I want my students to really think about the information that comes at them from literature and from the Internet. They need to be smart consumers of information, they need to learn to ask all sorts of questions in order to get the most out of the lives they live. With the ever-increasing cost of college, fewer and fewer student are going to go beyond community colleges or trade-specific programs of study. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a thirst for knowledge. We all have to look deeper in a world of blurbs and minute-long news items. We need to look beyond the satire and into the reality of the world we live in.
I start the school year with a few of the classics and move into the world we live in as the months pass.
I love teaching Beowulf who is far smarter than he is often given credit for. He has heard rumors of Grendel and knows that swords don’t seem to work. While often called out for his hubris at choosing hand-to-hand combat with Grendel, it’s also an indication that Beowulf has a strategic mind. He schools Unferth the first night and establishes his bona fides as a warrior and war leader; mere days later he shows how well he understands Unferth by accepting his apology and exchanging swords.
At this point in the story, Beowulf and Unferth are close to their kings and represent a type of threat to those kings. Unferth is Hrothgar’s Left Hand; he does the uncomfortable things that need doing which is why he gets away with killing off his brothers. Beowulf spends half his time traveling and saving other people’s kingdoms. He is easily accepted for the help he offers and it allows him to function as a spy and an unofficial diplomat. The world of Beowulf is a world where favors are exchanged across generations and the ties that truly bind are personal relationships. Purely political moves (like all those marriages) rarely end well for anyone involved as is shown several times through the ballads and epics used as entertainment.
We see proof positive how intelligent Beowulf is when he returns home and discusses Hrogthgar’s Court with his King and Queen. Beowulf has insights into the way the Court works, who holds which position, and why a planned marriage is doomed to fail. Much of what Beowulf does to keep his kingdom safe is create or strengthen the relationships his father and grandfather built around the region. Hrothgar had helped Beowulf’s father so Beowulf helps Hrothgar. One day Hrothgar’s sons may end up in the Court of the Geats.
Reading and discussing this epic with my seniors is all about looking below the surface. What else is going on in the story? Why is someone who is clearly “not good” allowed such a close place to his King? Is Beowulf really just an adrenaline junky or is there more to his visits? How important is it to understand the chaos of the region during the time Beowulf and his kin were active? These are the big questions that get circled around for most of the stories we read in English 4.
Job, like Beowulf or Odysseus, epitomizes the best of his civilization. And Job’s story is one that isn’t taught often because it contains such deep theological discussions that cause many teachers or administrators worry about separation of church and state. Job isn’t about why bad things happen, it’s about how we deal with the bad and the good. I abridged the version I use, cut out the in depth discussions of theology and went for the core of the story. Why is Satan allowed in God’s presence so easily? Why does God offer Job up to Satan’s game? Why are Job’s friends trying so hard to convince him to give up? How do these questions fit into our own lives?
In our own time we have thousands of films or television shows that are supposed to be documentaries or versions of the truth. I have my students watch several documentaries for the purpose of looking at how information is being shared, avoided, manipulated, and to what purpose. Some of my best classroom discussions are in the spring when students start making connections between the things we’ve researched, the things we’ve read, and what they have witnessed on a screen. We pull relevant news articles in and discuss the reliability of the source and of the information. We figure out what matters about each film. We discuss things embracing the politics of today in order to help them identify the cornerstones of their morality and ethical structure.
I’m lucky to teach high school students. I’m lucky that I get to help them become thinkers. I love it when their communication skills improve and they can see it happening. I love watching them come together from different backgrounds and learn new things about each other. That’s the real benefit of college—figuring out that we all have problems and we all have solutions (some are better than others). Sure, the knowledge gained from academic-minded professors is important, but the interaction, the expansion of how we think, the expansion of what we think about, the tons of information that are added to our personal frames of reference are what will help us adapt to the way life constantly changes.
I want my students to be critical consumers of information. I want my students to be critical thinkers. I want my students to be effective communicators. I want my students to be flexible and willing to change as new information becomes available and as life happens to them.
I want my students to show up on time and honor their commitments. I want my students to know when to stand up for themselves and when to back down. I want my students to do work they are proud of even if it’s not what they saw for their futures. I want my students to grow and learn and be people who can grow and learn and be.