Carpe Leccionem!

Carpe Leccionem:
The Kitchen Classroom
Or History of the English Language 101, Unschool Style

A Play in One Act

The scene:

A snowy Sunday morning. The remains of breakfast–papaya rinds, egg shells, and dirty plates–lie scattered across the kitchen table. Eli and Everett are finishing their last bites. Mommy is checking Facebook on her phone.

Monty enters the room at a run, screeches to a halt by the table.

Monty: Aaaaaaaa!! (Breathes heavily and  deeply) Oh gosh. That was scary. I was thinking about Beowulf and thought a wolf was chasing me.
Mommy: You know, Beowulf was a good guy. A hero. It’s Grendel who was the evil monster.
Monty: Oh. That’s good.
Mommy: Want to know more about Grendel?
Monty (shudders): No, probably not. Well, okay.
Mommy returns to phone. Starts googling. Shows them this:


And this:

Photo courtesy

And this:

Photo courtesy John Howe

Monty shudders again.

Mommy: It’s okay. Beowulf kills him. Want to hear?

Monty: Okay.

Mommy reads aloud a simplified, yet still beautiful, translation from the Old English poem Beowulf.

Conversation ensues discussing pre-literate society, oral poetry, and the difficulties of getting news and entertainment prior to writing and the printing press.

Eli: Mommy, was that written in Old English?
Mommy: No, actually, that’s a translation from the Old English. Old English is a whole other language from whence, circuitously, modern English is descended. Here’s what Old English sounds like.

Mommy calls up and plays several readings from the original Beowulf on her phone. Children listen wide-eyed. Then start to participate.

Eli: Wretched! I heard wretched!
Everett: Mood!
Monty: Funden! Does that mean found?
Mommy: Probably. Many modern English words descend from Old English. But not all.

Conversation steers into the history of the language, the conquering of the Anglo-Saxons by the Romans and the Normans, the formation of pidgens and then creoles–dipping into discussions of more recent American history, the importation of slaves, challenges of communication between English, French, and African immigrants, and then back to the development of modern English via Old and then Middle English.

Mommy: Here’s another famous poem, by Chaucer. This one is written in Middle English. Listen and see if it sounds closer to modern English than Beowulf does.

Eli: Yeah! I can almost understand that!
Mommy: It’s a very famous collection of stories.
Monty: I thought you said it was a poem.
Mommy: Well, it was. It was both. Before the printing press… (more history of oral poetry ensues. Then…) Another way people remembered and told stories was by acting them out. Like Shakespeare who, though he can be difficult for us to understand, in fact wrote & spoke in modern English. Here.

Eli: Remember when we went to see Shakespeare in the park?
Mommy: Oh, yeah. That was this same play. That was fun.
Eli: Yeah.

Monty: Eli, you want to play Beowulf? You can be Grendel!
Eli: Okay, but don’t really tear my arm off.
Monty: We’ll see.
Mommy: Well, have fun guys. I’ve got to go post this to my blog. Must celebrate the good parenting moments when they happen!

For the curriculum-oriented:

Time elapsed: 30 minutes
Language arts curriculum standards covered: Literature comprehension, linguistics history, literature history, American history, English history, Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, oral poetry, history of the printing press, history of written language
Lesson level: College freshman
Grades of students involved: 5th and 3rd
Conclusion: Unschool rocks

Disclaimer: Do not try to repeat this exact scenario at home. The whole point of unschooling is to grab the lessons (ahem, carpe leccionem) that your children are interested in when they are interested in them… because that is when their brains are ready to absorb and own the lesson. Your children may not be interested in Grendel today. Maybe it’s snowflakes: Science lesson! Maybe it’s sledding: Physical education! Maybe it’s teletubbies: Arts & entertainment! Maybe it’s legos: Advertising & marketing! Building! Construction! Engineering! Whatever it is, grab it and run. Have fun.

2 responses to “Carpe Leccionem!

  1. I’m reading a paperback about Tolkien (authorized biography written in the 70s, cost me a dollar at the local bookstore). His fascination with languages and Beowolf has just come up in the most recent chapter. He also reached into Viking lore for inspiration for his writing.

    Having the YouTube Canterbury prologue reading here makes me think I may yet get through The C. Tales. I tried reading the translated version in early college, but I craved hearing what it was “supposed” to sound like rather than just what I interpreted. Thank you for this completely nerdy and wonderful lesson/idea!

    • We’re big Tolkien fans–I’ll have to tell the kids what you are reading about his interests.

      I had a really great Chaucer professor in college who had us memorize portions in the Middle English (Whan that Aprille, with its shoores soote… I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong, but I think I’ve got the pronunciation right anyway, lol)… she was fluent in Middle English, and we didn’t read it in translation–she took the time to teach us what we needed to know to read it intelligibly in the original, plus we had a great annotated version to work from. I don’t think I’d have loved it as much in translation. Her name was Ms. (later Dr.) Morton… and unfortunately she died from breast cancer a few years after I graduated.

      I’m so grateful for the Internet now that I’m schooling my kids. I don’t even need to know Middle English or Old English to expose my kids–virtually instantly–to their sounds. What an amazing world we live in.

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