Teaching from the Known to the Unknown
I was working with the Chaucer unit in Excellence in Literature: British Literature this morning, and thinking about the ways in which The Canterbury Tales can be made accessible to students. These stories are funny, startling, and sometimes appalling, and most students will enjoy them, if they’re presented in the right way. Let’s look at alternative ways of introducing Chaucer:
1- The Do-or-Die Method
Hand your students the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English (the first sentence is below), and demand that they read the whole thing and turn in a 1000-word essay by Friday.
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
2- The Shallow-Well Method
Watch the animated version from a library video, or a YouTube home video version of one of the tales. Have your students write a one-page essay about how one of the stories makes them feel.
3- The Building Block Method
Introduce Chaucer and the Canterbury tales by using a good Modern English translation of the Prologue to set the scene. Provide background material to explain the purpose and format of the Tales and the historical and literary context, and listen to an audio version of the Prologue in Middle English. Read, listen to, or watch a translated version before moving into the original.
Finally, provide a good annotated version of the story (the one in the Norton Anthology of English Literature is good), and have the student read (and possibly listen to) the tales and write an analytical essay of reasonable length, depending upon age and ability.
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weal.
(Translation from the Medieval Sourcebook.)
Which method do you suppose is more effective? I’ve always found it much more effective to approach a challenging subject from something that is easily accessible or already known. Teaching Shakespeare or Sophocles becomes easier if you begin with the literary and historic context, a summary of the plot, a willingness to look up unknown vocabulary words, and an idea of what the author is trying to convey. Starting with an illustrated children’s version of a complex classic may seem a bit odd, but it can be the key to developing interest and understanding. Never underestimate simplicity!