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HEMA-Dynamics: Swordplay in the Classroom

What's your experience with Beowulf?

Hard? Pointless? Complicated?

As a Brit Lit teacher, I've heard mostly complaints, and the few who haven't complained have usually been history teachers.

One of my life goals has been to make older canonical books interesting to the regular reader (or at least palatable!).

This year, I'm doing that through theatre.

If you've been following my exploits in the world of stage combat, you know I've been inspired by the precision and movement of swordplay.

Recently, I've also entered the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) universe.

In that universe, I've discovered some awesome connections to Beowulf:

1. The Germanic ideal warrior was an excellent wrestler. I didn't realize how Beowulf's refusal to fight Grendel with a sword went deeper than mere fair play. His choice played directly into the concept of the Ango-Saxon champion.

2. Depending on the time period Beowulf was written, the giant's sword was a fantasy weapon is his time because the technology/materials weren't available for the longsword.

3. Insults were socially regulated: some demanded an insult; some demanded a fight. Beowulf's exchanges with Unferth are important to analyze.

To bring these ideas to life, I brought my HEMA instructor Aaron to teach my English IV sections yesterday. He led them through a series of grappling and sword fighting techniques that he connected to the Germanic warrior culture along with ideals of leadership and bravery.

Later, Aaron and a peer (student) at our school performed a HEMA fight demonstration to the entire school to promote an upcoming HEMA club. My peers were able to see the speed and agility that fighters needed to win a quick battle.

Today, I moved my peers into the realm of stage combat. Because they had experienced combat designed to really attack, I could show the differences between stage movement and the reality of a fight.

They learned attacks and parries; the honors class began designing their own simple choreographies.

The engagement has been consistent and focused, phones have not been a problem (no one wants a broken phone!), and we've been able to discuss culture and culture through doing rather than through lecture.

Next week, I will provide the peers with readings about Anglo-Saxon culture. They'll develop a series of insults designed to incite the combat, create characters with various motivations/objectives/obstacles that fit the time, and write a script that incorporates their choreography.

One group will perform on the lawn. The honors group will work with VR to create a scene we can take to middle schools in the area to demonstrate ancient cultures.

So, now, what do you think these people will say about their experience with Beowulf?

Do you have any suggestions for creating engagement in the classroom? Let me know below!

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