Am I supposed to enjoy marking exams quite so much?
These kids are awesome!
These students prove that exams can be positive learning experiences.
Am I supposed to enjoy marking exams quite so much?
These kids are awesome!
Beowulf, a centuries-old epic poem, is a marvellous story, magnificently told.
Beowulf is the oldest poem that we have in an English language. It is a medieval Anglo-Saxon epic poem that tells of the adventures of the hero, a great warrior named Beowulf, who crossed the sea from Sweden and helped the Danes fight the monster Grendel. ‘Beowulf’ is based on an early Germanic tale that relates events which would have happened after the fall of the Roman Empire and before these tribes moved into Britain. It celebrates a culture that glorifies strength, courage, and heroic achievements. These stories were told in verse by poet-singers called scops as a popular form of entertainment.
After being passed down as an oral tradition for centuries, Beowulf was written down somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries in Old English, the language that the Anglo-Saxons spoke in Britain. We don’t know who wrote it, or exactly when or where it was written down, or if the characters in the poem really existed. The single manuscript that still exists was written in two different people’s handwriting. The poem could be one traditional tale, or a combination of a number of folk tales into one great story. There was a Swedish king named Hygelac who died in 521AD, so it is possible that some or all of the characters were based on real people.
Old English is very different to modern English, so the poem has been translated into modern English so that we can still read and understand the poem today.
Perhaps the most distinctive poetic device in Old English poetry is the kenning. A kenning is a short, metaphorical term which describes a thing without using its name. In ‘Beowulf’, the king is referred to as a “ring-giver”, while Beowulf himself is called “Higlac’s follower”. My favourite from ‘Beowulf’ is “whale-road” as a description for the sea– isn’t that magnificent? While we are still very fond of metaphor, I think it’s a shame we don’t make more use of the kenning. Old English poetry was also characterised by strong rhythm and frequent alliteration. This would have helped the scops learn and remember the tale as an oral tradition, and added a musical element to the recitation, as well as making the story pleasant to listen to for the audience.
Modern translations follow the convention of making frequent and consistent use of both kennings and alliteration. This adds a wonderful sensory element to reading the story of Beowulf, which even today is a thrilling read. It delivers elements of adventure, history, heroism, and macabre storytelling.
The poem is way too long to include in this post, but you can find Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, as a safe-to-download PDF at Scribd.
(Note: you do not have to subscribe or accept any trial memberships to get this file.)
There is also a wonderful reading of the poem in contemporary English on Youtube.
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Why We Should Celebrate International Women’s Day.
As I was driving to work this morning, a caller to my favourite radio station was critical of the fact that the station was observing International Women’s Day as part of the day’s programming.
“What’s it going to achieve? Do you think you’re going to change everything in one day?” He spoke politely, but went on to dismiss the value of this, and every other, “touchy-feely day”.
While my initial instinct was to dismiss him as a sexist pig, his cynicism challenged me to consider that there might be many folks out there, and possibly not just men, who doubt the benefit or validity of such an observance.
This is what I would like to say to those with that mindset:
Observing International Women’s Day is definitely not going to change everything on one day. That’s not what anyone is expecting.
It is a chance to celebrate the changes that have been made, and to remember those who worked so hard to introduce them. It’s not even exclusively about gender equality – so many women have made significant advances, even when it was still almost entirely a “man’s world”. Think of Marie Curie or Ruby Payne-Scott making significant scientific and mathematical discoveries that have had a huge impact in many other areas of society. Think of Rosa Parkes and her courage that inspired so many. Think of the countless women who have worked for freedom, or justice, or civil rights for all people, not just women.
It is a day to remember that the rights and freedoms I have as an Australian woman were fought for by many – not just the suffragettes. Nurses at the battlefields of major conflicts, teachers, doctors and medical researchers, writers, women who raised their sons to respect them and therefore other women, lawyers, filmmakers, journalists— they and countless others have contributed to the privileges I enjoy in the 21st century.
It is a day to remember my own mother, grandmothers and aunts who worked hard to provide and care for me, but also to teach me and demonstrate for me what it means to be a woman of strength, confidence and integrity. It’s also a day to think of my sisters, cousins and friends who encourage and stand beside me when life is hard, because they model those same qualities for me time and time again. They remind me of not just what I am, but who I am.
It is a day to consider what legacy I pass on to my nieces, my students, and my readers. What do I want them to learn from my example? I want them to know they are enough. Strong enough, good enough, beautiful enough, deserving enough, talented enough, smart enough, and worthy enough. They do not have to take any else’s bullying or abuse. They do not have to accept other people’s bad behaviour. They are under no obligation to “measure up” to the yardstick of anyone else, male or female. They can make of their lives anything that they decide upon and set their mind to. They can face challenges with courage, and they can overcome whatever would seek to undo or defeat them.
These are the women I write of in my poems, blog posts and stories about women of strength and beauty.
That, my friend, is what this day helps me to achieve, because it sharpens my focus on those things for a time.
So, happy International Women’s Day 2018.
I hope that you will think of it in terms of gratitude and humility. I also hope that every woman will use it to both be inspired and be inspirational.
A few months back I posted about my Top Five History Podcasts.
Today, I have an update!
I’ve found two more fantastic history podcasts to add to your list.
Myths and Legendsis an exploration of a wide variety myths and legends from all around the world. It’s fascinating to hear about where and how these stories developed, and how ancient stories have evolved over time. It also features a different mythical creature each week, many of which I’ve never heard about before.
Episodes range from 25-40 minutes in length.
The Anglo-Saxon Podcastis presented by David Crowther, who also delivers The English History Podcast. Designed to replace the first 21 episodes of the original podcast, it explores in more thoughtful detail the development of Anglo-Saxon culture and society.
What does a teacher do when a student calls another a name that is just plain wrong?
Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.
So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.
The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.
It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?
Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.
Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised. Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.
Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?)
The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.
The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth” was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf, as told in the oldest English poem in existence.
They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.
Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.
It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way. Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.
By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.
If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing.
Who doesn’t love a good history podcast?
Today, I give you my top five, along with some honourable mentions.
#1 Rex Factor. In this absolutely brilliant podcast, the kings and queens of England followed by the kings and queens of Scotland are reviewed, ranked, and rated according to the qualities an ideal ruler should have. It’s both historical and hysterical. Don’t try to listen to this in the hope that it will lull you to sleep. It won’t. https://rexfactor.podbean.com/p/about/
#2 British History Podcast. A chronological history of Britain with a focus on the people and how they lived and died. It’s well told by a knowledgeable host with a very nice voice. Hey… it all helps.
#3 History of England Podcast Another chronological history of Britain, yet quite different to the BHP – David Crowther delivers the history in a bit more of an “English” style, whatever that is.
#4 Rum, Rebels and Ratbags Presented by David Hunt, author of ‘Girt’ and ‘True Girt’, and Dom Knight, this podcast explores the early years of European settlement in Australia. It’s insightful, irreverent, and irrepressibly Australian.
#5 History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pearson. This podcast picks up where the History of Rome podcast left off and explores the story of the Byzantine empire, based in Constantinople, from 476 to 1453 AD.
I just asked a Year 10 student to turn his music off while he was working on a history presentation that is due tomorrow.
He said, “I bet you don’t even know that song.”
“I might,” I answered. “What song was it?”
“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton.
That stopped me. This kid must have digitized his grandfather’s old record collection.
“I do, actually.”
Then he sang, “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’…”
And I sang, “There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago!”
He thought that was pretty cool, I guess. Then I asked him how much he wanted me to tell him about the War of 1812.
It’s incredible how suddenly kids can become motivated to work on the assignment that is due tomorrow. I wish I knew how that happened.
I’ve had a wonderful idea.
It’s 40 years since the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975 by the Governor-General, Sir James Kerr.
Tomorrow – September 9th – will see Queen Elizabeth II become the longest reigning monarch in British history.
What if Australia were to celebrate both anniversaries by having the Governor-General sack the PM again?
Australia would have a new lease on its political life, possibly even in time to prevent our becoming unable to ever look the rest of the world in the eye again.
The economy would receive an enormous boost because people would be throwing parties and holding street parades through every town. Freedom of the press to call it as they see it would return, and Australians could celebrate being Australian without wondering if they actually were on Team Australia or not.
The ABC could continue being fully funded and independent, we could go back to funding schools, roads and hospitals, and asylum seekers would be welcomed without being “filtered” according to artificially imposed rules and guidelines that make those who dream them up almost as bigoted as the people the asylum seekers are running away from in the first place.
Australia could once again be the “lucky country” with boundless plains to share, where the little guy can achieve something great once in a while without being accused of having a “sense of entitlement”.
Stop for a moment and think about it.
It really would be the gift that keeps on giving.
Today I was privileged to accompany 45 students on a visit to the Courage to Care exhibition in Portland.
We heard the personal story of a man named Harry, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Harry’s story was incredibly powerful. So were the tears he shed while telling it. You couldn’t help but be moved by this first-hand account of the terrible things that were done during World War II.
Courage to Care exists because they are passionate about telling many, many stories just like Harry’s. Given that we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, they know that it won’t be long before there are no survivors left to tell their stories to the generations that follow them.
The message is not just about the Holocaust. It’s a message against any form of prejudice, hatred, intolerance or bullying. Differences between people are only ever superficial; underneath our skin, we’re all the same.
Everyone who visits the exhibition is encouraged to be “Upstanders, not Bystanders”. It’s hard to leave without experiencing the conviction that you will never accept or condone discrimination again.
I cried as Harry told his story, not just for Harry but for every family who lived through the same thing. I cried for parents who lost children, children who lost parents, and siblings who lost each other.
I cried again when I read the stories of two families in Rotterdam who worked with the Dutch Resistance and help save Jewish people from the Nazis. They almost certainly knew my grandfather, who worked for the Dutch Reaistance throughout the war, and was personally hunted by the Nazis as a result.
My Opa told me stories about his experiences during the war when I was a young girl reading books like ‘The Hiding Place’ and The Diary of Anne Frank’. They were always very serious and quite emotional conversations. It was very important to him that I understood how important it is to oppose evil and to stand against hatred.
He told me more of his story when I was a little older and studying history. I guess he thought I could handle more of the horrible truth then. It certainly made my studies more personally relevant.
It also explained why he would leave the room or turn the TV off whenever there was a scene where German soldiers marched or where Hitler addressed the crowd. I don’t know why I hadn’t made that connection before, but after that, I could not watch those scenes without thinking about how powerfully real and haunting it still was for him and, doubtless, everyone else who had survived it. I was very privileged today to meet Harry, to shake his hand and talk with him. I told him about my grandfather and the connection with the stories displayed in the exhibition, and cried again. He hugged me and we shed tears together.
Honestly, I’ve never been such a sook in public. The whole experience was very moving, and not just because it made me think about my grandfather.
I saw the students responding in a similarly emotional way. They spoke up about bullying, booing at footballers, and the way different ethnic groups in Australia are perceived and treated. One of my students, a young man who generally seems to have not a care in the world, had tears in his eyes, just like I did.
I saw the light in the eyes of the Courage to Care members as they were inspired by the responses of the young people in front of them. The conversations were serious and sombre.
Every student took a wristband and put it on immediately, proud to be an Upstander.
There is hope yet for our nation and our world. Young or old, we can make a stand against hatred and vilification.
All that is needed is the courage to care and to stand up for what is right.
This evening I’ve been watching the committal of Richard III’s grave to Leicester Cathedral from the University and the “funeral” ceremony in the cathedral.
It’s mind-boggling to think that I’m watching the funeral of a medieval king whose life, actions and legacy I have studied at length in both history and literature, more than 500 years after his death.
Despite the heated and lively historical debate over whether or not he was responsible for the disappearance of his two nephews, the sons of Edward IV known as ‘the princes in the tower’, and the hideous portrayal of Richard by Tudor historians and, in turn, Shakespeare’s famous play, his reign was characterised by many things that recommend him.
It’s most likely that the significant question of the fate of those young boys will never be answered. Richard was by no means the only person with both a motive and the means to do away with them, and there are some very good arguments as to why he would not have taken such an opportunity, not the least being the risk of losing his integrity and the loyalty and love of the English people.
I find it bizarre that the British royals, who are descended from his sister, have only sent a token representative in the Queen’s daughter-in-law, Sophie, Countess of Wessex. Richard was, after all, a King of England. He was the last King of England to die in battle, defending his throne and his country.
The Queen’s cousin, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was also present, He bears the same name and title that Richard III held before his accession to the throne, and is the royal patron of the Richard III Society.
I am pleased to see Richard III’s physical remains being treated with dignity and respect. I’m delighted to be able to be a witness to his reburial via the wonders of historical and scientific research and the internet.
It’s also great to see that the result of the discovery of Richard’s remains buried under a car park in Leicester, in what used to be the choir of the Greyfriar’s church, is an increased interest in the history of his reign and of England at the time.