AP English Teacher Kicks Off Beowulf Course Like Bards Of Old
In Kiowa, Colorado an English teacher by the name of Josh Mortensen teaches his AP English students in a unique way that is not seen often in modern society. To make a memorable experience for his kids, Mr. Mortensen transforms his classroom to give it a true Anglo-Saxon feel by giving a musical performance as the bards of old have done for many centuries. The song of choice is “The Bard’s Song” by the German power metal act Blind Guardian. By his side is his brother Jason Mortensen, who is a music major at Colorado State University as well as the vocalist for the siblings’ power metal band Vacant Throne. Also accompanying the duo is Jeff Swanson, a firefighter for Denver Metro who just before coming to the high school, helped someone who had broken their femur after slipping on ice. Jeff is also in another new band with Josh called Crafteon, and the Lovecraft black metal themed band is expected to release music soon. Chaos Force got a exclusive interview with Mr. Mortensen in regards to his unique and uplifting way to teach students.
What was the driving force that made you decide to become a teacher? How long have you been in the field?
“I had a truly inspiring English teacher named Mr. DeStefano when I was in high school. Although I had always achieved high grades, I never actually cared about reading or writing, and I wasn’t concerned with learning for myself or growing as a person. The first time I stepped into Mr. DeStefano’s classroom, it was as if I’d crossed into a new dimension . There was a vibrant buzz of energy in his classroom, and he was like the archetypal wise mentor figure, like a Gandalf or a Merlin, but he was young, so I connected with him, and because I wasn’t connecting with my own father at the time, Mr. DeStefano filled a large gap in my life. Ever since my experiences in his classroom, I have wanted to inspire kids in the way that he inspired me. I am only in my third year of teaching, but I hope that one day I can achieve Mr. DeStefano’s transcendent method of pedagogy. ”
As a teacher, why do you think this method of education helps your students? Do they enjoy it?
“Well, playing “The Bard’s Song” is part of our “Anglo-Saxon Mead-Hall Day” in my AP Literature class, which is when I introduce Beowulf. It’s hard for modern students to understand that centuries and centuries ago, stories were not read from a book, but memorized and performed as poetry–and most importantly–passed down from generation to generation as cultural knowledge. Beowulf was most likely handed along from scop to scop (or bard to bard) for dozens of generations before it was finally written down in the late Anglo-Saxon period. The people who listened to the original Beowulf were most likely gathered indoors by a roaring fire, safe from the cold and surrounded by friends and family, feasting on bread and meats, drinking ale and wine, losing themselves in the magic of the story as their ancestors came to life and performed great feats and accomplished heroic deeds. I have done my best to re-create this atmosphere for my students, as I want them to understand how Beowulf was meant to be experienced, so when they are at home reading in bed, they can imagine themselves seated in a toasty mead-hall listening to a scop as he recites the tale with vigor and enthusiasm. “The Bard’s Song,” I believe, is Blind Guardian’s attempt to capture the magic of that moment, and if you’ve ever been witness to this song at a Blind Guardian concert, you will see hundreds of audience members, even perfect strangers, arm-in-arm, swaying to the music as they sing along–they all know the story, but they still believe, and every time they are willing to be taken away into a mystical world, if only for a moment. This is what my students want–the magic of stories and shared human experience–and as a teacher, I feel obligated to deliver.”
What are the materials that you cover in your course? What helps validate your decision on these pieces?
“In AP Literature, my ultimate goal is that students develop a “critical reading tool belt” of a sort, and when confronted with any passage of literary merit, they can dissect that text and reveal both how the author connects with humanity and what stylistic choices the author makes to create those connections. As students develop their skill set, I teach several long works. I typically start off with The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and if you don’t know who Goethe is, he is essentially the “Shakespeare” of Germany. I teach Werther first because the protagonist is young and highly emotional, and he feels as if everyone is against him. Most high school students are able to connect with him right away, and Goethe’s language, even translated into English, is absolutely unparalleled in its beauty. When I show my students Werther, I’m saying, “Look–this is what language can become.” Afterward, I teach Frankenstein, mostly because Werther helped to kickstart the Romantic period of literature, and Frankenstein is one of the quintessential Romantic texts. Also, it’s cool for the students to read an equally-compelling work written by a female, and typically the students are blown away that Mary Shelley was only 19 when she composed it–hardly a year older than some of the students in that class. After Frankenstein, we dive into a unit that covers the ins and outs of poetry, which then prepares them for Beowulf, which is my favorite unit to teach, as we create Anglo-Saxon names, divide into tribes, and craft our own personal swords (with cardboard, wooden dowels, and duct tape), inscribing them with runes. Throughout the unit we have role playing based on Anglo-Saxon culture, and the assignments are typically centered on the features of Old English poetry–my favorite. Next, we move onto Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is considered by many to be the greatest work in the English language, so it is in a way a summoning of the skills an AP Literature student should have acquired by then. During Hamlet, we spend a lot of time acting out small scenes and even creating video at times. It’s both a celebration of the end of the year and a penultimate challenge at the same time, because they take the AP exam just afterward. Of course, we read dozens upon dozens of poems and short stories scattered in along the way, but for brevity’s sake, let’s just say we read a lot. ”
Describe your students. What do they mean to you?
“I am extremely lucky at Kiowa High School. We are located in a rural area where most kids are still raised in a traditional household with family values. These kids eat dinner as a family, do chores together, raise animals and sell them at stock shows–I’d say most of my students are light-years ahead maturity-wise compared to students at most other schools. This way of life puts them at a huge advantage when it comes to connecting with complex human experiences in literature. The discussions we have in my classroom are so sagacious and profound that oftentimes I get chills listening to my students talk about what it means to be a human being. I am blessed to have these kids for the few years that they will be a part of my life. I don’t think they really understand how much they mean to me. These kids are the reason that I get out of bed every day. If I wasn’t sharing literature with students and helping them grow to be better readers, better writers, and better people all-around, I’m not sure if I’d feel I had a reason to live. My heart goes out to them for how much they’ve changed me as a person already. I hope I can keep teaching for years to come. ”
Though it is hard to see in the video, Mr. Mortensen is wearing his new pair of Gondorian Bracers (Identical replicas to Boromir’s in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) that was created by his friend Travis Sigler of Obsidian Crow Leatherworks. The two have been fellow Tolkien lovers for many years and often yell “For Gondor!” at one another.
Thanks Mr. Mortensen for allowing us at Chaos Force Records to tell your inspiring tale of how you take your students on many quests through the ages! The students of Kiowa High are very lucky to have you as their mentor as you help prepare them for their own journeys ahead in life!