The first English literature text is the exciting epic poem, Beowulf. It was written in Old English, so it is not readable by most of us in its original form.
Unlike the Homeric epics, Beowulf incorporates a Christian worldview. Wonderful translations of the text have been produced and it is hard to choose which one to study. I use the J. R. R. Tolkien version in our Underclassmen course because I like the “flow” of the story as he has translated it. But other translations are also excellent and each has its strong points. The narrator of the story is a “bard.” Traditionally, a bard had the daunting vocation of memorizing texts passed down from previous bards (which often contained historical content) and then presenting these in song to audiences throughout the land. Usually a bard had a small harp or lyre which he played as he told and sang the great epic tales.
Set around the year 500 A.D. but written a few centuries later, the story of Beowulf is by an unknown British author. It takes place in two Nordic countries, though: roughly, today’s Denmark and Sweden. Like early epic poetry Beowulf does not rely upon rhyme. Instead, alliteration, repetition, litotes (a form of understatement) and the kenning are devices which are incorporated in the meter of this fascinating work.
An interesting instance of a kenning in the text is the “whale-road,” which is a name for the ocean because the majestic whales follow specific routes as they travel seasonally. The word “road” is an expansive image which gives a sense of the rhythm of life in the sea, but it also implies that man, too, conducts himself here and depends upon the sea for his livelihood. The ocean is not just an unknown, vague arena, but rather, a defined space where creatures live their God-given lives. The description even implies that we humans carry on our own lives in a similar, patterned manner as that of the animals. There is a rhythm: a sense of dignified continuity established by God. The sea is a place of goodness and blessing, a rich part of the blessed tapestry of creation. As Psalm 107 says in verses 23-26, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”
I have only touched on a couple of aspects of this elemental and compelling story. Beowulf deserves its place in the annals of the heroic epic and its assignation as the first English literature text. This fascinating adventure and its intriguing hero, with his strengths and weaknesses, lays the foundation for English literature and gives insight into the Anglo-Saxon roots of the British cultural experience.
It’s odd for us to consider now, but until the 19th century the novel was considered by most to be a creation which was, at the very least, a waste of one’s time, and by many, an evil invention. The reasoning behind this aversion to fiction was that because the stories did not really occur, they were a form of “lying.” It is likely that this mindset arose from the attitudes of our more extreme Puritan forefathers; this view was most likely further confirmed by some of the rather scandalous early novels published pre-19th century.
Whatever the reason or reasons, it took the genius of the Victorian novelists to give the world the epiphany that a well crafted novel is truth with a capital “T.” Like the rich metaphorical literature of The Old Testament, the parables of Jesus, allegories such as Pilgrim’s Progress, and the symbolic nature of poetry, novels reveal truths to us about the world, human nature, and ultimately, ourselves, in fresh new ways which connect with the soul and spirit through “real” story. So thank you Charles Dickens, The Brontës, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Joseph Conrad, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and the many, many others who broke through the veil and brought us the gift of the novel.
The first novel, Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in Britain, was published in 1719 and next to the Bible is the most published book in history. It was inspired by the life of a Scottish man, Alexander Selkirk, an officer in the British navy who was shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific by his captain and survived there for about a year and a half before being rescued by pirates. (You can find a statue of him in Fife, Scotland.) He was incorrigible and probably did not have the redemptive experience which the fictional Robinson Crusoe has.
The novel is composed in the form of a journal wherein Crusoe recounts in detail how he survives and is converted to a holy Christian life through his reading of the copy of the Bible he has found in the shipwreck, and eventually meets his friend Friday. It seems to me that this revelatory tale of one man’s conversion to faith may be the template for the religious tradition which blossomed forth later on of the personal “testimony,” where church members (usually Protestant) stand up and confess the details of how they came to faith. As far as I know, this tradition is peculiarly British and American, which is why I ponder this possibility. The novel is also rife with allusions to biblical stories and topics, keeping continuity with the trajectory of previous English language works.
Robinson Crusoe shifted the trajectory for how a myriad of great authors would write. It affected the future of our cultural understanding of what it means to be an individual, and stands in line with the great Western works which have taken us from classical times when individuals and their stories were viewed primarily as a part of the group, a cog in the wheel of their culture, to a time when each person as seen as “a world in himself” to be investigated, understood, and affirmed.
While it is true that the story is rather long-winded, given the fact that Defoe was inventing an entirely “novel” genre of literature the book is astounding. The first person narrative by Robinson himself gives a personal tone to the story which works well in concert with the major theme of the work, which is that of Crusoe’s slow repentance from a corrupt life to that of a holy and prayerful Christian. The tale imagines what it would be like to be stranded with no distractions and nothing except a few items, completely alone with only oneself and God.
The highly personal nature of this first novel and its deep dive into the state of the protagonist’s soul set the stage for novels to follow: they would be stories about individuals, but these would reach beyond the particular characters, expanding the meaning of their experiences to exemplify instances of the universal themes of life and morality as worked out in the lives of people and the society surrounding them. Defoe’s choice of the “journal” as his vehicle for telling the tale also set the stage for what became known as the epistolary novel, which would consist of a series of either letters or journal entries, commonly interspersed with narration by the letter writer, or possibly, by another narrator who is telling that person’s story.
The possibilities are endless: a narrator might “discover” the letters of a person from another era in an old attic, or might by chance find the diary of a person whose story otherwise would not have been known, or known as it truly happened. A recent renaissance of the epistolary novel has included elements such as time travel, parallel worlds, and other innovative tropes. Thanks to the ingenious mind of Daniel Defoe the novel lives on, always new, rebirthed and reimagined by countless writers who entertain and inspire us with their innovative characters and stories.
I’m sure you are aware of the classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. What you may not yet know is that recently this important book has been banned in quite a few schools and school districts because, like Huckleberry Finn, it contains characters who use an extremely offensive racial epithet. But that’s not what this article is about: I want to talk about other aspects of the book that parents of younger students may not know about which make it inappropriate for younger students to study, no matter what your views on the banning of books.
Some home school programs, including online, require early middle school students to read this book: I know because I was required to teach it at this grade level. Over those years I developed the strong opinion that this book should not be taught until at the very youngest, the 9th grade. People think of the book as having the theme of the evils of racism, and while this is true, the plot revolves around the case of Tom Robinson, an African-American falsely accused of raping a white girl, and also includes a scene of an attempted lynching. While there are no directly graphic descriptions in the book (according to today’s standards), implications in the text about these incidents, especially during the courtroom scene, naturally pique students’ interest, causing them to want to know “more” about the repugnant details alluded to.
It’s possible that you’ve never read the book (somehow I got all the way through receiving a master’s degree without having done so), or perhaps if you did read it a long time ago, you don’t recall the details. It’s an important book–one of the most read American novels both here and throughout the world. Its nuanced yet honest consideration of the troubled history of the American South leaves the reader with a sense that there is hope that injustices of this society can be overcome through the goodness and the moral strength of brave individuals: As Atticus Finch says, “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It is, in the end, an affirming and redemptive novel, a gem of the American canon, but it should be assigned to younger students with a judicious eye.
I plan to write an another article about Harper Lee’s brilliant appropriation in the novel of the southern mockingbird as her symbol for innocents who suffer injustices. If you haven’t read the novel recently, you might be enriched by doing so. You gain something new every reading.
With point #4 I investigate the pros and cons of outlining, as determiners of personality types!
There are two kinds of people: those who outline, and those who don’t. That’s how I see the world, anyway, based on my decades of experience in teaching
students of all ages how to write. Most writing programs do require students to learn how to outline, and it’s a necessary skill. But not all students write well by starting with an outline. Here’s why–how can I know beforehand what the details of my paper will be? If you think about it, you don’t know when you begin to write what you are specifically going to write about, so how can you outline information you haven’t thought out yet?
The idea of an outline is that you will lay out a map, or blueprint, for your essay. This makes perfect sense, but writing isn’t like that. If we could neatly write an outline, in order, the minute we wanted to write a paper, we would hardly need to write the essay at all because the order and development of the concepts would be obvious! However, some people do work best with outlines because they find that having all of their “ducks in a row” before they begin to write actual sentences is most helpful.
Others of us work backwards and find that we need to write down our ideas in a somewhat random manner and then put them in order, once we consider how they relate to each other. We find it much easier to “see” their relationships before they are listed in a formal manner.
You are probably familiar with an alternative method which has been developed, called by various names: the “cluster,” “spider diagramming,” “bubble,”
“mind map,” or “brainstorming” method. This is a helpful approach for people who are intimidated by outlining or whose thought processes don’t work well for outlining, especially when first learning to write. Another method of helping students develop the frameworks for their essays is to simply have them write their ideas down using phrases, either on paper or typed on the computer, leaving a space or line between ideas. Then they can number them, circle them, etc., with arrows going from one to another – whatever works for them, in order to get the ideas ordered. From there they can make an outline fairly easily.
The Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing, which is the method I use, is a wonderful way to bring in outlining through the side door. It gives students a “place to hang their hats” without constraining them to develop complex outlines, yet they really are outlining their essays organically. The difference is that as they develop their essays they think conceptually about categories, integrating their content logically as they progress. You can find my article about the Schaffer method at https://writetothink.blog/the-writing-process/.
As I say to my students: Writing is structured, but it’s not formulaic. It’s analytical, but it’s also synthetic. It’s the development of logical thought, not just the explication of it. Write to think!
I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.
In the classical education renewal movement there are attempts to get back to the art of imitation in writing. Traditionally this meant that scholars would imitate classical writers in a detailed manner, creating phrases and clauses which directly mimicked the grammar of the master they were modeling their work after. All of these present programs and efforts are laudable, but it is important to take into account the background of today’s students before offering up the most traditional kind of imitation curriculum. Here’s why:
In previous times a fully classical education included an exhaustive understanding of grammatical concepts, both in English and in Latin. While many “classically schooled” students today receive some solid grammar training, most don’t get the “full story.” (There are a few programs such as Rod and Staff or the Seton Home Study School which do provide the full complement of grammar.)
Students who receive only the rudiments of grammar in their early years should not try to “imitate” in the fully classical way in middle school and high school. Rather, they should be given assignments in which they model their work after others without trying to directly imitate their sentence structures. I base this suggestion on my experience attempting to get students who don’t have a full understanding of sentence structure to “imitate” in the traditional way. What happens with these students is that they end up struggling so hard to replicate structures they do not understand that they never move past that to produce good writing themselves. They often complete the assignments in stilted ways, just trying to get through them. At the crucial time when they should be learning to argue and analyze texts, they are instead caught up in the weeds for the sake of a “classical” education, which will in all likelihood not help them to be better writers in the long run.
If students have received genuinely complete training in grammar, they can benefit some from imitating the great writers in the traditional way. However, all students should be given assignments which focus on the diction of the works they study. This is the emphasis of the AP® (Advanced Placement) approach to teaching and testing in English and composition. First, by analyzing the diction (literary devices, tone, etc.) of great writers, all students come to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how the best authors communicate through both synthesis and analysis. Second, by responding to short assignments requiring them to compose in such a manner themselves without “worrying” about the specifics of grammar they have not learned students begin to truly model themselves after and “imitate” the finest writing. I believe that for most students today, this approach is the most helpful.
In Point #1 of this series about how to teach writing I briefly discussed the underlying connection between logic and writing and how your job as a parent/teacher is to point this connection out to your students on a daily basis, in as many areas as possible.
Point #2: Learning Isn’t Just About the Facts
Because learning to write is such a holistic activity and experience, it’s more important than ever to take the student’s attitude into account. Many students have trepidation about writing: they don’t know what is expected, and even when given good instructions their thoughts may be so “frozen” that they cannot think clearly. Here are two suggestions for helping students get past this “writer’s block.”
First, give the student a brief initial assignment which is easy. Praise the student for specific phrases which are good. Do not focus on minor grammar issues at this point, but instead, bring out the positive content you see. You can almost always find something good to say about any genuine effort a student has made.
Second, when you do get to where you want the student to edit, do not use strictly negative words and phrases such as “No” or “That’s not right.” If you do, the recalcitrant student will return to the “frozen” mode because of fear of failure. Here are are some helpful phrases I use which work well: “That’s a good start, and also _______”; “You’re almost there, but you also need to _______”; “Not quite; let’s see how you can _________.” Students will learn that your phrases mean that aspects of the work aren’t what they should be, but they won’t shut down or feel that you are rejecting their efforts altogether; they will be want to improve and feel capable of improving.
Having academic standards for students is different from putting unrealistic emotional pressure on them. It’s our job as teachers to figure out the ways we can inspire and motivate students so that they not only learn, but love learning.
I realize this is a shibboleth among educators today, but I’m going here anyway: recent studies have shown that there is no valid scientific evidence to show that particular students (of any nature) learn better through either an auditory, visual, or a kinesthetic approach. In other words, there are no individual learning modes. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time learning about and teaching special needs students, I do realize that the “received wisdom” in today’s educational community directly contradicts this assertion.
I have always quietly questioned the “learning styles” approach for several reasons. First–and this is purely anecdotal–I have never personally observed any remarkable improvement in a student I have taught due to using lessons which were based on how that student’s learning style had been assessed, even when I was working in special education, applying these lessons diligently.
Second, as a devotee of the Mae Carden philosophy of education (in addition to having attended a Carden school as a child and having received training in the method as an adult), I have absorbed her pedagogy: all students should learn through multiple senses: “reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” as Miss Carden put it. In other words, we develop our intellects by using our various God-given senses. Mae Carden also emphasized individualized learning. By this she did not mean developing an entire new curriculum for each student, but rather, the teacher’s taking the time to work individually with each student. Miss Carden trusted the good teacher to work at finding ways to connect with students. ( I was acquainted with her personally, and know this to be true.) She knew that a teacher who cares about her students will be given the ability to help them when she makes the effort. This is why it is important to keep class sizes small: most classical educators’ experience is that a class which has more than 15 or 16 students is not going to meet the individual needs of students. The teacher simply cannot “divide herself up” during the class period so as to meet the particular questions of students, if the class is large.
My experiences teaching larger classes live online for others for almost a decade have borne out this belief. Because my own five children are grown, and because my husband is a surgeon who works long hours, I had the time to work very long hours in order to give my many online students the individual attention they deserve, through email and phone conversations. However, larger classes are not good, even when the teacher is willing (and able) to give this kind of time commitment, because some students “slip through the cracks” during the class period, and do not learn to interact and grow intellectually through the class discussions. Because I now run my own school, I am able to restrict the class sizes appropriately.
Finally, from a broad philosophical view, the idea that we use multiple senses makes sense, because we all are human beings. That may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. When teachers engage students by bringing multiple senses to bear, they are teaching the “whole child.” We are whole people, not fractured beings, artificially segmented into disparate parts. It’s not possible to separate out our thoughts and inclinations into neat categories, although it certainly is a temptation!
This is not to say that we do not have different “preferred” styles of learning. I might like to learn by watching videos or listening to audio books, but there is no evidence that I learn better through my preferred modalities. In fact, I may not learn nearly as well through these methods. And this brings up the underlying point: it is a teacher’s job to help a student develop a love for learning, in all modalities; as Carden herself said, “Life is a joy, so should be learning.”
The assertion I am presenting here, while backed up with solid studies, is not popular. The government has learned how to usurp our tax money from us in ways that supposedly help our children who struggle with the accepted public school modes of learning. Other “individualistic” pedagogy popular in the homeschool movement have latched onto the “learning modes” philosophy; finally, well-meaning parents who want to find ways to understand their own children’s struggles have claimed this explanation because they have been duped.
Nothing replaces individual interaction with a dedicated teacher/mentor. In the ancient classical world, those lucky few who were educated had tutors who guided them into learning with personalized attention. For the past century or so, “educators” since John Dewey have been trying to find a magic bullet which will replace this traditional approach. The result has been a disastrous experiment which has damaged our children and our society beyond measure. Unfortunately, many so-called “classical educators” participate in this experiment, either unwittingly or wittingly. There is no replacement, no magic bullet. There is only the difficult but rewarding work of learning how to learn.