I absolutely love teaching The Canterbury Tales, and when I do it right, I even make my students love it a little too. 😉 I’ve tried many different activities to teach Chaucer’s classic throughout the years, so I wanted to list the very best strategies for engaging students with this fun tale. You can find all of my Canterbury Tales activities, handouts, prompts, and projects in my Canterbury Tales Unit.
How to teach The Canterbury Tales with more engagement and wonder
In our book, Keeping the Wonder: An Educator’s Guide to Magical, Engaging, and Joyful Learning, we divide classroom wonder into four elements: surprise, curiosity, freedom, and inspiration. I thought it would be fun and helpful to organize my ideas for teaching The Canterbury Tales this way as well.
Teaching The Canterbury Tales with the Element of Surprise
Surprise students as they walk in by transforming your classroom into a Medieval tavern. If you enjoy being extra, you can go all out, but for a quick flip, just hit play on any ambient videos like this one: Medieval Fantasy Tavern
Although it shouldn’t be surprising, during my Canterbury Tales research I found a fantastic selection of People of Color in European Art History and was dumbstruck by the fact that I had never considered this artistic point-of-view. If you are using a textbook, chances are the images are of all white Medieval characters. You can subtly be more inclusive by printing off some diverse Medieval art to display in your classroom throughout the unit. They have a Tumblr account as well as a Twitter account. I find the commentary on their Twitter account to be so interesting and scroll worthy! I definitely fell down the classic art rabbit hole which brings me to my next element of wonder.
Sparking Curiosity with The Canterbury Tales
To spark curiosity in the Medieval Canterbury Tales, I like to bring it into the modern age. To do this, start out with something that teenagers are always interested in, themselves haha! In my Canterbury Tales introduction stations, several of the station stops provide community building and buy-in. For example, one station gives a Medieval job list with modern correlations for students to explore and another discusses modern-day pilgrimages that students might add to their bucket list. Another station in the pack is about language change, and students get to text part of the prologue. Here are some examples:
Since most British literature teachers begin with Beowulf and touch on Old English, it’s a natural continuum to teach The Canterbury Tales next as a way to bridge the language changes that brought about Middle English. To liven up your language change lecture, have students practice translating The Canterbury Tale’s prologue into Modern English by using text and emojis.
Adding Freedom to Your Canterbury Tales Lesson Plans
To make the Canterbury Tales prologue more enjoyable, I like to assign each student a different character to create a jigsaw reading assignment. Once they have their character, they read independently and then create a character profile. Students get to choose the character’s clever user name, design their picture using StoryBoardThat, and add other important characterization details.
Once each student finishes their profile, I play Medieval music while students walk around the room for a “meet and greet” with all the other characters. Students love this Canterbury Tales activity so much, and I love that it gets them up and moving while also providing an efficient way of learning about The Canterbury Tales characters.
Finding Inspiration for The Canterbury Tales
My inspiration for my Canterbury Tales unit plan came from the notion of “Storytelling for Social Change.” One thing that always amazes me about literature is how the themes repeat whether it is written in 1392 like The Canterbury Tales or 2022.
With each story, students analyze how Chaucer utilizes storytelling for social change and then students have the opportunity to write for social change themselves. They have the option to write a narrative for their local newspaper or plan a personal pilgrimage.
Speaking of personal pilgrimages, as my long-time blog readers know, I’m constantly inspired by podcasts so of course I had to pair one with the Canterbury Tales as well! This podcast pairing comes to you by one of my favorite travel heroes, Rick Steves.