical power of the work as an oral tale.

Although educational researchers recommend that cooperative learning be done in small groups of no more than three or four students (Marzano, 88), my students worked independently in their preparations, and then came together as an entire class for the rehearsal and final staging. The fact that the project was both independent, demanding individual effort, as well as collaborative, involving interaction and joint attention among peers, ensured both individual and group accountability; each student enjoyed a clear and indispensable role, worked at an appropriate level of difficulty, and could be assessed individually and fairly. Simultaneously, by sharing the role of the Anglo-Saxon storyteller among themselves, individual students contributed to the collective goal in a spirit of positive interdependence. If one student did not tell his or her key part of the story, no matter how small, he or she would fail to give the cue to the next person in the sequence, and so let down the whole class. Students thus developed an “all for one and one for all” attitude that they would sink or swim together.

Since students like to personalize their instructional goals and exert some control over their assignments, I let them choose which passage of the story they wished to tell. I divided the text into sections according to content, with the line numbers and general topics listed on a sign-up sheet. This approach allowed for differentiation, as stronger students picked longer, more complex passages, while weaker students selected shorter, more straightforward passages. The heterogeneous, inclusive grouping of all students helped students of low ability perform better.

To help students prepare their parts, I employed several comprehension strategies. First, I taught them how to identify shifts and transitions so as to “chunk” their selections into smaller coherent units of meaning. Less proficient readers better understood complexities of syntax, such as the use of appositive phrases and inverted word order, by rewriting long sentences as several shorter sentences. After students had unscrambled and rewritten parts of their assigned passage in simplified language, they began taking notes. To encourage them to take notes selectively, I distributed sticky notes for them to attach to the margins of the textbook in order to highlight key details. By drawing arrows, exclamation points, or simple marginalia like “suspenseful,” “supernatural,” or “Hellish villain,” students began to practice basic annotation. Beyond note taking, students had to learn to paraphrase the text. I emphasized that I did not wish them to memorize or recite the lines of the poem, as if we were performing a Shakespeare play or reader’s theater. Rather, I wanted them to synthesize and retell the story in their own words so as to build comprehension. In order to paraphrase accurately, they had to understand what they were reading. Repeated practice before the group allowed students time to more deeply process the information.

Paraphrasing paved the way for the greater challenge of verbalizing the story, which required that the students truly internalize the epic legend. Most students were petrified at having to tell the story from memory, and so I allowed them to refer to notes on one side of a 3 x 5” index card. The spatial limitations of the card forced students to abbreviate their notes to essential mnemonic phrases such as “creation song” or “enchanted sword.” In dress rehearsal, students practiced weaning themselves from their notes. Another comprehension strategy I employed was visualizing. Once students stopped picturing words on the page or notes on their cards, and instead, visualized scenes in their imaginations, their words flowed more naturally and spontaneously.

The set-up for the mead hall on the day of the performance was fairly simple. To simulate the “board,” or primitive table of the era, we pushed four large rectangular tables together to create one huge table around which all the students could sit. To signify the hearth, we lit a mechanical candle and placed it on the center of the table. We replaced the alcoholic mead with iced tea, flavored with honey, from which mead was made. I supplied the “mead,” while the students contributed simple snacks such as large pretzel sticks or pepperoni slices. One male student who liked to bake brought homemade sugar cookies in the shape of Grendel’s arm, dipped in red frosting to resemble blood.

Originally, the scop would sing the story of Beowulf to the chords of a harp. Although I did not ask my students to sing, I did require them to accompany themselves on an autoharp, which I borrowed from a local music store at no cost. I invested in a tuner and tuned the harp myself, a process that took about an hour before class. During the dress rehearsal, students had the opportunity to practice playing the harp. Although many students at first found it difficult to “multi-task” by talking and playing the harp at the same time, and some were less adept than others, students generally found that the harp served more as an aid than as a hindrance to their storytelling. Pausing to strum the autoharp served to add emphasis and imitate the caesuras of the Anglo-Saxon verse, allowing students, like the scops before them, to collect their thoughts or search for the right word. Playing the harp, an act that activated the senses of hearing and touch, as well as movement, engaged students with different learning styles and multiple intelligences, making the activity accessible to visual, auditory, musical, and kinesthetic learners. Although education tends to neglect the nonverbal forms of intellect, our use of music, tone of voice, and facial expressions through role-playing stimulated the right side of the brain as well as the left. Students used the autoharp in creative ways to bring out the changing moods and suspense in the battle between good and evil. The student who told about Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s dam, in which the tables turn repeatedly for and against the hero, correspondingly lifted the mood by playing major ascending chords or darkened the mood by playing minor descending chords, in order to orchestrate the hero’s shifting fate. Similarly, students improvised with high and low chords, loud or soft notes, staccato picking of strings, legato chromatic scales, and cacophonous din to express the big idea behind the drama.

The opportunity to perform face to face before peers highly motivated the students, and greatly improved their public speaking and dramatic abilities. Students had to speak audibly, confidently, and expressively, so as to captivate an audience. They practiced modulating their voices in keeping with the story’s plot line. As narrators, they had to decide what point of view to adopt when a character spoke. Most opted to render the character’s speech as direct, dramatic dialogue, rather than as third-person summary, even though this was more challenging, because it added a sense of immediacy. Students convincingly impersonated characters in the story. When students improvised or embellished the story with new or humorous details, they projected their own personalities into their parts and so discovered their individual voices.

In addition to encouraging a lively delivery, the tale-telling promoted social skills, as speakers had to make eye contact, and respond with give-and-take to the audience. In cooperative learning groups, students often help each other learn, applauding each others’ successes and efforts; in our mead-hall celebration, this applause was literal as students heartily cheered each other on for well told parts of the story. Students enjoyed listening as their peers brought the story to life. Much like the original Anglo-Saxon audience, they derived satisfaction from recognizing the familiar details of the story, while delighting in the surprising, innovative presentation. As the harp was passed around the table, students stayed true to their characters as fellow warriors, responding receptively to the drama as it enfolded. When the scop told how Grendel snatched up thirty Geats, ripped them apart, and bolted their blood, the warriors hissed and groaned; conversely, when the scop told how Beowulf tore off Grendel’s arm with his bare hands, snapping sinews, muscles, and bone, the warriors hurrahed and heartily chugged more mead. In turn, the taletellers fed off of the energy of the reveling listeners.

The one and a half hour block scheduled for this class worked well, since the relating of the story took a little over an hour. After the tale telling was done, we had about 15 minutes to toast the characters in the story. Similar in nature to a cast party after a show, the toasting ritual gave the students the opportunity to unwind, have fun, celebrate their achievement, and enjoy the snacks while not forgetting that we still occupied an imaginary mead hall. The toasts allowed students to reminisce about the highlights of the Beowulf story in an unscripted way and pay final tribute to the qualities of the epic hero: physical strength, bravery, loyalty, leadership ability, and compassion for others. In the spirit of crude jesting and drunken freedom that characterized the Germanic tradition, a student would stand up and lift his or her cup to make a toast with gusto. The toasts followed a ritualistic formula and had to be specific in nature. For example, a student might say, “Here’s to Beowulf for his courage in diving into the fiery lake and fighting all those sea monsters!” Students paid homage to supporting characters as well: “Here’s to Wiglaf for not deserting his leader when the chips were down!” Many toasts were humorous: “Here’s to Queen Wealhtheow, for not puking when Beowulf dropped Grendel’s bloody head on her dinner plate!” At the end of their toasts, students received reinforcing applause, laughter, and cheers of “Hear! Hear!” as warriors raised their mugs in supportive camaraderie. One toast sparked another, as students became increasingly competitive in efforts to outdo one another in clever wit. In their adolescent eagerness to shine in the spotlight, they projected the boastful swagger of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Even normally shy or apathetic students wanted to jump up to get a turn. “Oh, I have a toast!” students would simultaneously call out; “One at a time,” I would referee. Although I offered two extra credit points for each toast given, the adulation won for the toast proved its own reward.

By devising a simple grading rubric, I was able to assess student performance on the spot for the sake of accuracy. Students earned points for covering well-selected details, paraphrasing accurately, speaking from memory, and delivering the story in an expressive, animated voice. They earned extra credit points for creative use of the harp, inclusion of stylistic features of the poem such as alliteration, kennings, and caesuras, and the making of toasts. Receiving their assessments on their way out the door, students appreciated the immediate feedback.

This project was successful as measured by student’s retention of information and improvement. Grades on the final Beowulf test were an average of 10 points, or a full letter grade, higher than test scores of comparable students the year before. Subsequent parent-student-teacher conferences were positive as students revealed heightened self-confidence. One student proudly told his parents, “I’ve always gotten D’s in English. I can’t believe I’ve gotten my first A! Maybe I’m better at English than I thought I was.” His success on this project jump-started him to work hard all semester. Although I did not light a literal hearth, I was able to ignite sparks of interest in this Old English text, and kindle the students’ enthusiasm for ancient and medieval literature. In their dual roles as Anglo-Saxon scops and audience, students became invested in the Beowulf story and imaginatively appropriated it as their own. They later looked back on the epic as their favorite work in the course, exclaiming, “I love Beowulf! It’s a great poem!” Even the skeptical aide said that she came to find the poem interesting and exciting. Literally drawing the class into a circle, the dramatization captivated student attention. More than a year later, students still reminisce about the experience on facebook. By increasing class unity and morale, the mead hall celebration turned our classroom into a community.

Works Cited

Beowulf. (Unrated Director’s Cut) Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, et al. Shangri-La Entertainment Imagemovers, Paramount Pictures, 2008, DVD.

Beowulf & the Anglo-Saxons: An Exploration into the Anglo-Saxon Myth of Men and Monsters. Limited Edition. Not Rated. Ryko Distribution, 2007. DVD.

Kinsella, Kim, et al. Prentice Hall Literature: The British Tradition: Timeless Voices,Timeless Themes. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., Jan. 2000. Print.

Marzano, Robert J., Debra J. Pickering, Jane E. Pollack. Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: McREL, 2001. Print.

Demaree Peck earned her B. A. in English from Princeton University (1981) and her Ph. D. in English from University of Virginia (1990). She has published several articles and a book on Willa Cather, “Possession Granted by a Different Lease”: The Imaginative Claims of the Artist in Willa Cather’s Fiction (1996). She currently teaches high school near Lexington, VA, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, where she and her four children enjoy hiking, biking, and listening to live blue grass music.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 1, Spring 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Spring2012Beowulf.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies