Two Beowulfs

After assigning today’s senior paragraph, I received a Reverse Uno card (RS) and I played along agreeing to write the paragraph myself. Once I started the paragraph, I received a +4 Uno card meaning my paragraph had to be at least eleven sentences long. This is in no way a truly academic paragraph; this is at best an outline of my thoughts on why there are two Beowulfs written in the first fifteen minutes of class while my seniors were writing their own responses (yes, I put it on the projector so they could read what I was writing).

When I first heard the story of Beowulf from Mr. Gordon, it was in AP English in the fall of 1990 and I firmly believed that one Beowulf ruled them all (the Geats for fifty years after Hygelic and Heardred died). Over the last ten years, I’ve been teaching Beowulf to class after class of seniors and have come to the conclusion that there are two Beowulfs. Simply using the timeline given through the epic, it is impossible for one Beowulf to fight and kill Grendel, his mom, and the dragon. First, Beowulf would have been in his mid-twenties at the earliest when he heads to Denmark (he would also have left a wife and at least one child behind). Hygelic would have stayed king for ten to fifteen years after Beowulf returned from Denmark. Upon his death in battle, Heardred would have been king for at least five years before his death putting Beowulf’s age to about forty when he finally ascends to the throne of Geatland. Then, according to the text, Beowulf ruled for fifty years before the dragon gets growly and deadly. That puts Beowulf at ninety at the youngest when he heads out to fight the dragon. Granted, people in the early hundreds were smart enough to wash regularly, clean and care for wounds, which means if they survived battle and disease they could live to sixty or seventy, but they wouldn’t be able to fight at that point. Additionally, the text seems to be of two minds about how Beowulf was viewed by his own people—the badass monster hunter whose king worried about his safety while he was in Denmark was seen as weak by the Geats? I don’t think so. The killer of Dayraven and the killer of Grendel, the monster slayer, were obviously different people. Besides the difference in pivotal, fame-making moments, the two Beowulfs have very different approaches to actual monster killing—to wit, Beowulf Senior trusts his men to follow him and they trust him enough that without knowing Beowulf’s full plan they follow him; Beowulf Junior doesn’t trust his men at all, so he goes to fight the dragon alone. When Beowulf Senior has a sword fail while battling Grendel’s mother, he tosses it; when Beowulf Junior has a sword fail to slice the dragon, he keeps trying until he breaks the sword. Therefore, there are two Beowulfs.

It’ll do for today.


Commonplace Book Project

GJW is a little confused about how to execute: One piece of information from any class that has helped you figure out what you want to say and how to say it.

It took me a long time to find my voice. It didn’t take me long to lose it again and again. Establishing what I wanted to say to the world and believing that my message would have value came and went like waves in December. More sand and rocks were torn out of the safety walls, leaving me with more holes. All of my notebooks between twenty-two and forty (finished and half-filled) are stacked in three small boxes that I rarely open—all the things I didn’t say still scream at me when I think about opening them up. During this time I also spent ten summers working with the Oregon Writing Project at Eastern as a participant, group leader, and co-director. I learned a lot about writing and myself as a writer during that time, but, again, I lacked confidence in my message and I didn’t really acknowledge the responses I got to one style of writing. I thought I was a poet for awhile. I wanted to write fiction. I still love writing poetry and teaching poetry, but I acknowledge that fiction may not (is not) my thing.

So, where did I find my voice?

One of the last retreats I went to with the OWP was a grant-writing weekend. I wrote about the impact the OWP had on me professionally and personally. I wouldn’t still be a teacher without those summers, without that program. My personal essay got the kind of amazing response I hadn’t been able to really acknowledge or believe in other situations. That’s when I decided to start a blog. Anyone who looks through the history of this sucker can see the fits and false-starts and attempts at redirecting myself. Recently, I decided to talk about what it’s actually like to be a public school teacher right now. I’ve wanted it to be a place where my students could find ideas, more information, examples of some assignments. I want people who are thinking about teaching or about bashing teachers to have a place where they can look and maybe get an idea about how much of ourselves teachers pour into what they do.

So, GJW, did this help at all?

Commonplace Book Project

It’s time for the “What I learned in maths?” prompt for BB and any other seniors who are confused.

My regular answer for “What am I going to use Algebra/Geometry/Calculus for?” is “Because high level math and poetry help create problem-solving pathways in your brain.” Apparently, a few of my seniors are a little tired of that response. So, let’s try a little different answer—I use math when I drive to guesstimate whether or not to slow down depending on traffic and weather. I use math when I guesstimate how much time it will take me to grade papers (first drafts and crappy drafts take 20-30 minutes a piece) or clean my house (a much dreaded task for which I occasionally hire my god-daughter to help). I use math as a fun distraction when I’m totally stressed out or feel the beginnings of a panic attack. As much as I love stories, there is something soothing about math.

There are all the obvious uses for math in life after high school: budgets, taxes, painting rooms, or buying a house.

This is less impressive than the rest. I’d like to blame the loudness of my class, but I get that this can be difficult prompt. I still want my students to do it (suck it up, buttercups!).

Commonplace Book Project

Another example paragraph for my seniors to take a look at. This prompt is “What did you get better at this year?” Most of these prompts are really about self-reflection, so my students can see how much they actually have learned in high school between bouts of trying to stay awake in boring classes, being overwhelmed because of course all the big projects from every class are assigned the same day, and other frustrations.

I have always been very aware that I have lots of room for improvement as a teacher. The nicest comment I heard from administrators during my first “trial by fire” five years was “at least you really know your content area.” As time has passed, two areas of weakness have stayed with me thanks to my desire to always give a second (third, fourteenth, twenty-seventh) chance: grading and classroom management. I try to get better in both of those areas every year and, sometimes, I even succeed. My tough classes now would have been my rockstar classes ten years ago, so I count that as improvement. My seventh period class was functional first semester this year and became significantly less functional when two “catalyst” students transferred in at the semester; now seventh period is the class where I regularly lose my temper (although it’s in a much kinder way than when I first started teaching), where I regularly want to throttle even the students I like, and where I am sometimes a little too honest about what I think–this is a bit of a problem.

So, what have I improved on this year?

I’ve gotten a little better about getting things graded (but not much faster and putting things into the computer). I’ve gotten better at streamlining my comments for improvement. In most of my classes, I’ve found my inner peace when dealing with the chaos and drama and self-sabatoge and grade-chasing. I’m definitely doing better at giving them examples (even though I don’t expect them to actually write quite as much as I do for the prompts).

More importantly to me, I have managed to keep close the knowledge that what I know about my students is limited to what they show me and this allows me to be more flexible in dealing with them. It also allows me to keep in mind that they are in the process of becoming the people they choose to be and I am just planting seeds.

Mostly, I am looking for quality of response. It would be great to see kids get creative, but it isn’t really going to hurt them if they stay basic and stick with paragraphs responses to the prompts and nothing else. The creativity will probably help some students who don’t necessarily have the quality of response I’d like.

This one was for MK.

The Commonplace Book Project

A few years ago I finally figured out how to incorporate a variation of one of my favorite types of journals into what I teach. I’ll admit that I had a couple of missteps before making it a final project instead of a year-long project. It’s the assignment I look most forward to grading from most of my seniors.

Now they want examples from me…

I loved science in high school so much I took it for four years. In biology classes I learned about life cycles, dissected animals, and read Origin of The Species since my fellow teen Christians didn’t want their psyches destroyed by the “theory of evolution”. Chemistry should have taken me to bigger and better places, but instead it took me to a “work my butt off for barely a C” which is probably the hardest I worked in any class my first three years of high school. Ultimately, what I learned about and from high school science fed my curiosity about how the natural world works and a conviction that if the universe has so many set rules it can’t have come from accident or chaos. [As the kids say, “Don’t @ me.”] I love science even though I’m an English teacher. Science is puzzles and fun and figuring out the order underneath the randomness. I love that scientists publish books to explain the things they love to people who may or may not be able at attend college. I love that kids today have new theories to learn about and participate in variations on the same labs I did. I guess what I really learned from all those science classes that I use constantly is the theory of micro-evolution: we all evolve and change as does our species; if we aren’t changing we are just dying slowly.

This one’s for you Jaiden Lemberger and your fellow seniors.

Commonplace Thoughts

Everything worth doing requires a learning curve and a willingness to take criticism, analyze criticism, and incorporate the comments that are relevant into how we do things so we can get better. 

Failure is one-third of success: we have to fail before we can know what’s really required. Natural talent or a willingness to learn is one-third of success: everyone has something to teach us, but sometimes we are too wrapped up in ourselves to notice and that means the lessons get harder and the teachers get meaner and success is further away. The last third of success is work ethic: we have to be willing to actually work for the things we want.

Nothing is easy in life. Nothing is really meant to be easy. We need the balance between good and bad to remember to work for what we truly want. I spend my time planning, learning, updating the what and the why and the how of my lessons and units. I am not one of the truly admirable teachers who sacrifice family time, personal time, or reading time getting things graded for the next day. I do read everything my student turn in which means that I sometimes take too long to return work, because reasons. I’m still figuring out the right balance between necessary practice for my students, required assignments for the administration, and reasonable rates of return (which I would’ve thought would be finely tuned by now). When I finally achieve that magical balance I’m expecting a week turn around for most assignments and it’s what I work toward each semester (someday I’ll get there).

I don’t want to make a difference for one kid. I want to make a difference for all of them, but 100% is unachievable. I teach my students to analyze information (and the sources of information). I teach my students how to incorporate new skills and ideas into their worldview. I want them to be critical thinkers and eclectic learners. I want them to want to challenge themselves (as unrealistic as that may be). I can offer practice, model skill sets, fight to keep things relevant, and change with the times, but I can’t force anyone to learn and my teaching style (for some students my personality) can be a stumbling block. It’s not something anyone wants to think too much about—reflection and honesty are so important to growth even though they are sometimes hard to acknowledge.

For years I’ve wanted to incorporate my version of commonplace books into the projects my students produce. My first round last year was more successful than I would have thought and my second round will be fun to look through and grade next week. They are part journal, part scrapbook. I hope my students will use their commonplace books as an ongoing record of what huge events and small epiphanies shape their lives.