Overcoming Beowulf

Quite an interesting week at my placement as we started Beowulf on Monday. There’s no question that Beowulf is a difficult text – for seniors and myself. I find myself having to do quick Google searches for definitions of words, even if I’m reading a modern translation. So, it’s not uncommon for student to lack the motivation to read such a text that is so foreign to them. But the goal, here, is to get them to read these texts because they will encounter them as they move into college and later into their field of work. It’s about teaching the themes and having them gain knowledge on Beowulf and the Old English culture just as much as it’s about teaching them the skills to read, comprehend and interpret difficult texts.

As a teacher, though, that’s a hard concept to get across. So often – and I’m guilty of it as well – any time a student comes across a text that they can’t understand on the first read or even just by “judging” the text to difficult, they’ll just put it aside and claim it’s meaningless and pointless to attempt to read something like Beowulf. What my mentor teacher and I, then, have been working on is encouraging student to read it once and not to cast it aside because it seems impossible to understand. We want them to come into class the next day with questions about the text and their interpretation of certain parts of the reading. Then, as a class, we’ll work through it together. This week we focused heavily on close readings, partner conversation, small group discussion and whole group discussion to come to an understanding of the text from a comprehension standpoint as well as an investigative standpoint (the “why” is something included and “what” does it mean discussion). I’d have my students look at passage of Beowulf, read it to themselves and think about what it’s saying. Then, they might talk to a partner or other students at the their table before I’d bring it back to a whole class discussion where we could combine ideas and figure things out together.

Needless to say, we were able to get a majority of the students to do the reading and jump in on discussion. For my periods, especially, I was amazed at the amount of participation from all students in the classroom. They seemed genuinely interested to reach conclusions and find out what happened next. It makes for some good days.

Tomorrow evening, I hope to make a quick follow-up post with some activities and ideas that my mentor shared with me that do two things: checks that students are actually reading; and marks a place that can kickstart discussion.

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5 Comments

Filed under Education, English, Lesson, Lesson planning, Motivation, Personal, Reading, Student Teaching, Students, Teaching

5 responses to “Overcoming Beowulf

  1. Pat

    I remember reading Beowulf in High school. I also remember being really excited to read it and enjoying it immensely. Put it on a pedestal.

  2. I feel this way about Romeo and Juliet with my ninth graders. The language is something they have never experienced before I don’t want them to become frustrated and give up on the text quickly. I think you are using a lot of good strategies here. Going to have to keep these in mind when we start reading on Tuesday.

    • Sam,

      Take a look at what I said to Nichole below. I think creating a classroom atmosphere where students and teacher work together is a good strategy. Work with them early to give them the confidence that they can actually read and understand the difficult texts.

  3. How have you been able to conquer the vocabulary question? My students have a tendency to be discouraged by difficult vocabulary and I want to know how you’ve been able to help your kids push through the vocab enough to get to the story.

    • Nichole,

      Something we did was create a running list of vocabulary words on a piece of poster paper. We would use this as a cumulative reference for all class periods. If we came across a word that we weren’t familiar with during a close reading, we’d look it up and put it on our poster. All of my students have laptops so a Google search isn’t time-consuming. If you don’t have that technology available, you could just use a dictionary, I’m sure.

      I also worked toward making myself not look like a know-it-all in front of the class. Sometimes we’d come across a word that I didn’t even know and would say, “Yes, it’s a difficult text. And, look, we’ve come across a word that I’m not even familiar with. So, instead of giving up, let’s work through this together, look up the word and carry on with our close reading.”

      The biggest thing, then, is to work with them and constantly reiterate that we can use each other to learn about a new and difficult text. If a three different people were able to pick out three different things in a passage, then we can use that collectively to reach a conclusion.

      Hope this helps.

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