Hello! I would like for the students with which I am working to gain a better perspective of what motivations were behind the writing of Beowulf, or Pride and Prejudice. In other words, I want them to research what was going on in the author's world/life that might have influenced the themes he/she chose to write about. a particular writer (Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen)
Do you all know of websites that can help them with this?
If you have a subscription to enotes for your class, there are wonderful resources here at enotes. You can find criticism and historical background. Another reference is the book What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew. It talks about Victorian England. For Beowulf, I would review the hero's journey megamyth and other archetypes.
While historical theory (how what was going on at the time of writing) is important, don't forget to teach them other literary theories as well. You might first teach about the different types of theories and show examples. Then let them choose the theory they want to use to analyze a piece of writing.
One of the best sources for helping students understand the historical and social background of Pride and Prejudice is Daniel Poole's What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Here is a link from amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Austen-Charles-Dickens-Whist-Nineteenth-Century/dp/0671882368
The book only costs $10.95 and is well worth it for the kind of interesting background information that will help students understand the Regency period (Austen) and Victorian period (Dickens). Besides, students love it! There was an excerpt from the book in the edition of Pride and Prejudice I taught from (in a former school), and when I assigned this excerpt, the kids came back the next day and said, "That was REALLY INTERESTING."
Also, there is a wealth of material available on Austen and Pride and Prejudice. There are Austen fans (or Austenites) who post anything and everything Austen, including historical background analyses. Start with e-notes, right here--always good for contextual background as well. It's so important for kids to understand why it is "shocking" when Elizabeth goes for a walk and gets her skirts muddied. They also wonder why Mr. Bennett doesn't work--they do not understand the concept of British aristocracy in the early nineteenth century. Good luck helping your students. The Poole book would be a great investment.
www.webenglishteacher.com is a good website for teaching literature in general, and it often has links to other sites that give more information about the authors.