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  • You are here: Unit Plans » Anglo Saxon Literature: Beowulf

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    Anglo Saxon Literature: Beowulf

    Topic: Anglo Saxon Literature: Beowulf
    Target Age:14 to 18
    Planning Framework:Romantic
    Unit Length:3 to 4 weeks
    Author:Lorn Kennedy


    The following unit presents the study of the great Anglo Saxon epic Beowulf through the use of emotionally engaging narrative from the poem and through personification of the document itself as a hero of perseverance, creativity and resilience.

    Unit Outline





    • Demonstrate an appreciation of oral and visual performance of literary works
    • Demonstrate an understanding of a literary work and an awareness of how it reflects the attitudes, values, and issues of the Middle Ages
    • Identify the distinguishing characteristics of literary genres
    • Demonstrate confidence in oral reading
    • Create personal responses to literature through writing, speech, or visual representation.


    ·  _______________________________________________________________



    Cognitive tools used:

    Narrative, Association with Heroes, Extremes and Limits, Humanization of Meaning, Collections and Hobbies, Change of Context, Literate Eye, Sense of Wonder


    1. Identifying “heroic” qualities

    This ancient epic masterpiece exhibits creativity, resilience, bravery and perseverance. These qualities evoke the mental image of a wise and ancient warrior; much like the document itself, composed over 1000 years ago and lasting through many trials and tribulations. The mere age of the document is astounding, through the years the original epic has be owned by many collectors the most famous was Robert Bruce Cotton where a fire in the Cotton library almost destroyed the great work.


    2. Shaping the lesson or unit:

    2.1. Finding the story or narrative:

    “Beowulf” is considered by most experts to be the most important piece of existing Anglo-Saxon literature, because the poem is the oldest English manuscript and gives insight into the Germanic way of life. Despite being of such great importance, mystery shrouds the identity of the author or as some experts claim the authors. Many experts suggested that at first “Beowulf” existed only orally and was finally transcribed after many generations; though this was of great debate between the 60s and 70s. It is estimated that “Beowulf” was composed around 1000 AD. This document is often associated with the court of King Canute, the Viking king of Denmark, one of the greatest figures of medieval Europe. He was known for his diplomatic and military accomplishments. He is credited for having united the Danes and the Englishmen through cultural bonds of wealth and custom rather than violence.


    “Beowulf” is thought to have been written for entertainment, blending legend with fact. The poem gives insight into the Anglo-Saxon migration to England during the 5th century. This Epic has withstood the test of time in both physical and literary form. Being translated into dozens of languages, rebound, and reprinted in order to preserve what was left of the original manuscript after the fire and hundreds of years of neglect have added to the legend of this epic work. After 1000 years of existence this manuscript still holds its glorious distinction as the most important piece of English Literature.


    2.2. Finding extremes and limits:

    This poem is often associated with King Canute, whom historians consider one of the most important figures of medieval Europe. Canute united England and because of his parallel political influence in Scandinavia he protected England from the Viking hordes allowing culture and trade in England to take root, http://www.viking.no/e/people/e-knud.htm.  The poem was written over a thousand years ago. The poem survived a fire that threatened to destroy it in 1731 when the most famous owner Robert Bruce Cotton kept it in the Cotton library. This poem is considered to be the most important piece of Anglo-Saxon literature in existence because the poem is the oldest English manuscript and gives insight into the Germanic way of life. Parts of the poem were confirmed as factual through archeological evidence, such as the Migration and certain aspects of the Germanic way life during this period.


    2.3. Finding connections to human hopes, fears, and passions:

    This poem deals directly with tradition and mortality. The poem is structured around battles and funerals and the traditions associated with these events. Students can connect with this poem on two levels related to mortality. First, the poem as a document embodies longevity and can be seen as a metaphor for eternal life or an afterlife. Second, the content can be accessed through the lens of tradition and mortality, which will emotionally engage the students to varying degrees, depending on the student’s own beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. King Canute was born to a royal family and in his lifetime reined as King of Denmark for 17 years, King of England for 19 years, and King of Norway for seven years while he held certain kingdoms within Sweden for four years. Throughout these lengthy posts he was known for his diplomatic and military accomplishments. There has been much debate surrounding the meaning and nature of the poem. Some scholars argue that the poem is Christian in context, citing that Grendal and her mother are descendants of Cain a figure from the Old Testament. Other scholars, including J.R.R Tolkien argue that the there is too much accuracy in describing the Anglo-Saxon paganism for it to have been written too far after the conversion of England to Christianity and must be interpreted as a Pagan work. Atheists, Agnostics and Scientists will be able to emotionally engage on the level of disbelief which in itself can foster emotional engagement which I think is just as valid as any other perspective. “Beowulf” was largely ignored as an important piece of literature until J.R.R Tolkien described it as such in his 1963 criticism: The Monsters and the Critics Beowulf. Propose a project that would investigate several different perspectives on the afterlife and death throughout the different cultures of the world; I.E the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Anglo-Saxons, The Franks, The Vikings, etc


    2.4. Employing additional cognitive tools of Romantic understanding:

    Collections and hobbies:

    The students could research and build a collection of Viking weapons and amour. The students could trace the ownership of the poem throughout the years compiling a timeline of ownership.

    Change of context:

    The teacher could come to class dressed as Grendal and do battle with another teacher who is dressed as Beowulf. The students could recreate one of the traditional feasts depicted in the poem.The students could also have the option to write a passage from the poem from the antagonists’ point of view. Students could write a heroic introduction for a person of their choice in the Anglo-Saxon tradition mirroring the elements present in “Beowulf.”

    The literate eye:

    Students could compile a list of Grendal’s victims. Students could graph or chart the Viking migration across Europe when this poem takes place. The students could also create a map for Beowulf to help him locate Grendal. Students could participate in a workshop making homemade paper then create maps to look ancient like the original manuscript I.E burning the edges and staining with tea bags.

    The sense of wonder:

    Play the game telephone, where students pass along a story mimicking the oral traditions of Anglo-Saxon narrative heroic poetry. The point of telephone is relay the message as accurately as possible which in reality it is never accurate, this is the point of this activity. The students are to consider that in an oral tradition they would exaggerate unimportant details (describing a man as 10 feet tall or that he can shoot lightening from his eyes) to make the story more memorable, to make sure there is consistency within the piece of history. This relates back to the belief that Beowulf is half factual history and half legend. Possibly playing with variations to the telephone game and the form of the story to compare and illustrate the way in which an oral tradition retains accuracy over many generations. This would allow them to begin to understand the wonder of the survival of a poem like “Beowulf”.To have survived just in an oral form for generations is amazing. Students would begin to appreciate the art of preservation that comes along with an oral tradition used in the time “Beowulf “was composed.

    Embryonic tools of philosophic understanding:

    This poem was originally composed in Old English, a form of modern English spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons in England and Scotland between the 5th century and mid 12th century. We can thank the authors of this poem and his fellow people for helping to develop the way in which much of the modern world communicates. The English language we use today was developed through many centuries, influenced by many political and social movements throughout the years. Consider that without a common language most of the things like video games, movies, malls, television shows, cell phones, computers, cars and the internet may not exist. Modern English has become the most common language of business and development on the international level. It is mainly how the experts who develop such technologies communicate.

     Paganistic views and practices are very apparent in this poem. Paganism is a term that refers to polytheistic religious traditions. In the past this term has been used by several monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam to label those who do not believe in their religions. This poem presents a people that have very different practices than those we are surrounded by today.

    2.5 Drawing on tools of previous kinds of understanding

    Somatic understanding:

    A document that has survived for so many years and even lived through a fire is surprising. Being surprised by such unusual information will invoke a sense of wonder. The students will learn about the rhyme scheme associated with narrative heroic poetry. Reading the poem aloud will allow them to experience the beauty of the writing. Learning the rhyme scheme will allow the student to better experience the beat, connecting them on a new level emotionally. The students could act out certain portions of the poem. Allowing the students to share the experiences with the characters the students could connect to the characters on a tangible level. Bring in copies of the original poem and have them try to read old English to allow them to discover how much different the original sounded and where modern English came from. This realization will again invoke a sense of wonder.

    Mythic understanding:

    Describing the poem as a wise and ancient warrior is a great metaphor to engage the students. Students could participate in role playing, or recreating some of the traditional events in the poem. Rhyme and rhythm can be explored through oral readings of the poem. The students could engage with the humorous aspect of their teacher dressed as Grendal battling another teacher dressed as Beowulf. Beowulf and Grendal are binary opposites in both their allegorical meaning and their physical presences. Beowulf represents hope, honor, strength, good etc, while Grendal represents evil, pain, suffering, sorrow, cowardice etc. Beowulf has shiny armor and is described very favorably while Grendal is scaly, slimy and bloodthirsty.

    3. Resources


    A History of the English Language, 5th edition, A.C Baugh, T. Cable

    4. Conclusion:

    Having the students understand the conflict and uncertainty of something such as the English language was forged from can give a new found respect for something we normally take for granted. Without the English language being preserved and passed along by such pioneers as the author of “Beowulf”our lives could be very different today. As a class we may consider similar cultural developments that still impact our lives today. The class could consider religions, technology, medicine, and science; all of these areas much like language play significant roles in our lives.

    5. Evaluation:
    Upon completion of this unit my students will be able to:
    • Demonstrate an appreciation of oral and visual performance of literary works
    • Demonstrate an understanding of the following literary works and an awareness of how they reflect the attitudes, values, and issues of the middle Ages: from “Beowulf”…
    • Identify the distinguishing characteristics of literary genres
    • Demonstrate confidence in oral reading
    • Create personal responses to literature through writing, speech, or visual representation.

    My students will complete a variety of assignments as way of demonstrating these varied skills and pieces of knowledge. My assessment will be in line with the British Columbia Performance Standards evaluation for compositions. In addition, I will use predetermined rubrics for evaluations of: debates, compositions, drama/skits, journals, literature circles, reflections, scrapbooks, dioramas. (http://www.ierg.net/)


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