My classes are held in 100-minute block sessions every other day. Activities in this lesson take one class period to complete.
In the lesson below, students engage in writing and collaborative discussion on Beowulf.
I begin my lesson with my own adaptation of Peter Elbow's freewriting in Writing Without Teachers (Oxford University Press, 1973). Freewriting involves writers recording their thoughts as they come without censorship and keeping their pens or pencils moving. In freewriting, writers do not concern themselves with organizing thoughts or going back to read over their writing while in the process of writing down their thoughts.
I have been using freewriting with students throughout my career to improve their fluency and comfort with writing. I tell students that writing is about getting their thoughts down and that freewriting is a strategy that can improve their writing over time by helping them (1) get comfortable with writing down their thoughts and (2) become more efficient in organizing their thoughts in an on-demand writing task.
I explain that I also use freewriting as a problem-solving strategy when I have to make a major decision or if my mind is cluttered and I need to focus on an upcoming task. I discuss with students that they can also do directed freewriting on a particular topic, such as a college admissions essay topic, a literary work, or any challenge they are facing. If they have nothing to write about, I encourage them to record their thoughts on Beowulf, which they can use to examine their comprehension gaps and literary interpretations.
I use my adaptation of freewriting (Assignment: Freewriting) about three times each week to give students an opportunity to practice, practice, practice their writing skills; help them realize the value of writing to learn about themselves; and develop problem-solving skills. Sometimes I write along with my students to model writing stamina; I usually share what I've written with them so that they can see how my thinking evolves as I freewrite.
Since I have students who grew up speaking a language other than English, I allow them to write in their native language to build their literacy skills in their first language, which they can transfer to English as a second language. I also have students who are artistically inclined; I allow them to draw if they get stuck while writing; but they must write about what they draw. I tell students that if they can get comfortable with writing and improve their fluency, when they are presented with a writing on-demand task, such as an essay exam, writing sample exercise for college placement testing or an interview, they will be able to formulate their ideas faster, more coherently, and with more clarity.
Towards the end of my freewriting session, I ask students to finish up their last sentence or thought and read over what they have written, drawing arrows or brackets to make connections between ideas if possible. Students record their freewriting in a journal they keep in my classroom. I tell them that while I check journals periodically, the journals are for them to record their thoughts and grow as writers.
I begin by reviewing the material from the prior class--the main characters in Beowulf (Hrothgar: the king, Beowulf: Geat warrior and protagonist, Grendel: monster who attacks Herot for 12 winters, Grendel's Mother). We revisit the central conflict in the text: Absolute Good represented by Beowulf vs. Absolute Evil represented by Grendel (Whiteboard: Absolute Good vs. Absolute Evil). We discuss Beowulf's belief that God decides fate and Grendel's inability to know God's love because is he a descendent of Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy over God's favor. We also address why Grendel may attack only in winter. We discuss winter as a symbol of death since it is a time of cold, snow, and lack of vegetation. In addition, we talk about how since the Danes seek entertainment and merriment indoors during winter, Grendel is drawn to their mead hall, Herot.
In pairs, students answer review questions (Review Questions: Grendel, Beowulf, The Battle With Grendel) from their textbook Language of Literature (McDougal Littell, 2003) on Grendel, Beowulf, and The Battle With Grendel sections. I like for the students to collaborate so that they can discuss their answers to the questions and go back to the text to fill their comprehension gaps. In the discussion, students discuss Grendel's size, fierce nature, and his animal-like behavior in attacking humans when their merriment in Herot attracts him; how Beowulf exhibits courage by fighting Grendel without weapons; and Beowulf's sense of duty to Hrothgar's people to rid evil from their midst. Students also return to the text to substantiate their claims, citing line and page numbers in their discussion. Talking about their answers allows them to confirm their interpretations with one another and support their claims with evidence from the text.
Next, I ask students to pair with another pair, forming a group of four to (1) review answers to their comprehension questions, and (2) after choosing a recorder, to write down three questions or observations they have about the text so far. I have students form the group of four so that they can discuss any revisions to their answers and their interpretation of the text, revisiting their understanding and identifying any comprehension gaps. I find that students attempt to address their questions about the text as a group, and they talk with one another about the validity of their observations and question each other, "Where does the text specifically show you this about the character?" or "How did you come up with that observation?".
I collect student papers, and in an all-class setting, we address each observation and question by going back to the text for clarification and rereading when necessary. A sample of observations and questions by one group are as follows:
Then there are other questions and observations we need to revisit the text to find or figure out the answer, stated or implied. I model this process in a think-aloud, revealing my logic out loud, how I find or arrive at an answer. I allow students to volunteer to clarify interpretations about the text, using this same process. I offer feedback on their performance by confirming their explanation of the evidence to support their observations and answers to questions or engaging them in think-alouds by asking prompting questions as they return to the text to clarify with evidence. I believe that teaching critical reading strategies, such as monitoring and evaluating comprehension through instructional scaffolding (modeling, guided practice, independent practice, and feedback) is an effective way to help students acquire these strategies for college and career readiness.
Before reading "Grendel's Mother," I have students preview the sections by reading beige section preview notes about the plot, marginal notes and questions on the text, and vocabulary definitions provided. I talk to students about the value of previewing what you read: it frontloads content into the reader's brain and helps the reader get a head start on processing complex text. As a former troubled reader, this is something I continue to use before I read or reread literature on which I will be designing lesson plans for the new school year.
I read aloud to students, but I do not stop to ask comprehension questions because the section is very short at only two pages. Next, I ask for volunteers to summarize the section with no response. At this point I realize that the complexity of the plot, which is divided into two parts - Grendel's Mother's attack and Hrothgar's appeal to Beowulf for help - make it necessary to address each event individually through comprehension questions that take students through each occurrence in this section. Questions are as follows:
When I address the events in the text chronologically through these questions, student answers are accurate to the text because they have time to process it in chunks; furthermore, they cite line numbers when necessary and reread the text aloud to support their answers.
The next time I teach this section, I will address its parts separately by having students write section one, Grendel's Mother's attack, in their own words with a partner. Through writing the paraphrase collaboratively, students have to make sense of the explicit description of the attack before examining the rationale for it. After that, we will debrief as a class; then, when no questions remain, we will do the same exercise with part two, Hrothgar's appeal to Beowulf. Sometimes I must be reminded that even though I have read and taught Beowulf nearly 20 times, I must facilitate my students' first reading and continue to reinforce their need for multiple readings for understanding.
I prepare to show students the film clip of the section on Grendel's Mother, including her attack on Herot then Beowulf's visit to her lair, from the "Beowulf" film (Paramount, 2007) by designing their ticket out, having them divide their papers in half. On the left side, they write a five-bullet summary of "Grendel's Mother" from the text. On the right side, they write a five-bullet summary of "Grendel's Mother" from the film clip to give them a visual representation of the action in the text and also to show them another interpretation of the text. I want them to understand that there can be multiple interpretations of a text, including revision of the plot in films, which I discuss as poetic license for entertainment purposes.
Next class, I want them to examine their ticket out (Student Work: Ticket Out on Grendel's Mother) and through discussion with a partner, engage in a comparison/contrast of the two interpretations of the original Beowulf text. We will use this as a springboard for discussion next class so that students can review their summaries of the section and compare and contrast multiple interpretations.