Each year, sixth grade Humanities classes study the barbarian tribes of Europe. The essential questions for Humanities that we examine all year, are: How do people communicate their ideas and beliefs, and how do cultures interact with their environment? While we study this aspect of our history curriculum, we also read Beowulf, a classic of early Middle Ages literature. Part of what makes the reading of Beowulf so powerful for students is that we attempt to immerse students in what it might have been like to be a part of a Jute or Danish mead hall as we read. This is truly an interdisciplinary study of the time period.
Over the past few years, we have begun to use the Princeton Day School garden to help us make the reading of Beowulf a more interactive experience for students. We create our own Mead Hall, complete with a feast, candles, antlers, and a virtual wood fire. This year, we expanded our feast to include the garden. In the first weeks of school, the sixth graders visited the garden, where Garden Coordinator Pam Flory had students plant foods that would be able to be harvested in six short weeks. The class learned about why certain vegetables would have been planted by the Germanic tribes and how food would have been preserved during the long, cold winters. Students cleared the beds, prepared the soil, and planted the seeds. Next, we visited the PDS chickens where the students fed them the weeds pulled from the garden. Over the next few weeks, we visited the chickens, and collected eggs. Lower School Science teacher Aaron Schomburg was kind enough to give the sixth graders lessons about the beehives and beekeeping, as well.
The last step of this lesson was the actual Barbarian feast. Students met in the garden classroom where we got to work on making three items for the feast: Viking Honey Cakes, Rye Thunder Bread, and an Anglo-Saxon Chicken Stew. Ms. Flory had set up three stations where the students were provided a recipe and the ingredients. The Thunder Bread station included a lesson on grinding the rye and wheat seeds into the needed into flour. Students were impressed by how much elbow grease it took to grind.
While enjoying the food at the feast, Ms. Flory and the teachers talked about how preparing this meal compared with the meals they eat now. How much work did each involve? Where did the ingredients come from, and what did it take to prepare them? How much waste was there from the ingredients in this process? The students were also asked to write a reflection about the experience and what they learned of Barbarian culture from this experience. Here is one:
When we had to prepare and plant the food, I was able to put myself into the shoes of the Barbarians and get a better idea of how they grew the crops that they depended on to live. The Barbarians had to plant the crops weeks or months before they would grow enough to be harvested. If they didn’t plant enough, or the crops became damaged, they would not have food and would go hungry later. I learned about how much work and time the Barbarians invested into their food. They had to cook from fresh ingredients and had no prepared mixes or snacks. They could only cook what was in season. We can cook whatever we want in any season because we have refrigerators and freezers to preserve food. They had to make their own butter, too. They cooked their food together in one pot as stew. We cook each food item as an individual part of our meals. They would cook over an open flame or clay oven. We have ovens, microwaves and or hot grills to prepare our meals.
Everyone needed to help out to prepare a meal. It took a lot of time and effort to just cook a three course meal, so it might be that they ate just once a day, if at all. The ingredients were hard to come by and it wasn’t very convenient for one person to try and make a big meal all by themselves, for it wasted food and time. This shaped their culture by bringing them together and helping them become a close community.
Overall, this interdisciplinary approach to our study of Germanic peoples was richer and more deeply understood by the students than a straightforward reading of Beowulf as a piece of literature and a study of the culture of these peoples. Students will hold onto their enduring understanding of this culture and its ideas and values.
About the Author
Director of Miss Fine's Center
6th Grade Humanities Teacher