LoneWolf and Lone Survivor

 

Beowulf and The Common Core

As I am preparing for the upcoming transition to the Common Cores State Standards, I’ve been implementing their increased rigor to some of my previously developed lesson plans.  One of my favorite texts to use with my students has always been the epic poem, Beowulf.

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If there was ever a piece of literature that was made for Close Reading and deep reading techniques, it’s this poem.  There are so many beautifully crafted lines and stanzas, metaphors, and other literary devices that you could spend an entire class period on a few lines.  My students really enjoyed this process, and told me that they appreciated this title choice.

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As part of my attempt to find secondary sources and texts to expand the themes within Beowulf, the in-theaters-now film, “Lone Survivor” came to mind.  The glorification of war and soldiers and heroism is pervasive not only in Beowulf but in ancient Anglo-Saxon culture.  The story of American soldiers caught in such dire straits and their fortitude to survive became the perfect pairing for Beowulf and his dauntless monster-fighting legacy.

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According to IMDb:

Marcus Luttrell, a Navy Seal, and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd, in late June 2005. After running into mountain herders and capturing them, they were left with no choice but to follow their rules of engagement or be imprisoned. Now Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare. Written by Jacob Smith.

My lesson began with an anticipatory question:  What qualifies a decision as heroic versus foolish?

Our objective for the day that was posted beneath the opening question was: Compare and contrast the heroic decisions between Beowulf and the Navy Seals in the article, “The ‘Lone Survivor’ Tells the Story of a Tragic Navy Mission.

This is the article that I handed out to the students, and we listened to it on the NPR website.

After we discussed their responses to the opening question, I introduced the background of the Marcus Luttrell’s story by teasing the key points.  I put up a picture of Luttrell and the movie poster for “Lone Survivor” as we talked.  Next I passed out transcripts of the NPR interview for students to following along with as they listened.  Students were required to highlight and annotate the text as we listened, looking for examples of heroism, vocabulary words they were unfamiliar with, and any other parallels to Beowulf that they could identify.  I wanted to leave this open for the students to use their critical thinking skills.

As we listened to the interview, students were busily working and annotating, and my heart was bursting!

Once the interview was over, the students shared what they highlighted with their table partners.  I asked them to consider the following questions:

1.  What connections did you make between Luttrell’s story and Beowulf?

2.  What was different between the stories?

3.  What vocabulary words did you identify?  Did anyone else have a definition for you?

4.  Do you think Beowulf and the Navy Seals could have switched places?  Who would have been able to defeat the enemy?  Who would have failed?  Why?

Once those four questions were completed, we shared our findings.  I asked students to share their highlighted portions of the text and they were required to support their notation by sharing the parallel Beowulf elements.  No answer could stand alone from the epic poem.

Students eventually forgot that I was there because the discussion moved from my questions to their analysis.

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Fun with Literary Devices in Beowulf

Ok, I may be 99% alone on this one, but I love the epic poem, Beowulf!  This high opinion that I have developed for the anonymously written poem was developed before the 2007 digital 3-D version was released to the general public, and while I used excerpts from it in my classes, I feel as though the 1,500 + year old poem stands the test of time.

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First of all, an epic poem sets itself apart in that it’s a long narrative poem that tells of a hero’s deeds.  In Beowulf‘s case, it describes the many heroic deeds of the Geatish warrior, Beowulf, including the battles with Evil personified in Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a ferocious dragon.

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Unlocking the poem’s historical context is essential to understanding all of the elements that combine to make this epic one that has indeed remained relevant after finally being put down on paper around 650-825AD by an anonymous poet.

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Beowulf was set around 550 AD in modern day Sweden, Denmark, Norway.

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During this time period of history, paganism had a legitimate religious following because Christianity had not become as well organized or defined.  The poet who finally converted the epic poem from an oral tradition to the written word is given credit for adding in elements of Christianity in order to spread its messages.  In the very beginning of the poem, God is given the credit for gracing the Danes with the help of Beowulf, blessing him with the ability to defeat the terrorism that overtakes Hrothgar and his people.  All glory is given to God, as it was His doings, Beowulf’s destiny to defeat Grendel.  Additionally, the center of the Anglo-Saxon culture balanced on a sense of community and duty, as well as a warrior-based society.  Showing loyalty to your lord and king was repaid by gold and treasures during both times of war and peace.  This loyalty was essential for a lord to maintain their position, creating a defense system against advancing tribes or expanding one’s own boundaries.  The one thing that was feared most in the Anglo-Saxon culture was being dismissed from society, being excommunicated of sorts.  Grendel, the most feared, the most evil decedent of Cain was referred to as a rover of borders, demonstrating how he was an outcast.  By being a valued member of the community was essential, but to stand out and be an honored member meant that one must create a heroic persona through brave deeds worth remembering.  This was accomplished on the battlefield.  Beowulf’s celebrity was felt across the waters, far preceding him before even stepping in front of Hrothgar as he offers his services to the Danes.

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One may suggest that in order to engage students in literature, you must present them with novels and poetry that does not collect so much dust on their covers.  The truth is that there are many universal themes in Beowulf: fate, heroism, bravery, loyalty, and reputation.  What attracted me was the way in which the English language has been romanced and choreographed into stunning, captivating lines and phrases.  This was accomplished through the use of two of my favorite literary devices: kennings and litotes.

Kennings: usually a two-word compound metaphor

Examples from Beowulf:

  • Battle Sweat = Blood
  • Bone House = Skeleton or Body
  • Whale Road = the Ocean
  •  Swan of Blood = a Raven

Student-created Examples:

  • Foot Clothing = Socks or Shoes
  • Reverse Ignorance = Learning/Reading
  • Sewer of Knowledge = Teacher

Litotes: an understatement to tell what something is

Example from Beowulf:

  • “Cain got no good from committing that murder”

Examples:

  • She’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer
  • He’s not a bad dancer

Midterm Projects and Genius Hour

Monday marked the first day of Midterm Week for us at school.  I chose to have all of my midterms be project-based, and I am mostly pleased with the outcomes.

For my AP Language & Composition course, I chose to have my students complete a Nonfiction Novel Project that was shared with my College Board Summer Institute class last summer.  A novel is chosen by each student and they are required to read it, write a synopsis, define key vocabulary terms, identify and explain five to ten rhetorical devices per chapter/section, and give the novel a proper review in terms of the author’s writing style and content.

The Creative Writing class had been working on 500 word stories and essays throughout the quarter, and their midterm was to turn one of them into a five-to-seven page story.  I asked them to really work on developing their characters, as this was the focus of their previous assignments.

English III was really a lot of fun because it was the group of students whom I chose to work on Genius Hour.  Most of the projects were really well done and the students shared how much they enjoyed the process and opportunity to research something that they wanted to.  I had two class periods participate in Genius Hour, and while it was difficult for some students to get started, I would say that overall the project was a success.

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I had students prepare presentations that addressed the following questions:

  • What was your project objective when you first began the project?
  • Your project objective might have changed at some point.  If it did, how and why?
  • How did you bring your resources together to support your project objective?  What resources did you use?
  • Why did you choose your topic?  What connections do you have to it?
  • What did you learn as a participant in this process?  What did it reveal that you can use in the future?
  • Now that the project is “completed,” what follow up questions do you have?
  • If we began Genius Hour – Round Two, would you stick with this topic or would you begin a new one?

Presentations came in many different formats.

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If I were to put a description on how successful I felt my first attempt at implementing Genius Hour went, I would say that it was effective, but much room was left for improvement.

What Went Well:

  • Student Enjoyment – the majority of students said that they were glad that we did Genius Hour, and the few that were apathetic have that general attitude about school and responsibility in general.
  • Time in the Media Center – I was worried about not having adequate time, but as it turned out I was able to book the Media Center as often as I felt it was necessary.
  • Creativity – This particular class of students has a high level of creativity and zest for the dramatic, so I was not let down when I had high hopes that the Genius Hour projects would be creative and vivid.
  • The Initial Use of Blogging – I had my students maintain blogs about their Genius Hour projects, documenting the information that they uncovered, how their project formation was developing, and their thoughts about it in general as the process unfolded.
  • Using Feedly – This was the single most efficient tool that I have found to assist me during a project.  Feedly allowed me to subscribe to all of the student blogs and only log into one account to see their postings.

What Needs to be Improved Upon:

  • Increased Diligence on Blogging – If I gave students time during class to complete their weekly blogs then they were completed.  Sadly, I soon discovered that left up to their own devices, the students would not post, even after being shown the ease in which creating a blog entry was on their smartphones with the use of the WordPress application.
  • More Student Conferencing – I spent an adequate amount of time checking in with students, but I realize at the end of the journey that I left too much of my feedback on their blog entries as opposed to a face-to-face discussion.  I think that this would help the students in their understanding of the project requirements.
  • Stronger Parameters – Now that I have had the first round of Genius Hour completed, I realize that I need to increase the specifications of the project in general.  I now see that the requirements that I gave were good, but should have been increased to help support the students’ understanding and perhaps even their devotion to the project.  Examples might be a more specific rubric, example projects (which I now have), specific blog topics, a formal project proposal, a formal project update log, etc.