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A Teacher Learned Something Today

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If there is one thing that teaching English literature did for me which studying it in high school and college did not, it was to give me a greater appreciation for learning about the author, time period, location, and other background material regarding a text before reading it.

I always hated the "Build Background" activities we had to do in high school before actually getting to the fun part of reading a work. In college, I forcefully avoided writing literature analyses using the "Biographical" or "Historical" perspective. I always just wanted to read the work as it stood on it's own; I felt, at the time, that a well-written work would stand on it's own regardless of who wrote it, how old it was, or where the author was living/writing about.

Admittedly, this attitude somewhat carried into my teaching. The department had ready-made worksheets which students were supposed to fill out by reading the "Background" sections in the literature textbook, and before each section I would simply hand out the worksheets and tell them to work in pairs or small groups to find the answers to fill in the blanks. I agreed with them when they said it was boring, but I added that it was necessary in order to understand the reading we were about to do. Then, as a class, we would go through each item on the worksheet; I may act it out or say something funny about it, and we would discuss it and I would answer any questions the student had. Then we would move on to the fun part: reading!

It was soon after teaching "Beowulf," and realizing that the story meant nothing to the students who hadn't done the worksheet and discussed it in class with us, that it suddenly hit me; as much as I hated background info in high school and college, I would be useless as a literature teacher without it, because without being able to discuss the time period these stories took place in, these kids would have NO idea what was motivating these characters, why they did things that are so different from our culture, or even what the author was alluding to in certain situations.

It's sad that it took me teaching literature to see it, and I wonder if my students who aren't becoming literature teachers will ever quite understand how boring "Beowulf" would have been without having done that Anglo-Saxon worksheet.

They loved "Beowulf," by the way, and months after learning it, you can still hear them in my room crying "Beowuuuulf!!!" whenever someone says/does something strong/forceful.

I love that part of the job.


  1. prendrelemick's Avatar
    You never stop learning
  2. 1n50mn14's Avatar
    They loved "Beowulf," by the way, and months after learning it, you can still hear them in my room crying "Beowuuuulf!!!" whenever someone says/does something strong/forceful.
  3. Virgil's Avatar
    Background and context is very important Shan. I'm glad you see it. But once you understand some of the background, it becomes addicting and you want to get the full understanding for all literature. It's a good thing.
  4. Shannanigan's Avatar

    I've grown to appreciate and like it, and you're right Virg, I suddenly find myself wanting to study more histotry, lol. That's really funny coming from a person who dreaded taking history in school...