When I learned that the Middle School play for the spring of 2016 would be Sort of Beowulf: A Sort of Comedy, a parody of the famous English epic hero story, I immediately envisioned an opportunity to draw from my experiences as an English and theater teacher and link our divisional theatrical project to the Middle School English classroom. Early in the process I teamed up with Eva Kay Noone, the production’s director, to share my ideas about how we could make this a literary event for the entire Middle School.
Together we worked with the Middle School English department to devise a curricular unit for grades 6-8 that would help students learn the story of Beowulf and prepare them to see the production. Students read an abbreviated version of the story and then sampled some of the epic verse. Some classes even listened to a portion of the story in Old English, gaining a sense of the language in its earliest form and an overall scope of how the language has evolved. Each grade also completed an artistic extension in response to their study of the tale. For example, eighth graders used a menu of knight heraldry symbols to create personal coats of arms, which they designed to look like Viking shields. Seventh graders examined a graphic novel of the epic tale and then worked in partners to illustrate comic book sequences inspired by the great battle between Beowulf and the monster Grendel. Sixth graders created and colored murals of the action scenes from the adventure story.
While our cast and crew delved the most deeply into the story and play-making process during their weeks of rehearsal, many other students joined the experience the week of the show by helping display the dramaturgical work of the English classes in the Middle School lobby and Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts and by volunteering to usher for the show. In an effort to give all Middle School students an opportunity to “see” the story they had been studying and to support their peers who were performing, we sponsored a pizza dinner for students on opening night, so they could stay at school and attend the performance. Over 35 students came to our pre-show event, with many others joining us in the Kurtz Center that evening with their families.
Thanks to our collaborative and willing English, visual arts and theater faculty, Sort of Beowulf: A Sort of Comedy truly became a literary event for all Middle School learners. I am always delighted by how theatre can enliven the classroom, and how this particular art-form’s magic can bring to life important stories.
Part of the Content goal of Penn Charter’s Strategic Vision charges us to continue to teach canonical works like Shakespeare and Beowulf, but to find new ways to have our students access these age-old classics. The Beowulf project that the cast, crew and entire Middle School community engaged in is an example of how we designed an innovative and age-appropriate experience to enhance student learning. Projects of this nature are an example of how Penn Charter affords educators the opportunity to design and deliver innovative learning experiences and to “collaborate with students in a process of continuing revelation and joyful learning.”
Christine Pearsall is a Middle School English teacher. She has served as assistant director to Middle, Upper and all-school productions, and she is head coach of the Middle School girls soccer team.