Grendel 3 - The Shaper - Discussion & Demonstration

"He takes what he finds...and by changing men's minds he makes the best of it."

Grendel Day 3 - The Shaper (Discussion & Demonstration):   When I was in my education classes for English - I was first introduced to the idea of the "Discrepant Event".  A demonstration or activity that works with the lesson you are teaching - it might introduce a theme or better still allow students to make critical thinking leaps on their own.  This is one of my favorite lessons of that ilk.

Lesson Overview 

There is a lot to this lesson - but it is also deceivingly simple.  In fact, my notes are simple, and straightforward.  However, the "idea" I truly believe to be huge.  In Gardner's Grendel, there is a "bard" or "scop" that he (Grendel) calls "The Shaper".  This lesson is designed to show students just how relevant Gardner's Shaper is to literature, to their own lives and to the world around them.  Much of this lesson evolved out of 9/11 and our own "need" to find a way to deal with those things that are so powerful that they can overcome us (for another way to deal with these - much later in the year we will read and discuss Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach".  More on the "why" of this lesson can be found on this page under Thoughts on the Lesson.

The lessons begins by dividing the students into two groups.  Roughly 1/3 of the class (I usually pick the first few rows for time's sake)  is asked to go outside the classroom and wait for the teacher.  The rest are told to gather together on one side of the classroom.  As soon as the first group is outside of the class - I tell the remainders that we are a prehistoric village; I will be away for a few minutes and they are to talk about prehistoric cavish things.

Next, I take those outside the door students down a few hundred feet to the lunchroom and instruct them that they are now wild animals.  Furthermore, I tell them that I will be bringing the class (the villagers) out to where they are now.  The first time we come out - they are to make sure they are hiding behind the wall on the far side of the cafeteria.  AND they are not to make a sound.   I will then take the villagers back to our cave (classroom).  I further instruct the wild animals that a few minutes later - we will be coming back to this area they are now (where the villagers will be able to see them) and they should be waiting for us - frozen in place and still silent (they are wild animals after all.

I walk to the classroom and ask my "villagers" if they are hungry.  Invariably they are - so I tell them to gather their (imaginary) spears and we are off to our hunting grounds (the area near the cafeteria) to go hunt some game down for food.  It's important to tell them at this point that if we do encounter any game (and I told the same thing to our "wild animals") that any hunting will be done silently and in slow motion (there are other classes going on).   We walk down the hallway to the area near the cafeteria - our hunting ground - but we soon discover that it is empty (the "wild animal" students hiding on the other side of the wall).  With stomachs growling - we head back to the classroom.

Next, I ask the villagers if there is anything that they want to do - want to try.  I point out our cave walls (the white board in front of the  room) - and the marker sitting beneath it (sometimes you have to help things along).  They will eventually (not too long - time is short) come up (sometimes with a lot of help from the teacher) with the idea of drawing a picture of an animal that we like to eat (and hunt) on the cave wall.  A student comes up and with some direction from their fellow villagers - does just that.  Next we go out once more to our tried and true hunting ground.

We walk down to our hunting ground and VOILA!  There are tons and tons of "wild animals".  The villagers hunt them down in slow, very well behaved motion - and we bring our prey back to the classroom.  When we get in - I first ask one of the villagers to explain to our wild animals - what happened, and why there is a very bad drawing of a pig with antlers on our "cave-wall" whiteboard.  So then I ask the class - "Ok - what might we start doing everytime, before we go off on a big hunt? "  The answer always comes - "Draw animals of course!"  As Grendel says in the novel - men would make bridges to hell and back with their theories.  We don't talk about what happened or the implications - I just leave it to sink in as we do the rest of the class (and of course to be elaborated on in further classes.

Next I ask - "Do WE have a Shaper?"  Grendel, the monster, talks about the Shaper (aka bard, scop, etc) - but do "we have one - as we are living today"?  This leads to a short discussion - and of course the answer always comes - Yes - yes we do.  The media, the internet, the arts, this novel, all media that we consume.

So, I continue - Grendel hates that Shaper - why?  He makes him (Grendel) believe things that he knows not to be true.  He glorifies the horrible mundane events of life.  And then I ask - Are Shapers always bad?  What happens - when we - as a people or as individuals are confronted with things in our life that are too horrible to comprehend (like Hrothgar and the murder of his men - that leads to the Grinch happy singing of the first class)?  What do we do?  I don't wait for an answer - but instead tell the students to turn to their handouts with the song "Empty Sky" on it.   I instruct them to listen carefully - write down notes constantly - on what do they think the song is about (in the simplest way - what is the "story" being told).  Then write down what this has to do with the Shaper.  I then play the Bruce Springsteen song, "Empty Sky".

While the song is playing - make sure students are writing notes directly on the handout - thought cannot happen without engagement.  After the song ends - I usually begin the discussion (on the song) with an open-ended question (for a welcome change; this is really the heart of teaching critical thinking (to me) - and can be done very successfully after the other kind of pointed questions that take students on a journey): "So what did you see? Or, what did you make of the song?"  Remember - see above for the things they should be looking for.

Students - often with no guidance (other than the groundwork that's been laid will establish  1) it's about 9/11 - this will obviously be more tricky as we move further and further from that day.  There are clues in the photos on the handout (The Two Towers)  in the lyrics ("Empty Sky" - the Towers are gone;  "empty sky" also in that no planes flew (at this point - time permitting, I will sometimes read a poem that I wrote the day after 9/11 when I took my daughter to the playground and for the first time in my life (in Chicago) noticed that there were no planes to be seen in a scan of horizon to horizon); their lover is gone (the empty spot on the bed); "eye for an eye" (the revenge people wanted).

2) The "empty sky" also refers to the rejection of a God, given the horribleness of the attack - which directly echoes Grendel's thoughts in Chapter 1 when he gives "the finger" to the sky.  The theories that Grendel hates so much, that he said are cobwebs over chasms are echoed in the man walking the wire between the two towers.

And then we talk about how a Shaper can be a good thing - a useful thing.  How after 9/11 people needed solace (like Hrothgar ini the novel) - and how this album gave it to them.  The "Blues" don't make you feel worse - they give you comfort in others - ie, "To Know that We're Not Alone".  This is so key to me and important in this age of anxiety and depression.  We talk a lot about triggers - but so little about catharsis.

Next, I pass out the poem - "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Tennyson (btw - many students will remember this later in the year when we actually get to that poet).  Before I read the poem - I explain about the battle that the "Charge" references (see the handout).  So many men died because of a stupid mistaken order.  The calvary rode into a valley were they were shot like fish in a barrel.   But then,  I stand in the middle of the room and read the poem in my most heroic - loud - dramatic posture.  The poem and the rhythm make it easy.   By the end of the poem, the students are almost cheering.  

I ask the students what's their impression of the poem?  Of how it stands against reality?  (another open-ended question).  Always - the students will come back that it sure didn't sound like a mistake.  It sounds heroic - they would want to join up and fight too.  Etc., etc. etc. Now - I ask them to link it to the book - to Grendel.  "Of course!"  Grendel saw battles where men acted like cowards - snuck around and slit throats, murdered their best friends - but then The Shaper would spin it into a wonderful song that made the men and the battle seem so honorable and heroic.  Ah - the Shaper...  I conclude this part of the discussion by relating that if they ask anyone who remembers anything about the charge of the light brigade (like the poem or the movie) - that is how they will remember most likely too.

Finally - I go back to any earlier idea implanted at the beginning of the class.  I ask the students again: "Do we have a shaper?"  I then ask them to listen to the next song "I Saw it on TV" by John Fogerty - and I want them to write down THREE THINGS: 1) First and foremost -  the story - Always the Story (perhaps the biggest idea in the entire year) - what do they think is going on in the song?  2) Link what you hear (and see they have the lyrics) to our discussion and to Grendel (the novel).  Lastly, how many historical pop culture references do you see (the students always like this the best - and I must confess it's a great way to link them in).

We listen to the song - after it's done we start with (always the best place to start) "What is the story"?  Usually on their own - they will get that it is about an old man who loses his son in a war (usually someone will get that the war is Vietnam).  Who does he blame?  "The media" - The Shaper who made fighting in such a pointless war (the light at the end of train tunnel in the song) seem appealing.  There is a line in the song that the students will always connect to an almost identical thought from Grendel: "And still, I can't recall which cartoon was real" - coupled with Grendel's angry confusion between what he saw the men do to each other - and the poetic beauty that the Shaper creates with those events.  We then talk about the Cultural References they spotted - and they will usually spot most of them - the Beatles, the Domino Theory, The Mickey Mouse club, etc.

I end with a brief anecdote about the power of the Shaper: When Ken Burns made his epic Eight Part television series on The American West - I ask my students to guess how much of those 8 hours were dedicated to Gunfights and shootouts (at the OK Corral and elsewhere).  No one guesses right.  The answer is 0.   0 Hours, 0 Minutes, and 0 Seconds.  When Mr. Burns was asked why he didn't put anything in about them - he replied because it really wasn't important, it rarely happened - and is mostly myth and legend.

Ah, but I tell my students - go to an early grade playground - and when kids are playing anything about "The West" - what are they playing?  It's gunfights, and shootouts - not about Eastern Industrialists and the terrible things that happened to the native population.  That - is the power of the Shaper...

MAKE sure you remind students that they will need a lot of time to read Chapter 5.  It is short - but dense and may require a second reading.

Lesson Notes

These notes date back to 2002 - but I am pretty sure that I was doing this lesson in one form or another at least 10 years before that - though the references to 9/11 were certainly added after that event.  Certainly we've been going out of the classroom and hunting wild animals since we began reading Grendel.

Handouts & Quizzes

Most Recent Handouts & Quizzes  

The Shaper - A 3 Page Handout   PDF  (there is no docx copy that I have found):

Reading Quiz Chapter 4 ONLY:  Docx   PDF  - a "mini" quiz - it is a short Chapter and we need all the time possible for this lesson.

Reading Quiz Chapters 3 & 4  PDF - in case you didn't get the quiz in last time or you've altered the reading schedule.

Audio Visual Content

Song #1 - "Empty Sky" by Bruce Springsteen.  Written shortly after 9/11, it tells the story of a man  waking up to empty bed because his love was killed in 9/11.  See the lyrics on the handout and the lesson instructions above.
Song #2 - I Saw it On TV by John Fogerty.  This song , is ostensibly  about  a father who loses his son in Vietnam - but more than that is about how the media  shapes and controls us.  See the lyrics on the handout and the lesson instructions above.

Remote Enhancements 

I actually found the remote recording that I did for this class - and I did find a way to make the lesson true for that medium.  I hope to publish that recording in one form or another at some point.


Ken Burns's The West  see the above notes for the lesson.

Class Recordings (for registered members)



What's Next & Unit Home Page

Grendel - Day 4 Group Work: The Dragon - If today was one of the most important discussions that we have all year - the next class is one of the most important Group (and Solo) works that will take place.  They get a chance to put together the very difficult Chapter 5 with what we did today (and earlier).  Remind students to give themselves enough time to read Chapter 5.


  Grendel 2 - Monsters and Men Group Work (Chapters 2 & 3)

Thoughts on the Lesson 

I can only repeat what I said last time: There is so much here that will impact the rest of their reading and the rest of this unit.  Cause & Effect and of course The Shaper.  Students will be tired of (in a good way - I think) the idea of the Shaper (our manipulation by media) by the end of the year - and this is where it begins.