In School in Germany: Teaching Beowulf and Old English- Introduction

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Viking Ship at the Museum in Oslo. Source: Wikipedia (Hifi0006)

Old English: one of the main origins of our language. Consisting of the languages of the Anglo-Saxons, Old English was first spoken by the Germanic tribes and consisted of words most commonly found in today’s German, English and some Scandanavian language. With the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English transformed itself into Middle English while adopting words and phrases from the Norman language. Eventually all of the historic elements, as seen in the clip below, made up today’s language, which has its common, fixed structure in terms of grammar and sentence construction, but is constantly evolving because of the language’s adaptation to the changing environments, including the development of technology which is influencing the way English is being used.

And this takes us to the story of Beowulf. Written between the 10th and 11th Century, before the Norman Conquest, Beowulf is the oldest known literary work that was conceived in Old English. Although the work has been translated into today’s English, with the most recent work written and edited by Seamus Heaney, it is unknown who wrote the folklore, consisting of a poem with 3182 lines. The work has however been adapted into film, TV series and even children’s stories.

But who is Beowulf and why is it important to teach that in class?

To summarize, Beowulf was a warrior of Scandanavian descent who ruled the Geat kingdom. His strength is equal to 30 men, and he can battle with sword and hand-to-hand combat. He helps the king of Danes, Hrothgar, in defeating a monster named Grendel, who had invaded the dining hall, killing some Danish soldiers. Grendel loses his arm in the battle with Beowulf, runs home to the mother and dies at the end. The mother becomes angry and invades the hall again. Beowulf chases her down and kills her in the end as well. The warrior receives many rewards and eventually expanded his kingdom in the end. Fifty years have passed, and Beowulf, in his 70s, faces another challenge in a form of a dragon. Accompanied by his nephew, he battles the dragon and defeats it, but not before he is mortally wounded. He is honored in his funeral, where as a custom, he is burned on a boat but others give him something as a sacrifice to remember.  Many adaptations exist but a couple shorter animations shows how the story takes place:

Because the poem was written in Old English, Beowulf presents an insight of how English was used during that time, especially as some of the words originated from that period. Furthermore it is important to learn about history after the Fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, especially as far as the creation of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandanavian regions are concerned. Much of that is taught in history classes in schools in Germany, especially in the sixth and seventh grades, but some elements are even being presented in English classes, including the culture of the kingdoms in the regions during that time. While some elements of European history is introduced in American schools, it is important to learn about this, for the Vikings, who explored North America in the 9th Century, the time of the release of Beowulf, came from the regions in Scandanavia, including Denmark, and had been known for invading the Anglo-Saxon kingdom (especially in present-day England) several times before the Conquest of 1066.

The question is how to teach Beowulf to students in school without having to bore them. As mentioned before, over 3200 lines were written and translated, yet the time limit is a factor, as well as determining how it fits in the curriculum for either English or history. One can reduce the content to the most important aspects, but doing so creates a risk of leaving out some elements that may become important later on. Reading it straight out would be as brutally difficult as reading Chaucer, even on the high school level.

But one can create their own adaption of Beowulf. This includes adapting Beowulf to a modern version, such as Beowulf 2.0, Beowulf on Twitter, etc. It also includes activities to fill in the lost years, video games, and the like. It is a matter of presenting a summary of the story, while introducing the details, including Beowulf’s family, childhood, kingdom and even the culture of the Geats, Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Scandanavian regions, which one may need a two sessions for, pending on the time alloted per session. After that, students have a chance to create their own versions of Beowulf.

In July, some examples of how Beowulf can be taught will be presented to give teachers and students some ideas for their own project as well as possibilities to teach it in class. These were done by fellow college students at a university in central Germany. More on that will come then. In the meantime, what are some ideas you would have to teach students the importance of Beowulf? What projects did you try doing? Place your stories in the comment section below.

Stay tuned! More on Beowulf will come in July. 🙂

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Weimar Rendezvous 2015

Engelsberg Bookstore in Weimar's city center, one of the main events for the Rendezvous. Here is where the podium discussions and lectures took place. Photos taken in November 2015
Eckermann Bookstore in Weimar’s city center, one of the main events for the Rendezvous. Here is where the podium discussions and lectures took place. Photos taken in November 2015

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WEIMAR- In your opinion, do you think we are living in a society that is utopian? Does democracy and utopia co-exist, or is it dystopian or even an illusion? How does our environment affect our society and the way it is run? How many forms of topia exist or were invented? These were the questions that were addressed at this year’s Weimar Rendezvous. Every year since 2009, an average of over 1000 people, including students, intellects and interested people have attended the four-day event, consisting of presentations, podium discussions, films, exhibits and music festivals with a focus on a theme that is politically and historically relevant to today’s society.  This year’s event looks at the topic on “Utopia,” where presenters (consisting of historians, professors, politicians and members of civil society organizations) took a look at this topic, how it was developed and how it plays a role in our current society. This year’s event was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in Paris (see the article in the Files by clicking here), but it did not stop visitors from listening to the topics and integrating the events in France into the theme of the weekend.

The Weimar Rendezvous was established in 2009, based on a similar event that has been taking place annually since 1998 in the French town of Blois. As Weimar is not only the place of multiculture and various forms of architecture (including Bauhaus), but it is the platform where democracy and literature came into frutition and blossomed. Goethe and Schiller met in the city and some of the works were based on their stay in Weimar. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was conceived in Weimar. Many greats of fine arts stayed in Weimar and used their experience as a platform for their careers. And with the Rendezvous, Weimar has been the platform for history and politics, as many current topics, laden with theory, science, architecture and especially history, have attracted many intellects, teachers, professors and students, in addition to others interested in history. Weimar is part of the Weimarer Dreiecks, where most of the themes are focused on the three European countries: Germany, Poland and France.

As a teacher of English, social studies and history, the Weimar Rendezvous is an excellent place to gather information on and deepen the topics of interest, thus providing some ideas for the next class session. Especially for the topic on utopia versus dystopia, for the latter was completed in 9th grade social studies class, where the group watched the film “In Time,” which depicts dystopia in the future tense. Here we compared dystopia with utopia in a theoretical sense, then compared them with how they were used in reality, using the examples of democracy and dictatorships that existed in history, and garnering some ideas to create the main idea of the meaning of democracy vs. dictatorship. Little do we realize is that utopia and its various forms have their roots dating back to the 1500s. Over the next 300 years, the concept branched out in several directions like a tree, each one shaping the way society is running in both a positive as well as a negative sense. Traces of the -topia can be seen today, as they have played a role in shaping our country and how their relationship with other countries. This includes the role of religion and the environment, two hot topics discussed during the Sunday sessions, as well as the African-American movement and its history and development in the United States from 1865 to the present.

Some highlights of the event from the author’s perspective include the following:

  1. According to the podium discussion on the history of Utopia, we found that Thomas Morus produced a book bearing the title in 1516. With his envision of utopia, which was a perfectionistic society with equality and uniformity, this was the seed that was planted which later bloomed into a tree with various forms of (u)topia.
  2. In another podium discussion on religion and utopia, the word apocalypse and its argumentive definitions, was used by the founders of the Churches to describe the replacement of a corrupt society in biblical proportions in favor of a utopian society. It was stressed more so by Martin Luther when he introduced his demands for reforms in the 1500s and later by his followers.
  3. During a podium discussion on the environment, there came a consensus by the speakers, when asked about the role of the media in influencing society’s thinking, which was as long as the public believes that the United States has less sunlight than Germany, as stated by Fox News, a staunch opponent of solar energy, no change will happen until it is too late.
  4. In a podium discussion on Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, never seen before photos of Rosa Park’s arrest and jail custody for sitting in the white zone of a transit bus, King’s speech and many Nazi propaganda posters against Barack Obama were displayed with a clear-cut message: America is (and will never be) ready for a non-Caucasian President, especially in light of the racial profiling and violence dominating the American landscape.
  5. In an evening podium discussion on architecture and utopia, the concept of modern architecture and futurama originated from the 1930s but was advanced further in the 1950s in Europe.

 

A book with a summary of the speeches from this year’s event will be published in the near future. However, highlights and photos of the events can be found in the Weimar Rendezvous website, which you can click here for more information on the event. A facebook page with photos of the event, courtesy of Juliane Fox Schwabenbauer, can be found here. The Files also has photos of the events the author attended, which you will find here.

A separate article on how to teach dystopia in the classroom is in the making and will be posted in the Files’ WordPress internet site.

Silhouette of the Statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the Weimar National Theater. Photo taken by the author in Nov. 2015
Silhouette of the Statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the Weimar National Theater. Photo taken by the author in Nov. 2015

 

The statues and the National Theater with flowers on memory of the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.
The statues and the National Theater with flowers on memory of the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.

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In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

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To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

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In School in Germany: Talking about the Berlin Wall

November 9th 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. 25 years ago on that date in 1989, after several weeks of protests, combined with the exodus of thousands of East Germans to West Germany and  changing of the guard from Erich Honecker to Egon Krenz, the announcement was made to open the gates of the Berlin Wall to allow East Germans to flee to West Berlin. At the same time, the borders separating East and West Germanys also opened for others to pass.  Tens of thousands of people who fled to the western part embraced in the western culture that was once forbidden. Many of them did not return nor decided to not talk about  life in East Germany prior to 1989.

To this day, these people still refuse to talk about it, going by the monkey mentality of “See no good of the GDR, Hear no good of the GDR and Speak no good of the GDR.” By doing so in this day and age is dangerous, for the people born in the years 1985 and up are missing out on the truth behind the Berlin Wall and the two Germanys that had existed. In the days teaching English at a university in Bavaria, no one knew about the Vita Cola, the East German version of Coca-Cola until I introduced that in one of my sessions. Very few knew about Sandman, the character that starred on East German television every night at 6:50pm, and still does to this day. Even the well acclaimed traffic lights were unknown in the eastern part and many were used to the generic traffic lights that are simply European. But by the same token, the emergence of “Ostalgia,” the mentality that East Germany was not as bad as it once was, is becoming very common thus increasing the danger glorifying the former times and degrading the western part of Germany because of  different mentalities and conflicts of interest.

During my time in the gymnasium, the topic of the Berlin Wall was brought forward to students in history, for we needed to know how good or how bad the GDR really was. The students were asked to interview their parents and grandparents to collect whatever stories they have on life in the past and compare them with their lives, in terms of childhood, culture, family and anything that would be useful for the topic. The results were surprising. The responses were short and to the point, but there were little details about the former times. If they were short, then it was the fact that the country did have some good points and that was it.  But the question is: was life in the GDR really that bad or that good to begin with?

Growing up in a large family in Minnesota, I became accustomed to storytelling, done by my grandma and her children, including my father. Many of them were detailed and enlightening and provided some morals for us to learn by. This included stories of how my grandparents survived the Great Depression and being separated because of World War II. Many of these stories I can still remember to this day. Yet the younger generations don’t seem to care much about their own history, thus putting the teachers of history, social studies and culture (including foreign languages) in a position where they have to dig up their own history and ideas to share with the students. We are facing a neglect in history, not knowing the key facts and the stories behind them, and the consequences will be fatal in 25 years time. No matter how painful or joyful, one needs a storytelling session about certain events in time from the older generations so that one understands the gravity of the events and think about them on one’s own.

And this is where we return to our subject of the Berlin Wall and how it divided Germany into two in a physical sense for 28 painful years. Nobody wanted the border but it happened. Yet life was not as bad as it seemed, as long as the Stasi did not spy on you and you faced hours of torture, examples of which can be seen in the TV series Weissensee. But nevertheless, if one wants to know more about the Wall, the divided Germany and how people came together to tear it down and bring the two countries together, one needs to find the facts. The best facts are not in the books, but through oral history.

So for all teachers talking about the Divided Germany and the Wall, challenge your students to collect facts from relatives and friends who have lived in both regions, witnessed the Wall and tried to jump it, took part in the Leipzig Demos as well as took turns with others to tear the Wall down. Interview them, ask them any questions that come across your minds- even if they are most painful. Then share them with your teachers, student colleagues and friends (here and abroad), to ensure them that the Wall was the biggest deal and despite having a decent lifestyle in both countries, it was much better with one Germany and not two. Then make sure that future generations know about it to better understand life between 1945 and 1990 and how it has shaped today’s world, in one way or another.  By doing so, we will preserve our history and better understand Germany and its role from the eyes of others.

BTW: In case you were wondering where the author was at the time of the Fall of the Wall, he was watching the coverage from home in Minnesota, writing a short summary about it for a 6th grade social studies class. Little did I realize at that time, that the Wall was one of many factors that lured me here, aside from the most obvious reason. But with the advancement of technology these days have produced recordings of the events of the Fall of the Wall. Some examples to follow soon. 🙂

In School in Germany: Teaching Latin

There is a German saying that is stressed in the classroom at both the university as well as in school:

 

You don’t know about history unless you’ve mastered Latin.

 

Yet this argument can be encountered with that of Latin not being relevant to the curriculum:

 

Latin is dead, and so is Caesar!

 

In all the years I’ve been teaching English here in Germany, there is no subject that has been overly stressed as the language you have to master other than Latin.  What is understood by Latin is NOT in connection with Latin American dances! If you connect these two elements, then you best move down to Costa Rica or Ecuador where you can get your training in.

 

Latin is a combination of language and history into one. Language because almost every single language derives from Latin, including English and German, as well as the Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Even the alphabet was adopted from Latin. It is one of the most logical languages ever to be taught in the classroom, yet also the most difficult if you struggle with grammar.  History because Latin originated from the Roman Empire. At the peak of its powerful existence in 117 AD, all of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia were dominated by the Romans, and each culture occupied by the Empire adopted the vocabulary and the grammar rules pertaining to Latin. Even when the Empire ceased to exist in 476 AD (with the dissolving of the western  kingdom through Odoacer and the relocation of the eastern Roman capital to Constantinople in 395 AD) elements of Latin were soon integrated into the languages of the areas once conquered, without knowing the fact that the languages we speak are derived from Latin.

 

There are many reasons why Latin is important and why some schools that have not introduced it should, based on my observations during my practical training as a high school teacher in Germany. Here are some reasons:

 

1. Grammar:  The grammatical structure of each language originated from the Latin language, including some elements that exist in the English and German language.  This includes various verb forms and tenses, articles and even suffixes that even exist today, just to name a few.

 

 

 

2. Vocabulary:  No matter if it is from religion, history or even everyday use, it is certain that the majority of words we use have their origin in the Latin language. In fact, over half of our words in English come from Latin, 30 percent come from French thanks to the 1066 Norman Conquest of English, and the rest come from other languages, whose words we ended up adopting, including Spanish, German, Russian and even the Natives.

 

 

3. History:  As a general rule of thumb, all forms of history run through Rome. Latin allows a student to learn more about the history of civilization, how empires rise, fall and be conquered, how certain sports like wrestling and track had its origins in Rome, political systems that exist today were formed, how buildings and the infrastructure were formed, and how half of philosophy had its origin (the other half came from the Greek side before the Romans conquered the country).

 

 

 4. Foreign Languages:  Latin serves as a key bridge connecting foreign languages, like the Overseas Highway connecting the islands in the Florida Keys. People having the basis of Latin are more likely to pick up languages in the same family more quickly than those with no foundation. The reason is the common traits that the languages share, in particular, with vocabulary. Another reason why more Americans should pick up Spanish and Canadians should also learn French. It has nothing to do with the minorities living there or any immigrants moving to these parts.

 

 

5. Translation Skills: Latin provides students a chance to learn how to translate from one language to another, avoiding pitfalls in the process. This is important for Latin is a bridge between two languages and some words do have similarities thanks to this language.

 

 

6. Religion: While Martin Luther became the first person to translate the Bible into another language (German) in 1587, much of the text about the rise, fall and ascension of Christ are still found in Latin, and in either the Bible, forms of music, or both. Speaking from experience singing for choirs in high school and college, it is important to have a true meaning of the song when reading the lyrics in Latin. Try Kyrie, Mozart’s Requieum and Agnus Dei, and you will understand why. With Latin you can decipher the meanings as you perform this at a concert.

 

 

 

Keeping these facts in mind, the next question is when and how to learn Latin. The first answer I can give you right now: as early as possible. Schools in Germany start with Latin in the sixth grade, and students are expected to learn Latin until they graduate.  Yet given the course load students have to deal with and the degree of difficulty Latin has to offer, Latin should be given in medicinal sips until students have the basic foundation.  The best way to approach Latin is to have the class run parallel to the ancient history class at the beginning, whereby in Latin, history is provided as background information but vocabulary and grammar are in the foreground. This way students can have a grasp at the language before learning how to translate from Latin into English.

 

In Germany, as the language is more logical than English, it is especially important that students are able to translate from Latin into German without having to commit many grammar mistakes in the German language.  That is why one can expect a session to look like something I observed many times during my practical training as a teacher: Vocabulary review from last session,  History (background info) for session, dictation in Latin, new vocabulary, translation, homework- learning new vocabulary and translation.  In the end, tests that are more often than the tests in other classes. Materials in a form of book and supplemental materials are used very often, and frontal teaching (especially for vocabulary) is used almost exclusively.  Tough if you lose track or are frustrated with the language, but effective.

 

But this is one way of learning Latin, albeit it is easy to learn it that way. There are many ways Latin can be taught in the classroom. It is a question of when to start teaching it in schools that don’t have it yet.  But keep in mind: just because Latin is dead, it doesn’t mean it can exist in a different form, as seen under the various reasons why Latin should be introduced in the classroom. The danger of not introducing Latin in schools is as grave as life without bees. Without the bees, life cannot exist because they do a great deal for the food chain. Without Latin, we become too one-dimensional in our thinking.  We have seen this in the US with several schools not even having foreign languages in the classroom, which is fatal to the development of the country and its influence throughout the world.  But having such basics like Latin can open the doors to new dimensions and avert this ignorance.

 

To end this article, there is a nice German saying worth thinking about: Ich bin nicht am Ende mit meinem Latein, sondern am Anfang.  I’m not at my end with Latin but right at the beginning.  The most basics can make a big difference in the long term, especially as all roads go through Rome.