Shrink the Epic: Introducing "Beowulf" and the Anglo-Saxon Period of English Literature

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SWBAT identify major plot details and characters in the Anglo Saxon epic "Beowulf."

Big Idea

Front-loading activities prepare students to read the Old English, Anglo-Saxon epic.

Time Frame

Lesson 1 of 8 in The Epic of Beowulf unit.

This lesson is the first literature lesson in a new trimester. I have a whole new group of seniors and like to ease them into the year w/ an activity. Also, I like to set the stage for active learning and performance pedagogy. 

Since Beowulf is a scary work for some students, getting students excited about it happens more readily when I use Beowulf Shrink-lit. It allows students to meet the major characters and get a sense of the epic's plot structure. This eliminates much anxiety about the text. 

In this lesson students will learn about 

  • The origin of the English language and its influences by watching a short video,
  • The basic plot structure and major characters in Beowulf by reading Beowulf Shrink-Lit. Beowulf Shrinklit.docx

*A note on transition: All lessons in the unit are based on Seamus Heaney's translation of The Epic of Beowulf. 

"The History of English in 10 Minutes, Chapter 1: Whatever Happened to the Jutes?"

15 minutes

To introduce students to English as a living language, I begin with an Open University video, "The History of English in 10 Minutes." 

For today's lesson, I only use chapter 1: "Whatever Happened to the Jutes?" 

First, I tell students we will watch the video twice. The first time we'll listen. Then we'll talk about what we heard. Then we'll listen again, and I'll pause the video so the students can take notes. Since this is the first academic lesson, at this point I'm trying to give students a sense of what to expect from the class. 

The first chapter is below and is followed by the complete video: 


As students listen to and watch the video the second time, I pause for discussion:

"What did you learn about English?" is the first question. Some student responses include:

"English changed whenever someone new moved in." I love this answer because it is so true and gets to the heart of one of the three major influences on English:

  • assimilation
  • war
  • disease

I take care to define assimilation because it's a term kids don't know: The merging of cultural traits from previously distinct cultural groups

This gives me a chance to talk to students about English's vast influence on the world via the British Empire and colonization of North America. It's important because our school is a feeder school for an Indian reservation, and a major concern among the tribal members is the loss of their native language. 

As students watch the video, they take notes on the Germanic tribes that influenced English:

  • Angles
  • Saxons
  • Jutes

They note that Christians and Vikings also influenced English and that English is a more practical and useful language than is Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. Finally, I want students to know that the demise of the Roman Empire resulted in the rise of English as the dominant world language we know it to be today. 

Shrinking the Epic

30 minutes

A few years ago I discovered a clever retelling of the Beowulf epic. Beowulf Shrinklt  encapsulates the epic quite nicely. I use it in a circle reading. 

  • Pass out Beowulf Shrinklit
  • Have students stand in a circle.
  • Students take turns reading to hard stops. Tell students these are periods, semicolons, colons, question marks, and exclamation points. Commas are not hard stops. 
  • I begin the reading and rotate to my left.

After the first reading, I suggest that they annotate their copies of the shrinklit as we discuss it because it will help them understand the epic when we read. Student Annotated "Beowulf Shrinklit"

I ask students what they learned about Beowulf. 

They generally respond:

"There's a monster named Grendel." 

"He chopped of Grendel's arm." At this I ask students to look again, and someone says, "Beowulf wrenched the arm off." Generally a girl will say gross. Then I get to tell students that the epic poem is violent and that Quentin Tarantino probably got many of his ideas from the classics, such as the eyeball on a spear in The Iliad

We continue discussing in this way until students have no more responses. Then we read again, beginning w/ the next student in turn. 

After the second reading, we continue discussing. This questioning allows students to demonstrate their learning. They tell me that 

"Beowulf is a Geat."

"There's a king named Hrothgar."

"Beowulf kills Grendel's mom."

"Beowulf is killed by a dragon."

"Beowulf is creamated."

"Beowulf is a Swede."

And more. 

By the end of the activity, students know the epic's basic plot and characters. 

We conclude with a choral reading of "Beowulf Shrinklit."