The lessons in this unit showcase my pedagogic philosophy that students learn best when they are actively engaged. Traditionally, teachers approach epic poetry, such as Beowulf, much as we teach novels and short stories: Students read the text, analyze and discuss it, take quizzes and tests, and write a paper. What happens when we teach the epic through performance pedagogy and pay homage to the oral tradition?
The lessons in this unit emphasize fresh approaches to literary analysis. This lesson is part of a larger unit on the Epic of Beowulf. In its original context, this is
Lesson 3 in The Epic of Beowulf
This lesson introduces students to the importance of boasting in Beowulf by
Before turning to the epic and Beowulf's boasts woven throughout the poem, I introduce the idea of boasting with the pop song "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred. I say to students, "Listen to this song and tell me what it has in common with Beowulf." Then I play the song:
As the students listen to the song, I strut down the "runway," which is the center aisle in my room, and pretend to model and turn. I hear the kids giggling. They're a bit surprised that their middle-aged teacher would be so bold.
When the song finishes, I ask: "What does the song have in common with Beowulf?"
Almost immediately, someone says, "They both take their shirts off!"
Hahaha! I love the humor in that response, but I say, "Try again."
A student replies, "they're both boasting."
"That's absolutely right," I say, "but boasting in Beowulf isn't the same as boasting in our culture. We think about boasting as bragging and associate it w/ pride. However, we must practice a form of boasting when we write a resume, for example, because we have to tell strangers about ourselves in order to accomplish our goal of employment or acceptance into college or another organization."
The I tell students that before we talk about boasting in Beowulf, we're going to participate in a boasting activity.
At this point I pass out the boasts to students. I've put these on notecards but have them in a document for ease of use here: Beowulf's Boasts quotes. The boasts are from the Burton Raffel translation and the Kennedy translation of Beowulf, although I use the Seamus Heaney translation. This is one way I can expose students to the various translations of the epic.
When I have leftover cards, I ask some students to take more than one.
Before having students work w/ their boasts, I get out some props (hats from the dollar store) and put one on. Then I "boast," using one of the boasts I've distributed to students.
Next, I ask students to walk around the room and share their boasts w/ one another. As they do, I check to see if anyone needs help w/ pronunciations of words. I can do this informally so that the students aren't embarrassed when they present the boasts to the class.
After a few minutes of sharing with one another, I have students return to their desks.
I remind the class that when they present the boasts, they are no longer themselves; they are each Beowulf. Then we take turns boasting using the lines from Beowulf. Beowulf Boasting: Student PerformanceAfter each student boasts, we clap three times.
When all have finished, I ask: "What information did you get from the boasting? What did you learn about Beowulf?" Some of the student answers included:
"What his accomplishments are."
"Who his father is."
"What he can do."
When student struggle, I ask: "How do you communicate?" Students eagerly offer:
No one says "reputation." I ask, "How did Anglo-Saxons communicate?"
Someone responded: "Writing." That gave me the opportunity to tell the class that Beowulf is an oral story and that monks wrote it down. The Anglo-Saxons did not have writing as an option. This revelation sparked students to realize that word-of-mouth is the only way the Anglo-Saxons had to communicate.
We finish talking about the purpose of boasting for the Anglo-Saxons:
Now the class is ready for the task of composing their own boasts, which I explain in the next section.
I give each student a copy of the assignment: Beowulf Chest Thumping.
Then I tell students that some of the terms listed in the assignment will be unfamiliar to them but that we will cover them in depth in the next class.
I read the requirements of the assignment with the class and pause on the term caesura. I direct students to open their copies of Beowulf and look at the page on the left, which in the Seamus Heaney translation is in Old English and shows a caesura on each page.
Then I point at the break in the line and tell students "That's a caesura. You can't really write one because it only occurs in Old English. However, we can show our understanding of a caesura by showing a separation in the lines of our boasts."
I finish with the instructions and briefly mention that a kenning is a type of metaphor. Again, I remind students that we'll talk about all the terms in more depth in the next class.
I'm a big believer in "I do, we do, you do" method of teaching. However, I've found that students can handle the boasting assignment if I simply have them work w/ the boasts from Beowulf, show them an example I've written, and give them the assignment. Boast Example.
Rather than simply reading my boast, I boast. This is because I want students to present their boasts to the class in a boastful tone.
I tell students that they don't have to do everything listed on the assignment. They can boast in any way they want and that the ideas are merely suggestions.
The remainder of the class I allow students to work on their boasts or continue reading the poem.
Here's one student's written result: Boast Example.