context and comprehension

All literature is contextual. While our students might follow the plot of a tale such as Beowulf, the story will really only come alive for them when they understand the culture of the Anglo-Saxons. This is true regarding all stories and their cultural context, but especially true for very old cultures from which we only have meager clues as to how people actually lived. Often, the clues come primarily from the stories themselves, so we can set our students to the task of being detectives, employing reading comprehension.

Attaining relevance is really just adding to previous knowledge, and, more importantly, chipping away at existing misperceptions. Here is an exercise that will help with both.

An Anglo-Saxon village has just learned that their king and his battle-weary men are soon returning from a conquest, after a long absence. In two pages, describe the details of the reunion, such as setting, characters, and the ceremony itself. What is the significance of the ceremony to the village? In such a harsh environment, what were the benefits of being well-spoken or artistic? Back up all statements with line numbers from the poem.

No matter what you’ve tried to articulate about the Anglo-Saxons, students retain a mental picture of gruff, axe-wielding barbarians, so it is critical that students find the clues by carefully parsing the text. Beowulf‘s poet would not recognize their mental construct!

Since the poem is difficult even in translation, it helps to have visuals, as well as background information, and this is where the web becomes a welcome ally. Provide specific sources, such as these, so that they don’t become overwhelmed with the varying levels of research available.

This type of assignment works well with groups or pairs. Have students open a new Google Doc, giving each member permission to edit, as well as you, the teacher. Have them send you a link to each group’s papers. Set a timeline for the project and check their progress regularly, leaving comments on their drafts. Tip: If each person in a group composes in a different color, you will see at a glance who is doing what.

Utilize the tools of our culture to explore another.

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