Opinion
Education Opinion

Write More, Grade Less

By Emmet Rosenfeld — October 06, 2007 15 min read

Or, I Never Metacognition I Didn’t Like

After hacking our way through Beowulf in a tenth grade class, I was panting behind my sturdy linden shield wondering what to do at The End. You know, some kind of culminating activity that says, We have done this book. God forbid, one can’t just read and move on in an English class. Where’s the grade in that?

Because I’m the sort of enlightened despot who doesn’t give tests, I tend to rely on a project or a paper. In this case, I decided to experiment by assigning a paper about the reading experience itself rather than a traditional literary analysis. I did this because of what I had observed along the way about what my kids could and could not do well.

First, during a class activity where we made shields that dissected a verse into plot, literary elements, themes, and questions, I realized that the quality of literary analysis was at the level of “There’s a metaphor,” or “He used alliteration here.” I’m not blaming the kids, mind you. When less than inspired work is handed in, it’s time to look at the assignment in the mirror.

A second assignment was more successful: finding 3’s. Seems simple, and it is. The idea is based on my patent-pending approach to analyzing books, which states that if you can find something repeated three times over the course of a text, be that an event or a motif of a bit of imagery, then by gum you can drum up a decent essay on it. Turns out, they found plenty of meaty 3’s, and were quite capable of writing analytically. So, other than teaching them how to use quotes correctly, both in terms of format and as evidence of literary thought, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. What are they ultimately supposed to get out of reading Beowulf?

Hence my metacognitive assignment. Watch yourself thinking as you read, I challenged them; then trace the evolution of your thought. My hunch was that this would ultimately lead them to write beyond the normal competent but bland literary analysis most can crank out in their sleep. By seeing themselves in the mirror of a classic poem, ideally their literary responses would be more readable. Gasp. Yes, I confess. I’m in search of interesting student papers, and I’ll stop at nothing to get them. A teacher of writing could be accused of worse crimes.

But it does get worse. Not only do I not want to read boring stuff, I don’t want to grade fifty papers at one shot. Sure, I’ll read them. In fact, if my evil scheme works, I’ll want to. But to be the terminal grader, the emperor with my thumb on a swivel… one man shouldn’t have so much power. But what to do? They have been trained since grade school in the dance of the classroom: teacher tells you what to do, you do it, teacher grades it. How to escape the soul-numbing paradigm?

There was only one solution: I would be the student, and they could do my job. I would write the assignment, and let them grade it. True, it didn’t get rid of all the work, but it frontloaded things. Instead of spending a few hours at the end red-penning their stuff, I spent less (but more enjoyable) time writing the assignment before it was due. In writing it, in addition to my own intellectual workout, I got to assess the assignment: was it making me do what I wanted it to make kids do?

The day the papers were handed in, kids read them to each other in groups, and as a class we determined what made a good response to this assignment. This generated a fruitful discussion about writing that would have been lost if I had simply provided the rubric in advance. After we made our list, I shared my paper. They took our class-made rubric for a test run by applying it to what I had written.

Finally, I asked students to take their papers home, and write a self-evaluation based on the agreed upon traits. They could revise their papers if they wanted to, which gave them a chance to benefit from the grading process rather than simply have it done to them. And (maniacal cackle here) it cut my grading load. Most of what I would have said to them, I bet they’ll figure out on their own.

Below, truly adventurous readers will find:
1. Discovering Beowulf (the metacognitive writing assignment)
2. a student’s response
3. Discovering Beowulf Eval (one of the class-designed rubrics)
4. and last, Does Beowulf Matter? (my response).

By the way, if you’ve made it this far, you are probably a teacher: please leave a comment if you find a way to apply this in your classrooms. Happy navel-gazing!

Discovering Beowulf
Hum I 2007/ Rosenfeld
Due Wednesday, October 3
Length: 500-1000 words

In concluding this Anglo-Saxon epic, rather than a traditional literary analysis or essay test, I ask you to write about how your views have evolved over the course of reading and discussion. With what knowledge did you approach the text, and what were your expectations? What questions were raised, answered, or still linger? Ultimately, what connections emerged, and how did your understanding deepen?

Below is a rough outline for structuring the essay including sources that captured thought at various stages of your reading. Strive to uncover truths about your personal encounter with the work as well as expressing what you know about its literary and historical aspects. Cite text, using correct conventions, at least three times.

Before I began…FW’s on epic, Reading of Odyssey, Other prior knowledge
As I read, I realized…Shi(e)ld, RR of 3’s, Class notes
Upon finishing, it’s clear…Reading notes, Beowulf bookmark, Notes on yer notes

Student response: Discovering Beowulf by Anna

Through the class reading and discussion of the epic poem Beowulf, my views on the work evolved in several ways. Before we began reading, I wrote about the way I interpret myths, legends, and epics, with the predisposition that Beowulf was a myth. Now that I reflect upon my thoughts on those forms of story telling and take into consideration the ambiguous origins of Beowulf, I come to the conclusion that Beowulf is both a legend and an epic. I believe that the story must have begun as a legend, passed down through generations of Danes and eventually written down by a Danish writer. This assumption seems logical because in legends, a truth is dramatized and exaggerated. It is possible Beowulf was a real and very celebrated warrior among his clan, about whom many embellished stories were told through the land. Since people during that time period were likely to believe in fantastical creatures, such as dragons, these elements were gradually woven into the story.

My knowledge of the story prior to reading it was largely incorrect, since reading summaries of books rarely gives you an accurate and complete impression of the work. Before I read Beowulf, I thought the main conflict would revolve around Beowulf and Grendel, without any other villains partaking in the plot. This assumption was based on the fact that I’d only heard of Grendel referred to as the iconic villain of the story. A possible cause of this might be that Grendel was the only dragon that actually had a name in the story. Another fact about Beowulf that contrasted with my initial expectations was that he was a foreign hero, someone who had come from another land to help a nation in need. I expected him to be a local hero, as epic heroes usually are. I also expected the character of Beowulf to be similar to another epic hero- Odysseus, an expectation that was fulfilled, unlike all my other ones.

The first parallel I observed between Odysseus and Beowulf was their close relationship to the divine. During battles and after victories, Beowulf always attributed the outcome of that battle to God’s will. For example, he explained his failure to immediately kill Grendel by saying “I meant to kill him…hold him so tightly that his heart would stop…But God’s will was against me.”(lines 964- 947) Even in his last living moments, Beowulf remembered to thank God for his victory- “For this, this gold, these jewels, I thank Our Father in Heaven, Ruler of the Earth.”(lines 2794-2796) Athena, the goddess of wisdom that often came to his aid in critical moments, similarly favors Odysseus. However, one crucial difference in their spirituality is Odysseus’ pagan belief in many gods, as opposed to the Christian convictions of Beowulf that there is only one God. Perhaps Beowulf’s firm beliefs were the reason he was so willing to enter battle without armor or the help of other soldiers.

Another similarity between Odysseus and Beowulf I noticed while reading Beowulf was that they were both warriors as well as kings. However, they made the transition between politics and warfare in different ways. While Odysseus became a warrior after he was king, Beowulf first had to prove himself through warfare in order to win the throne. I also noticed that Beowulf took a definite interest in politics even before he had risen to the throne. When he returned to Geatland, instead of giving a lengthy account of his victory, Beowulf talked about the marriage of Freaw, Hrothgar’s daughter and Ingeld, a foreign prince (lines 2023-2035). He expressed his opinion that marriage never ensures peace between two nations, which indicated that he is interested in peace despite his occupation as a warrior. This also shows he was contemplating the challenges of ruling even before gaining the throne.

After reading and discussing this epic poem, I still had several pending questions that I didn’t feel were answered by the text, forcing me to draw my own conclusions. For example, I felt that the book never gave the reason for Beowulf’s aid to the Danes. When Beowulf first arrives in Denmark, Hrothgar announces, “I knew Beowulf as a boy.”(line 372) It then becomes known that Hrothgar knew Egetho. However, this hardly seems like a bond strong enough to warrant such self-sacrifice on Beowulf’s part. My theory is that Beowulf’s motivation was the glory he would earn my killing the monster, the fame and fortune that would propel him further up in his countrymen’s eyes. Considering his ambitions for the throne, he attempted such feats in search for reverence and power.

The other question that lingered in my mind after reading was the reason for Beowulf’s lack of an heir. I noticed that throughout the poem, there was no mention of Beowulf’s close friends, unlike Hrothgar who had many friends and followers, such as Esher. The most poignant example of Beowulf’s lack of true friends was the final scene when “none of his comrades/Came to him, helped him, his brave and noble/Followers; they ran for their lives, fled/Deep in a wood.” Beowulf also never married or had children, suggesting that ruling his people and leading them in battle was the first priority in his life.

In process of fighting constant battles, I believe that he never stopped to evaluate people on more than their battle skills. This might have been the reason for the betrayal of his followers: they never felt any emotional ties to him, so when Beowulf told them he wanted to face the dragon alone, they fled as instructed.

Discovering Beowulf Eval
Directions: next to each category below, use a plus-check-minus to indicate high-middle-low in this category, and offer a brief written comment. At the end, request a grade.

_____ Evolution & Insight: show how discussion, notes, and other class activities changed your opinions; had unique or original thought that made us look at the book in a new light

_____ B/D/A: organized with the before/during/after sequence, drew on prior knowledge (likely including references to other works)

_____ Quotes: had 3+ meaningful quotes, presented in correct format and in a stylistically integrated way including enough “set up” for lay readers

_____ BAGS (Being a good student): on time, within the word count, polished presentation including neatness, MUGS (mechanics, usage, grammar, spelling)… and to top it all off, you handed in the paper with a smile

_____ Superman: paper flowed, was interesting to read because infused with voice

For those who revised only: explain what you changed and why.

_____ Requested grade

Does Beowulf Matter?

Before I began rereading Beowulf to teach in Hum I this year, I had vague memories of the Ur poem from my own first reading in high school. “He rips Grendel’s arm off” is pretty much all that’s written in the mental Cliff’s Notes that I (and I suspect many other adults) carry around about the epic. Grendel by John Gardener is several strata above the first reading of Beowulf in the geological layers that compose my adult reading life; I was interested to see if, upon revisiting the work, the monster was any more sympathetic to me having experienced the interpretation by this contemporary American “stylist” (a label often given to hard writers to warn away readers looking for Jurassic Park).

A number of layers closer to the canyon lip are thick bands of The Odyssey, which I’ve taught to IBETers here at TJ for the past couple years. Both epics are from completely different times and cultures, but my recent deep reading of the Greek story strongly informed my approach to the Anglo-Saxon. What historical and cultural values of the culture that birthed the epic can be teased out? How transparent is the translation in terms of giving a modern reader a true feel for the experience of the song? Would there be good parts like when Homer describes the popping of the Kyklops eyeball with a fire-heated spear?

As I read, I realized that revisiting the classic was like going back to a foreign city that one has visited briefly long ago. The major landmarks are etched in memory, but it is essentially a new place. I’d forgotten that the verses were bite-sized, and that Grendel starts eating people by the second one. The pervasive religious imagery was unfamiliar, like a cathedral I just hadn’t bothered to visit when I read it as a teenager. An example is the point where, despite Grendel’s nightly dine and dash at the mighty mead hall of the Danes, he shrinks from the most prominent symbol of King Hrothgar’s god-given power:
…Killing as often as he could, coming
Alone, bloodthirsty and horrible. Though he lived
In Herot… he never/ Dared to touch king Hrothgar’s glorious
Throne, protected by God—God,
Whose love Grendel could not know… (165-169)

Grendel isn’t exactly sympathetic, at least he lacks the tormented pysche devised by Gardener. Instead, the beast comes across as a fallen archangel, driven to depravity while lurking in the dark shadows never washed clean by the light of God’s benevolent smile.

Is this famous “pre-Christian” epic more accurately described as a “just after Christianity was introduced” epic? Stylistically, to me, the religious imagery seemed grafted on, not as vibrant as the ubiquitous descriptions of heraldic armor and rune-crusted swords, nor as didactic as the frequent digressions into historic parables about bad kings and feckless queens. Was it not likely, I couldn’t help thinking, that this song which originated with one anonymous harpist had been told and retold across generations even before it was ever transcribed, and along the way picked up the rhetorical flourishes of successive singers? Not to mention the flavor of their times, or the preferences of their patrons? Would the first singer ever recognize the version in my hands?

To my ear, Seamus Heaney’s recent re-translation of the work, which I shared with the students on CD, captures more the spirit of the tale as it must have first been told over beer-soaked linden tables than the translation we read in class. Here is Raffel’s description of the moment Beowulf cuts off the head of Grendel’s mother with a larger than life sword plucked from the wall of a great hall at the bottom of a boiling lake:
And then, savage, now, angry
And desperate, lifted it high over his head
And struck with all the strength he had left,
Caught her in the neck and cut it through,
Broke bones and all. Her body fell
To the floor, lifeless, the sword was wet
With her blood, and Beowulf rejoiced at the sight. (1564-1569)

Raffel tries to give the cadence of a chanted tale with a rough tetrameter, an effort Heaney eschews for earthier imagery and a loamier voice. Raffel further suggests an Anglo-Saxon flavor through the use of more than incidental alliteration, but to me, Heaney’s subtle poeticism better evokes the guttural tongue of ancient Norseman (transcription and line-breaks are my best effort from the CD):
So the Shildings’ hero, hard-pressed and enraged
Took a firm hold of the hilt
And swung the blade in an arc
A resolute blow that bit deep into her neck bone,
And severed it entirely
Toppling the doomed house of her flesh
She fell to the floor. The sword dripped blood
The swordsman was elated… (around 3:00, disc 2)

The elemental quality of Heaney’s lilting Irish voice in performance and his position as a living laureate add further heft to his version.

Upon finishing Beowulf, it’s clear that one can come back to the great works at different times of life and find oneself anew each time. My personal relationship with the reading experience is by definition different than my students’ but it makes me wonder through what lens they approach the work, and what they take away. Do players of massive multi player games connect viscerally with the combat scenes (or maybe sniff at imagery that past readers once considered evocative because it doesn’t leave them flecked with gobbets of flesh the way the hyper-realistic computer combat does?).

Another aspect I worry about with students, never more than while reading epics, is that the Universal Themes are lost on them, or worse, they fake understanding while secretly considering it a load of English class malarkey. Especially at this sci-tech school, future engineers are apt to perform in English only insofar as their grades affect their future admission to MIT, but not out of any sincere desire to better understand the human condition. Can a reader preoccupied with trees (There’s a metaphor! Is that what he wants?) learn to savor a stroll through the thematic forest of Literature? More broadly, what is relevant in a reading of Beowulf for a 21st century kid at TJ? A book must sell itself, I think, but I do consider it my responsibility to structure a set of experiences that allow a student the possibility of a meaningful personal encounter with it. I look forward to reading about their reading for an answer to a question that maybe only an English teacher would ask: does Beowulf matter?

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