By Roger Barbee
Last week I began teaching 12th grade British literature for the second semester. As all readers know, the weather has caused many disruptions, and even on what was to have been my first day teaching, school was closed because of snow. So yesterday I went to school thinking, like everyone else, of the big snow's approach and had a lesson plan for my students over some more anticipated missed days.
We have begun the course by reading that great Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.
We read it in class, learning how to give a text a close reading and discussing everything from its vocabulary to its history to its relevance to our modern world. The students have been great about reading such a long poem that uses archaic language, and most are willing to read aloud. However, because of the pending snow days, I wanted to keep the momentum alive and thought of an assignment I could give my students that would help them in their work and keep Beowulf alive over the days out of school.
We have only a set of 18 books, so students cannot take them home and read, which would have been a simple solution. But as I re-read the section we would read on Wednesday, I saw what would be, in my mind, a learning experience over an unknown number of snow days.
As in any epic poem, Beowulf is full of history and stories of great feats of battle. It also tells of some characters not so noble, such as Unferth and Heremod.
While most characters are models for good behavior and beliefs, one such as Heremod is a warning of what not to be. Since his story would conclude our reading for the day before the storm, I decided to use it as a topic for my students to write their first essay of the semester.
The passage telling of his exploits as a ruler is short, vividly told, and one I felt my students could succeed in writing about. Pleased with my plan, I went to the copy machine to make copies for my students. Alas, the machine was not working, and I soon found that all the copy machines in our school were out of whack. No matter, I thought, because the passage is only about twelve lines long, I would have my students copy it carefully so they would have it to refer to as they wrote their essays.
My first class of the day read together the day's planned reading, and we had some interesting conversation about Beowulf killing the evil Grendel, his bravery, and concluded with the tragic story of Heremod.
I then instructed my students to copy the appropriate lines of the poem while apologizing to them. I explained that the copy machine was not working. They understood, began copying like young scribes, and I went around the room making sure they were copying the correct lines. Good students all, they set to the task, but for one.
Our school, like most schools, restricts student use of cellphones during class. However, as I traveled around the room, I saw this boy take out his cellphone. I demanded, in my sternest voice, an explanation of his actions. He calmly looked to me and said in a voice full of sense and logic, "Taking a picture of the passage, Mr. Barbee."
The sense of it all almost knocked me out of my wheelchair. I then told all the students to take out their cellphones if they wanted and photograph the passage. I also instructed the other classes to do the same.
What a lesson for me. I only hope that my student enjoyed teaching me as much as I enjoyed his unplanned lesson.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at email@example.com.