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Teaching Guide

Teaching Beowulf

Gnomes have never been less lawn ornamenty.

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Beowulf isn't a "meh" kind of story. You either love it or you hate it.

And frankly, it's easy to see why many people hate it. It's a big ol' wall of impenetrable text, translated or not. But chip away at that wall and you'll have a rousing tale of heroism and one of the most epic epics of all time.

We're going to help you tip the scales into the "love it" category.

In this guide you will find

  • pop culture connections starring Lucy Lawless (hello, Xena!), Angelina Jolie, video games, and comic books.
  • activities to help students break down gnomic verse like a boss.
  • reading quizzes with monsters, mothers, and dragons—oh my!

Remember: Beowulf is legendary (literally) and deserves to be treated as such.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Students will have the opportunity to briefly study the original language of Beowulf. They'll choose descriptive words or phrases to research in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online and will attempt to name the person or thing described in the Anglo-Saxon phrase. Students will learn to identify kennings and to discuss them as a particular type of metaphor that was typical in Old English texts. This exercise takes approximately one-and-a-half class periods to complete.

Materials Needed:

  • Computers
  • Access to the Internet
  • List of descriptive phrases and kennings

Step 1: Discuss the idea of Beowulf as a poem originally performed orally for an audience. (Also consider asking them to read Shmoop's discussion on this in Beowulf genre.) Introduce the role that kennings, set pieces, and typical descriptions play in poetry that required great memorization and improvisation from those who performed it. For a brief discussion of this, click here.

Step 2: Provide students with a list of kennings (in Old English) for them to decipher. Check out "Explanatory Notes" for Beowulf, which includes line numbers and meanings for kennings in red, and provides a useful list that will help you locate these devices in the poem. Students can use Bosworth-Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online to look up the definitions of each word. Students may work independently on this task, or they can work in small groups of two or three, depending on the availability of computers and time constraints.

Step 3: Once the students have deciphered their kennings, ask them to guess what or who the kenning describes. Ask them some questions about the descriptions:

What physical or psychological qualities does the kenning pinpoint in its descriptive terms?
Does the kenning achieve its descriptive quality from comparing two things that are alike, or by juxtaposing two unlike qualities? If you can find examples of each, which do you think are more effective?

Step 4: This is the perfect opportunity to look more closely at the workings of the kenning, and to discuss how it's a special kind of metaphor. You may also wish to introduce the ideas of metonymy and synecdoche (see Shmoop's Poetry Glossary for definitions of these terms), since kennings often employ these techniques to create a new identity for the thing described.

Step 5: Give students the opportunity to take a more global view. Ask:

  1. What purpose do kennings serve in the poem?
  2. Why is such naming or description important in Beowulf's world?

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: Grades 9 & 10 Reading 2.5, 2.6, 3.7, 3.8, 3.12; Listening & Speaking 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 2.4, 2.5. Grades 11 & 12 Reading 1.2, 1.3, 3.1, 3.4, 3.7; Speaking 2.1, 2.3.)

Instructions for Your Students

In this activity, you'll have the opportunity to briefly study the original language of Beowulf – that would be Old English (which is nothing like modern English). You'll choose descriptive words or phrases to research in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online and will attempt to name the person or thing described in the Anglo-Saxon phrase. You will learn to identify kennings and to discuss them as a particular type of metaphor typical to Old English texts.

Step 1: Read Shmoop's Beowulf genre, and then discuss with the class the idea of Beowulf as a poem originally performed orally for an audience. In class you'll learn about the role that kennings, set pieces, and typical descriptions play in poetry that required great memorization and improvisation from those who performed it.

Step 2: Consider the list of kennings (in Old English) that your teacher has provided. Use Bosworth-Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary online to decipher each one. You may work independently on this task, or in small groups of two or three.

Step 3: Once you have deciphered the kennings, try to guess what or who the kenning describes. Write down your answers.

Step 4: Share your findings with the class, and consider some important questions:

What physical or psychological qualities does the kenning pinpoint in its descriptive terms?
Does the kenning achieve its descriptive quality from comparing two things that are alike, or by juxtaposing two unlike qualities? If you can find examples of each, which do you think are more effective?

Step 5: Now expand your view and consider the poem as a whole. Ask yourself:

  1. What purpose do kennings serve in the poem?
  2. Why is such naming or description important in Beowulf's world?

Share your thoughts with the class.

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING BEOWULF?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Photos    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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