Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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Designing Writing Assignments: Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities

The fourth chapter in Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments focuses on “unusual or new alternatives to the standard kinds of writing that students are asked to complete” (48). Some of my best writing assignments have sprung from planning UbD performance tasks with an authentic audience. For example, two grammar UbD units I wrote concern the use of apostrophes and the use of commas. The performance task for the apostrophe unit concerns writing a letter to an elected official in Arkansas who presented a bill before the Arkansas legislature regarding the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive form of Arkansas. The comma assignment involved creating a comma usage manual for a company who lost over $2 million Canadian when a contract was interpreted in a way they didn’t foresee simply because of the placement of a comma. Both performance tasks have been successful in the past, which is one reason I think writing a letter of recommendation for Beowulf could work (see previous post).

Gardner suggests six questions you can use in framing alternative assignments:

  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (49)

Gardner includes a helpful table on p. 50 that lists potential authentic audiences for writing tasks. It would be a great starting point for any teacher creating a writing assignment or a performance task in another subject area. Gardner describes an audience that caught my attention in terms of being able to adapt it for an assignment in my class: how would one of Chaucer’s pilgrims react to the topic for the assignment? Gardner describes a new rule at school, but it could be adapted for a variety of purposes. How would Chaucer’s pilgrims react to some headline in the news? To a major event in politics? To a work of literature? I teach parts of The Canterbury Tales to students: the Prologue, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” It would be fun for the characters to comment on each other’s tales. I know there is some of that in the prologues to some of the tales, but not in all of them. I have traditionally had students write a compare/contrast essay. I could tell that assignment didn’t go over so well this year, so maybe next year this small adaptation of looking at the stories from a different audience angle could generate more enthusiasm.

In exploring different tones, again Gardner provides a helpful chart on p. 53. Some ideas for adaptation to the Chaucer assignment could be curious, condescending, discouraged, furious, injured, irritated, offended, resentful, shocked, or upset. Of course, some of the characters might feel more amused, which isn’t a choice in the list, but would be good to include in the assignment. Giving students some ideas about possible positions to take would be good exercise for voice and tone, and I have to admit, I don’t build in a lot of opportunities for students to explore different tones. I think I generally ask students write in a formal, scholarly tone, and it’s no wonder they don’t understand tone very well. They don’t get to explore different types of tone enough. In any case, as Gardner notes, I would need to “spend time unpacking the different stances on the list with the class” (52). I really like Gardner’s idea of putting these positions on a continuum given a scenario (such as not receiving a refund for a defective product) in a class discussion—students ranking the positions could see irritation as less extreme than anger, which will inform their writing.

Next, Gardner underscores the importance of freewriting to gather ideas when writing from other perspectives. With interactive notebooks next year, I plan to build in more time for journals and freewrites, and these will be good springboards for writing assignments.

In considering when the topic takes place, I am thinking again of the Beowulf assignment. One of the issues I want to explore when my students study Beowulf is the notion that though we have some ideas about heroism that are different from those held by Anglo-Saxons (or the Danes and Geats of Beowulf), some ideas have remained the same. Joe Scotese has a great exercise on his site that explores the way in which Beowulf is related to 9/11 and how one small act of heroism (that is even murkier because some translations do not highlight it or ascribe different motivations to Beowulf)—saving Brecca—is greater than killing Grendel.

I love Gardner’s idea for a cause/effect essay on p. 57:

If you could look in your crystal ball and determine the most significant thing that happened to you this week, what would it be? Write a cause-and-effect paper that explains what the event is and predicts how it will affect you.

It would be great for ninth graders writing a cause/effect paper. I also love the process of modeling and unpacking she describes for the assignment. I am definitely going to steal that assignment. With so many changes at the beginning of 9th grade—new school, new friends, new teachers, new expectations—early in the year would be a great time to do this assignment. It might even make a good first essay.

The list of alternative genres and subgenres for assignments on pp. 62-63 should be a good springboard for exploring different kinds of writing aside from the standard essay. In fact, Gardner mentions a recommendation report on p. 63, which may be how I can get out of my sticky problem with the Beowulf assignment. If Hrothgar is writing a recommendation report rather than a letter, it might not bother students so much that Beowulf dies at the end. I know writing a letter of recommendation for a deceased person would seem awkward, but a report might be less so.

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Designing Writing Assignments: Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments Book CoverThe title of this post is not a typo or hiccup. The third chapter of Traci Garder’s book Designing Writing Assignments is titled “Designing Writing Assignments,” too.

In this chapter, Garder addresses the reason why students might fail to meet our expectations: we didn’t communicate what we thought we did. I am guilty, as Gardner says, of simply trying to provide an assignment sheet, but we need to do more. First of all, when I define tasks, I’m not sure I have thought of “suggest[ing] steps in the process that students can complete” and “indicat[ing] different ways that students can work,” though I do usually “schedule multiple opportunities for students to write as they complete the assignment,” particularly if it’s a lower level or lower grade—9th graders versus 11th graders, for example (36). I think I should give all of my students more opportunitys to write in class than I currently do. It’s all about the balance of time, isn’t it?

In helping students comprehend our expectations, Gardner suggests we

  • unpack the meaning of the assignment, as described by Jim Burke, by explaining the assignment to create a shared understanding of the activity
  • provide model responses and demonstrate how to read and compose example texts
  • share rubrics, checklists, and other resources that highlight the requirements and goals for the assignment (36)

I do share rubrics, but I need to be more consistent, particularly as I use rubrics to grade. Checklists, my students also have. Models are an area in which I feel I’m weak. I do some modeling, but usually after the first draft. When I asked students to write a poetry explication, they asked me for models, and though I pointed them to one I found on the web, it didn’t appear to be enough. Over and over students told me they weren’t sure what to do. Jay McTighe describes a teacher who had a target on her bulletin board. A-papers were in the middle of the target, and B- and C-papers were farther out. Students could see exactly what they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted. On the other hand, does that encourage too much imitation and not enough creativity? It’s something I wrestle with when I use models.

Next, Gardner describes the importance of support and resources. When I have designed UbD units, my performance assessments have typically been really good in terms of support and resources, but I haven’t done it for all of the essays. And why not? I have a blog and a wiki! I can gather all kinds of resources for students to use with Web 2.0 tools.

Gardner models the process for creating three types of writing assignments, ending each vignette with an assessment of how well the assignment meets the criteria set forth in the General Writing Assignment Design section (defining task, expectations, and support and resources). In the vignette on expressive writing, Gardner mentions blogs. It sounds like she has used LiveJournal (she describes being able to add emoticons and what music the writer’s listening to, both LJ features) with students, but Ning would be great. It can be closed or open, and students can all be blogging in the same space. I can’t decide if I’m going to do some blogging with all my classes. I am already launching interactive notebooks, and I just don’t know. I don’t want to do too much that’s different or I’ll go crazy, but Gardner makes a good point about the audience for expressive writing being narrow if it’s just the student and me who read it. I really like commenting, too. Now if my students all had the same note-taking tools (like Curio, perhaps), we could probably make the interactive notebooks more of a shared item. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

As I read Garder’s process for reflecting on how she has met the criteria for designing assignments in each of the vignettes, I’m reminded again of the UbD process for designing any assignment—the filter in particular. If you want to see one of my filters, I created one for Beowulf when I wrote my UbD unit plan. As a side note, what’s great about the essential questions for that plan is that when I discovered Joe Scotese had some good close reading assignments for Beowulf, I was able to use them to explore the same questions even deeper. I need to revise my unit to include Joe’s ideas. I actually had an idea as I read Gardner’s description of her persuasive writing assignment. I have asked students to write Beowulf’s résumé in the past; I think a persuasive essay in which they are trying to convince someone to hire him on as a hero, perhaps even written from the viewpoint of King Hrothgar? Something’s always niggled at me about that résumé in the past. I worried that though it’s an authentic task, it wasn’t all that challenging, which is why I added annotations. A persuasive essay would definitely make me feel better about the performance task and make it more of a writing exercise. What do you think? If I remember right, Jim Burke even has a great graphic organizer for constructing an argument that would work well.

Let’s see, this kind of assignment would include an authentic audience—someone in need of a hero who has asked Hrothgar for a recommendation. Students are experts: they’ve read Beowulf and seen him in action (of course, he dies, so I could ask students to complete the assignment before we get to that part or they’ll bring it up for sure). Then again, I might be able to get around that snag by having Hrothgar write to the Geats to explain why Beowulf should be made king. It will set the letter more firmly at a certain place in the story. What do you think? They’ll need to interact with the text to provide examples of Beowulf’s heroism. How about choice? Well, they need to decide which acts are heroic enough to include and leave out things they don’t find heroic. Models. I don’t have any models on this particular assignment. I could provide them, but given the narrow scope, could I get away with sharing recommendation letters? I can include suggested steps in the process on the assignment sheet, and I can create peer review sheets that help the students with structure and audience/purpose. Graphic organizers and a cheat sheet for the grammar handbook students use might be helpful support as well.

I think I have just begun planning a writing assignment.

P. S. If you are a regular visitor or even a vistor whose been here before, you may notice a few differences in this site’s functionality. I was going to tack the description of some changes I’ve made to this post, but I decided they really merit a separate post, which is forthcoming.

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Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

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