Teaching the Canterbury Tales in American High Schools
By Donna Dermond,
Chaucer: An Oxford Guide, edited by Steve Ellis (Oxford, 2005)
Introduction: Chaucer’s poetry is disappearing from the American high school curriculum. A number of interrelated reasons account for its gradual demise: the absence of a standard, national curriculum, choices about curriculum which are often based on the ethnic makeup of individual classrooms, a diminishing number of teachers who have a passion for teaching Chaucer, and American high school students’ limited knowledge of and interest in the history and literature of the Middle Ages. Many educators believe that Chaucer will be taught in fewer and fewer American high schools.
Despite formidable obstacles, teachers have developed creative and effective ways to engage students with Chaucer’s texts. Educators have discovered what many other readers have discovered: the material itself is intrinsically fascinating and engaging since it speaks to the human condition across the ages. The essence of teaching Chaucer is to engage high school students in his poetry so that his words speak directly to them.
This paper describes four proven techniques to engage students. They include:
- Inquiry: a student-directed method of exploring the Middle Ages and understanding the contexts for the Canterbury Tales.
- Character Map: a visual method to understand the various characters in the Canterbury Tales.
- Chaucerian Pilgrimage: a technique in which students create their own pilgrimage to important and interesting places on their campus, while relating tales they have developed in the style of Chaucer.
- Students as Teachers: a format in which students teach selected Canterbury Tales to their classmates.
No standard curriculum guides American high schools. Instead, each of the fifty states and more importantly, thousands of local school districts, are responsible for educational content. A state with a standard curriculum is rare, and even at district and school levels common curriculum is unusual. In most cases, individual teachers determine course content.
Since the United States is geographically so large, the population so diverse, and the desire to make sure that government does not dictate to citizens so strong, there may never be a standard curriculum in American high schools. Of course individual states expect students to demonstrate prescribed levels of competence in reading and writing before graduation, but teachers reach these goals in literally hundreds of ways. In the United States, teachers choose from a myriad of high quality texts to teach reading skills.