Winner of the 2015 TEAMS Teaching Prize, K-12)
The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, CA
In a shameless effort to increase enrollment, my semester course for high school juniors and seniors in Medieval Literature varies in its subtitles, which include “Passion and Punishment” and “Devils, Dreams, and Dragons.” Though the texts vary slightly from year to year, one of the specific goals of this course is to have students understand literary allegory and to interpret and write critically about allegory and symbol in literature. To this end, I often teach selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as texts that render a spiritual journey more tangible and more human; those that explore the experiences of common man with the philosophical insight of high literature. As one would expect, paradoxes arise consistently: man is free when he submits himself; the world is simultaneously material and spiritual; Fortune can mean failure. It’s confusing. As upperclassmen, my students are generally comfortable with the concept of metaphor, but grasping the more complex and frequently rhetorical allegorical structures on which medieval texts so often rely requires a focused exercise.
In the transition between reading the works of Dante and Chaucer, I have found that the Gawain Poet’s Pearl echoes the highly ordered structure in The Divine Comedy while providing students some experience with Middle English words before we begin reading The Canterbury Tales.i More specifically, we are able to confront complex allegory in a short piece; we follow the journey of the poem’s dreamer, we misunderstand the meanings of words and concepts, and when we think that we may have found the answer, the pearl-maiden clarifies that we misunderstand. Like the dreamer, we ultimately gain understanding by moving beyond our first impressions to include contradictions and connections. Additionally, students learn how to use the Middle English Dictionary and the OED Dictionary Online; and when students prepare, share, and apply researched information to better inform their reading of the text, they emerge with a sense of what “research” means in the study of literature. One of the primary methods of this course is the participation in seminar style discussion, which facilitates opportunities to construct questions and ideas that students can articulate in composition. For successful discussion, it is crucial that all participants in a discussion have a voice and come to the table with independent thoughts, questions, and examples, so the lesson is fashioned accordingly.
Following a complete reading of the Gawain Poet’s Pearl (I use Marie Boroff’s translation), we revisit our observations about link-words (the individual stanzas within each section of 5 stanzas are linked by words set in the last verse of the first stanza in each group; these words then appear in the first and last lines of the remaining stanza). For the next three class days, the overall task is to learn more about the meanings and connotations of these words during the time in which the text was written; make observations about the connections between sections of the poem; and culminate in a large group discussion and individual written reflections about how these words function in the text. For the first class day, I separate the students into small groups (Table 1), and they help each other to look up the definitions of the link-words in the MED online — this can take some practice, and without standardized spelling is not an exact science.
Link word group assignments
|Group 1||Group 2||Group 3||Group 4||Group 5|
|Stanza Sections I-IV||Stanza Sections V-VIII||Stanza Sections I-IV||Stanza Sections I-IV||Stanza Sections I-IV|
|without spot adornment more and more adorned||jeweler judge my bliss Queen of Courtesy||date more God is great enough by right||spotless pearl Jerusalem nevertheless without a spot/city||Apostle John sun and moon great delight prince’s pleasure|
|wythouten spot adubbement more and more py3t||juelere deme my blysse Quen of cortaysye||date more God is gret innoghe by ryght||perle maskellez Jerusalem never be lesse wythouten mote||apostel John sunne and mone gret delyt princes paye
Each group creates a shared Google Document on which to save the URL for each word (they create a list of words and hyperlinks to their definitions). Since these five documents are shared with me as well, I follow the initial Group Documents as each is created during class and insert comments to indicate completion or missing elements.
Group members then select individual words, and each student continues work independently. Starting in class and continuing as homework, each student creates a Google Slides presentation with four or five specifically organized slides so that the research information is organized efficiently and easy to share (Table 2). This step is designed to familiarize students with the range of definitions of a word, the variation of language within historical context, and with this information, they consider the range of possible connotations that may be associated with a single word. Their brief commentary articulates how word study impacts their understanding of the text.
Student notes from research on “spot”
|OED Definition||moral stain, stigma — stain, small space|
|MED Definition||stain, physical flaw, character defect— place|
|Context||used to convey both imperfection and location; location at beginning of verses, imperfection at the end (?)|
|Connotations||Perfection and Location as significant themes; ambiguous location (concrete/ethereal); “without a spot” = perfection is also without an earthly location (?)|
Since students share their work with me electronically, I am able to quickly view each of the word study presentations and indicate if the research is appropriate to the task and context, as well as to assess their completion and the quality of their application of definition to analysis.
In the second class meeting, students are prepared to share their findings with the others in the small group and discuss their ideas with guiding questions. Once they have examined words individually, they are asked to make observations about how the words are used to link each part of the poem to the next: “What observations can you make about tone? About context? Do you note patterns and contrasts?” Following small group discussion, students return to their original group document and add observations. This format allows me both to note how individual group members contribute to the larger list and to make my own comments and encouragement about their observations. Again, I make an assessment as to how well statements of observation reflect synthesis of information. For the second homework assignment, group members are asked to re-read the 20 stanzas for their assigned group from beginning to end in one sitting before making any changes or additions to the group document in preparation for large group discussion. Students may also add comments to the observations written by their classmates.
Observations/Questions for Discussion:
1. The Jeweler is also the dreamer, and he is looking for his Pearl, but he has to
judge if she is the real Pearl. (Jake)
a. The jeweler is called “joyless,” then twice called “proper,” then twice
called “joyful,” but what makes him change? (Alyssa)
2. To judge can also be “to deem” as a verb. Judge is a person or an act. It seems like the jeweler’s job is to judge or deem if something is valuable, but God is the judge of the jeweler. (Alyssa)
a. Is judging positive or negative? It seems like this is the one in the group that is more serious. (Justin)
3. Bliss can be a source of but also a place. There are multiple sources of bliss and they are different for the Dreamer and Pearl. (Justin)
a. Does who she represents change according to if she is the source of Bliss or in the place of Bliss? (Alyssa)
4. Just like with Bliss, Queen of Courtesy can be more than one thing. “Quen” can be Pearl (“one of the female elect in heaven as the bride of Christ”) or the Virgin Mary, but “Quen” can also be a noble woman with authority. She is the Queen of either politeness and good manners, or of a whole system of values in the court. (Christiana)
By the third class meeting, students are well prepared to participate in a formal discussion format in which they can take the lead in answering the opening questions:
- If we look at the poem through the link-words, what can we add to our reading?
- What images and meanings are emphasized through repetition?
- What contrasts and juxtapositions arise?
- How do these words help us to make sense of the allegory of the dreamer’s vision?
In this format, students are individually assessed on the quality of their contributions, listening, and level of focus. At the conclusion of the discussion period, I briefly share my notes and observations about the content of the large group discussion in an effort to synthesize their ideas and highlight productive questions that they might consider when writing reflections.) Then, to provide an opportunity to review individual and group notes, synthesize information, and to share additional ideas that went unvoiced in discussion, students write a 1-2 page reflection as homework to develop ideas in anticipation of writing an essay. Generally, I assess these based on the sophistication of the content (rather than composition), and I annotate these reflections to help provide students a direction for thesis development in a more formal essay. Additionally, I find that this approach helps me to formulate essay prompts that arise from student generated ideas and to better judge what gaps I need to bridge before they write an essay of analysis.
In an earlier version of this lesson, I used to have students complete slideshows to share with whole group, but this was inefficient and did not allow for mini-discussions in which students formulated better insights and questions to bring to the larger discussion table. The shared document approach enables me to comment on student work much more quickly (even while they are in class), and helps students to feel individually accountable for their contributions to the group work.
Anticipating Chaucer, their familiarity with the potential nuances in a single word or image helps us to tackle a dual-language edition of The Canterbury Tales. As a variation, when there is not time to complete this unit, or just in addition when students are enthusiastic, we complete a similar exercise with words from Chaucer’s text: gentil, fre, chivalrie, honour, pitie, estat, largesse, worthinesse. For students, it feels a bit like detective work, and it encourages a willingness to employ research tools that might require more than the initial impulse to “Google it.” While the unfamiliar quality of language, form, and allegorical imagery are typically obstacles in teaching medieval texts, in this case they become entry points that provide the experience for further study.
† The text I refer to throughout is Marie Borroff’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, Pearl: Verse Translations. W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
Citation: The Once and Future Classroom, Volume XII, Issue 1 (Fall 2015)
NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted. No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.