Power and Starburst

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SWBAT understand the power dynamic present in Beowulf and the concept of wergild or 'death price'

Big Idea

What is the link between power and leadership? What are the different ways effective leaders exert authority?


This lesson is part of a series of lessons on Beowulf. In this lesson I want students to understand the power dynamic between Hrothgar and Beowulf. 

Whom Would You Follow?

25 minutes

I found this idea on a teacher's blog when I first put this lesson together and of the last five classes I taught it worked very well. My goal is for students to understand the power dynamic between Hrothgar and Beowulf and how kings created and held power. 

I take a bag of Starburst candies and hold them up explaining that they are gold. I then walk around the room distributing the candies two to one person, five to another, and to one person in the room a big enough pile that kids can't count how much that person has.  If your class size is less than ten you can include everyone in this activity, otherwise pick five or six students; enough of a range of personalities that kids understand this is about human behavior. 

I then ask the kids three questions in this order:

What are you going to do with your gold?

Why did you choose to give it to that person?

What do you expect in return?


Every year pretty much the same thing happens. The kids with only a little gold decide to give their gold to the kid who has the most.  When I ask them why, they usually think about it a little bit and decide the gold is safer with the person who has more.  Sometimes this surprises them, because they made the decision simply because other students around them made that decision, or they made it without thinking.  

Pretty much every kid agrees that they expect protection and to eventually get some gold back from the person they gave it to. 

Procedures lesson learned: I tried to include everyone in class of 17 this year, and I made two mistakes that affected the outcome.  One, I gave two kids big piles, and two I gave gold to everyone.  In a large class this creates two problems: one, the kids formed alliances, and two there was more democratic sharing going on.  The kid with more decided to divide up the gold to the other kids.  That never happened before, and I think it is because he was surrounded by six other kids. 

Also, some of the kids simply sat and watched what the others did, and really didn't participate. 

When I refocused, and only included five kids then it went the way I expected.  Also, the kids not participating, were okay with just watching.  

What usually ends up happening with this activity is that kids have a much better understanding of the importance of generosity in maintaining power, and the need for alliance when attaining wealth.  They end up with a deeper meaning of the kenning "ring-giver" and why Grendel's greediness is repeatedly mentioned as something to be disdained.

Power and Boasting

15 minutes

One of the unique aspects of Beowulf is the formal boasting that takes place before Beowulf fights Grendel. 

First, I have students read lines 499-607 where Unferth challenges Beowulf's resume as a hero.  We discuss the language of the too warriors, how Unferth suggests that Beowulf tired in the race, and Breca was the winner. Then we look at the way Beowulf makes Unferth's challenge look false, and how he insults Unferth by calling out his failure to rid Heorot of Grendel.  I ask the students how Beowulf has used boasting to his advantage and why Hrothgar applauds Beowulf's boasting. 

They agree that it's Beowulf's way of proving himself and gaining Hrothgar's trust.  If he didn't talk about what he had done in the past, Hrothgar wouldn't know what he's capable of.  They also think that showing confidence makes him seem more capable, unlike Unferth who tries to bring Beowulf down by focusing on his supposed failures, Beowulf focuses on himself and what he has done and thinks he can do. 



Reading Assignment & Homework

5 minutes

At the end of class I assign lines 1158-1650 which describes Beowulf's fight with Grendel's mother and 1677-1786 which describes Hrothgar's advice and the Danes celebration and Grendel and his mother's death. I also give them the next set of questions to be handed in the next day.