My classes are held in 100-minute block sessions every other day. Activities in this lesson take about one class period to complete. The lesson below outlines background for Beowulf: historical background, the epic hero, and vocabulary from Beowulf excerpts in our textbook, The Language of Literature (McDougal Littell, 2003).
To understand the historical context of the works they will be reading in the first unit for this course, students read historical background on the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Periods from their textbook The Language of Literature (McDougal Littell, 2003) and create a double-entry journal (Handout: Double-Entry Journal Template) with at least 15 two-column entries (five for the Timeline, five for the Anglo-Saxon Period, and five for Medieval Period) to analyze and understand the historical context of Beowulf and the Iliad.
I model how to create a double-entry journal while students follow along. They divide their paper in half. In the left-column, students write significant ideas/events from the Anglo-Saxon Period based upon their reading; on the right-side, students write a corresponding reason why the idea/event is significant or question to use for further research. I model how to use a double-entry journal, providing an example by noting a significant event from the book's timeline in the left-hand column and my thoughts about it in the right-hand column.
The double-entry journal activity allows students to interact with informational text, choosing what is important to them and making sense of their interpretations.
Students share their double-entry journals (Student Work: Double-Entry Journal) in pairs and return to the text for clarification. We debrief as a class to discuss the historical significance of Beowulf in light of students' observations. By referring back to the timeline and their double-entries, students are able to understand the context of the epic poem within the history of British Literature, Britain, and the world.
Students review the characteristics of an epic through readings from their textbook, a PowerPoint on the epic (PowerPoint: The Epic), and all-class discussion of how Beowulf meets the characteristics of an epic. Through this discussion, I review the characters and setting of Beowulf with students.
For visual context of Beowulf, students view, "Clash of the Gods: Beowulf and Grendel" from the History Channel and clips of the kingdom's setting, Grendel's attack, and Beowulf's arrival from the film "Beowulf: Director's Cut" (Paramount Pictures, 2007). Next, to measure students' knowledge base prior to reading, I engage students in a quickwrite on what they knew about Beowulf so far. They write at least five bullets about the text. One student example reads as follows:
Volunteers share in all-class debriefing; and I list what the class knows to gauge any need for review.
To address vocabulary in Beowulf, students completed a Words to Know Activity from the supplementary materials provided with Language of Literature. The sentence completion and creation activity was designed to review vocabulary from the text after reading with sentences related to a warrior's quest to defeat a monster such as Grendel and students writing a sentence about the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, using as many of the poem's vocabulary words. However, I use the activity to preview/review the vocabulary in the poem because I believe vocabulary should be addressed prior to reading and taught in context. I have students use the vocabulary definitions provided in the text to complete sentences provided on the activity because I think this will give them a chance to preview the text as they look for definitions. I ask them to write a prediction sentence about the battle between Beowulf and Grendel. We review student answers as a class. Since the textbook uses a modern English translation of the Beowulf excerpts, students do not have to be concerned with translating the Old English into modern English as they read. We can deal with the complex modern English and complex ideas addressed in the poem through literary devices, such as kennings, stock-epithets, poetic form, allusions, and diction.