Tips and ideas for teaching high school ELA

5 Activities to Engage Your Students When Teaching The Canterbury Tales

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Like Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales is often a staple in British Literature classrooms. However, it can be difficult for students to understand. The archaic language and the sheer length provide roadblocks.  Teaching The Canterbury Tales can sometimes feel like a chore – just another box on the Brit Lit canon checklist. 

Teaching this medieval masterpiece doesn’t have to be a daunting task. In this blog post, we’ll explore six engaging activities that will captivate your students’ interest and deepen their understanding of Chaucer’s timeless tales. Get ready to bring The Canterbury Tales to life in your classroom!

Before starting any long text, I like to provide background and historical context for the students. In the past, that information came in the form of the tried-and-true (albeit boring) PowerPoint presentation and guided notes. Over the last few years, however, I’ve started making the shift away from that method and started looking for more engaging ways to get the same material across. 

Enter virtual field trips. 

Transport your students on an immersive virtual field trip to the historic city of Canterbury, right from the classroom. Through online resources and multimedia platforms, they can experience the sights, sounds, and ambiance of the Canterbury Cathedral and its surroundings. This activity enhances their visual understanding of the setting, making teaching the Canterbury Tales more vibrant.

I opted to go a little broader for my Canterbury Tales virtual field trip. Each “day” focuses on a different aspect of the knowledge that I want students to get before we start the unit: Chaucer’s background and biography; the evolution of the English language; and a Google Earth exploration of Canterbury.   

Another go-to activity for any longer work is character analysis graphic organizers. There are so many characters in The Canterbury Tales that keeping track of them all can be daunting. Character analysis graphic organizers make that task a little bit easier. 

A few ideas: 

    • Give each student a character analysis organizer for each of the pilgrims mentioned in the Prologue. As students read the Prologue (and any accompanying tales), have them complete the handout.
    • Assign each student or group of students a specific pilgrim to track. This will allow students to focus on one character and not get overwhelmed by the number of pilgrims mentioned.  

Students can explore their pilgrim’s historical role, physical description, class hierarchy, contribution to the theme, and personality traits. 

If you chose option #2, students can then take the information on their graphic organizers and teach the rest of the class about their pilgrim (Canva is a great tool for creating impressive presentations). 

This activity develops critical thinking skills and fosters a deeper understanding of Chaucer’s characters.

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Students often wonder what is the point of studying something so old; they don’t often realize that these classic, canonical texts have served as the inspiration for so many other works. 

One way to bridge the gap between medieval literature and the modern world is by exploring modern adaptations of The Canterbury Tales. Encourage students to discover and analyze contemporary adaptations, such as film adaptations, TV series, or even graphic novels inspired by Chaucer’s tales. Through group discussions or individual reflections, students can explore the relevance of these adaptations and discuss the ways in which timeless themes are portrayed in a modern context. This activity will highlight the enduring impact of The Canterbury Tales on contemporary storytelling.

My go-to is A Knight’s Tale starring the late Heath Ledger as a squire seeking to remake himself into a knight. Paul Bettany (who many students may recognize as Vision from the Marvel franchise) plays Chaucer. This film was one of my first introductions to the Medieval era; I even did a whole presentation on it in my undergrad Medieval Lit class.  

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Another activity for teaching The Canterbury Tales is a modern retelling. Similar to the modern Beowulf activity mentioned here, this short writing lesson encourages students to tap into their creativity by challenging them to write their own tale inspired by The Canterbury Tales or create a modern retelling of Chaucer’s stories. Guided by storytelling elements, students can present their work through written narratives, illustrated stories, or even dramatic performances. This activity empowers students as storytellers, reinforcing their understanding of narrative structure while teaching The Canterbury Tales in an exciting and personal way.

I did this as part of my 12th-grade English class and still have my version somewhere (I may have a bit of a problem throwing out things 🤫). This is a great activity to not only practice those speaking and listening standards that oftentimes get overlooked but also for students to learn more about each other. 

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Another idea for adding some fun while teaching The Canterbury Tales is to bring the characters of The Canterbury Tales to life through a character interview podcast. In pairs or small groups, students select a character and imagine a conversation, asking thought-provoking questions about their experiences, motivations, and perspectives. Students can record and edit their interviews, infusing their interpretations and voices into the dialogue. This activity encourages creative expression, critical thinking, and oral communication skills.

One of my choices for my Crucible semester exam projects was a podcast. Students got into groups of three or four and recorded on one of their phones. They had to include at least one host and one character to be interviewed. The results were fantastic. 

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One of the concepts that may be hardest for students to understand when reading The Canterbury Tales is that of a pilgrimage. Many people today don’t participate in them, but pilgrimages were quite normal back in the Middle Ages. 

Connect the concept of pilgrimage to students’ lives by organizing a modern-day pilgrimage experience. This can be done in two ways: 

  1. Encourage students to embark on personal journeys, whether exploring local historical sites, engaging in acts of service, or pursuing personal growth. Documenting their experiences through journals, photographs, or videos, students draw parallels to the pilgrimage theme in The Canterbury Tales. This activity cultivates reflection, empathy, and a deeper understanding of the tales being taught.
  2. Take your students on a modern-day pilgrimage to a local landmark, such as a museum or historical site. Encourage them to document their journey and reflect on the experience, drawing connections between their pilgrimage and the journey of the characters in The Canterbury Tales.

There you have it. Five activities to engage your students when teaching The Canterbury Tales

What are your favorite CT lessons and activities? Leave a comment and let me know. 

And as always, happy teaching 😀

Heidi 

Looking for low-prep resources to add to your Canterbury Tales plans? Check out The Canterbury Tales Unit Plan. 

Interested in reading more about my favorite British Literature units? Check out this post: 

7 Units for a Complete Brit Lit Curriculum

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