Teaching Medieval Culture through Performance in the Middle School Classroom

Ellen O’Malley (Trinity School, New York, NY)

The theme of the Middle Ages in Europe is an important component of the fifth grade World Cultures history curriculum that I teach at the Trinity School in New York City. The range of topics includes early Viking raids, the feudal system, the growth of manors and towns, the architecture of magnificent cathedrals and castles, the Black Death, and the Crusades. In addition, I often incorporate many multidisciplinary lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners and student interests. We discuss medieval mythology and legends, and we read historical fiction novels set in the Middle Ages, such as the 2003 Newbery Medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi or the 1995 Newbery Honor book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman.[1] Other creative lessons have revolved around art, drama, music, food, and entertainment. The culminating project for the medieval unit requires that each student research and write an investigative report about a medieval topic of his or her choice. The students showcase their research projects during a daylong mini-museum exhibit.

My first experience of using performance as a way to introduce students to the Middle Ages was four years ago while using the 2008 Newbery Medal winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz.[2] Schlitz’s nineteen monologues and two dialogues provide the opportunity for all of my fifth grade students to be equally active participants. The useful connection with Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is that all the monologues are of children living in an English medieval village, a natural connection to pique the interest of young learners. The assignment encourages each child to prepare a first-person narration of his or her assigned character. Students may memorize the entire script or some of the lines, bring in props, and dress in costume. Each student is required to be familiar with the character’s script and be able to present it with confidence and poise. This lesson became an immediate favorite for my students and for me. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate each child’s character dramatization, use of props, and oratory skills. The use of performance to educate proves successful because it promotes a fun and entertaining classroom atmosphere, as well as a unique bonding experience for all class members. Most importantly, there is usually laughter and applause from the class and a sense of pride from each student participant. Yet with all lessons there can be shortcomings or pitfalls. For example, one year I inadvertently made the mistake of assigning a monologue that dealt directly with the death of a father to a student who had recently lost his father. As soon as I realized the mistake, I reassigned his monologue. Since the monologues range in length, it is also a good idea to think about the variety of personalities in the classroom and assign each narrative according to each student’s persona. For instance, to the high-achieving student you may want to give a longer piece and to the more reserved student, a shorter one. To ensure student confidence and success, it is paramount that you make this an extended homework assignment and that you also allow time during scheduled class meetings for students to practice and preview their monologues. As the instructor, it is extremely important to read each script before presenting the lesson. You may even want the entire class to read the book together and then solicit student preferences. (See Appendices A and B below for lesson plan and evaluation form.)

Today, the internet offers the advantage of online educational tools, such as the website Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase, which offer an excellent complement to a multidisciplinary curriculum on medieval history and culture.[3] Each year, as I commence my medieval studies unit, students often inquire about knights and, inevitably, the subject of King Arthur surfaces during class discussions. Throughout my early years of teaching, I presented several lessons and read short stories pertaining to knights and King Arthur. With the onset of advanced computer technology and my school’s installation of SMART Board interactive whiteboard systems, my classroom has gradually changed to incorporate more interactive software. Sharing video clips and websites is now a basic part of the curriculum. I can instruct students about knights and King Arthur using the web. Additionally, I am able to implement a variety of creative ways to connect history through the use of literature, storytelling, and performance. For example, while teaching students about the role and expectations of medieval knights, I can also discuss the legend of King Arthur through storytelling and performance, which provide other media for students to understand Arthurian literature.

To make this history truly come alive, I have begun to utilize the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website. Viewing dramatized performances helps visual and auditory learners: they see the rich props and hear the compelling dialogue. Furthermore, I can stimulate student thinking by asking larger questions that are fundamental to the issues of medieval life. Questions that I have asked students to consider before and after viewing the video clips include:

Before:

· What does literacy mean? Did you know that many people in the Middle Ages could not read or write?

· Who could read and write during medieval times?

After:

· What does it mean to be non-literate, where you wouldn’t read stories but only hear stories being told?

· How might your childhood be different if you and almost every single person around you were non-literate?

· What was the role of the medieval minstrel?

· What would it be like to have minstrel performance as your main source of entertainment? No movies, no television, no Wii, no iPods, and no computer games!

· What would you enjoy about having live performances as your main source of entertainment?

· How is experiencing a story that is performed for you different from your most common experience of reading a story by yourself?

(See Appendix C for the full Student Response Sheet.)

My lesson plan using the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website focuses on having individual students view video clips of professional performers and university students sharing their interpretation of Arthurian legends and other medieval stories. First and foremost, my students are being exposed to Arthurian literature and dramatized performances to learn about past legends and the art of storytelling. Secondarily, after viewing the video clips, I am able to ask a series of gleaning questions related to literacy, the role of the minstrel, and the power of storytelling.

The lesson was a great success. My students were engaged and focused as they listened and watched each video clip. Many students commented that the narratives were “cool” and “fun to watch.” They laughed and reenacted some of the performances on their own. Students especially liked the clip of “Yvain: Yvain fights boldly, defeats Count Alier” and the spellbinding performance of “Silence: Minstrels arrive.” These two clips were especially good for my fifth grade audience because the narrative language was clear, the stories were performed in Modern English translation, and the length of each clip kept everyone mesmerized.

Their responses and questions regarding preliteracy and entertainment were mature, and demonstrated their ability to make their own thoughtful connections concerning the importance of how one receives and communicates information. One boy commented, “It would be annoying not to be able to read.” Another child wrote, “If my main source of information were from the minstrel, I would feel like the people who could read and write were more powerful.” Another student commented, “We are so lucky to live in the United States, because some countries in the world do not require children to receive an education.”

Before beginning this lesson, it is important for the instructor to set the “stage” for the students viewing the clips. Young people of today are exposed to multimedia on a daily basis and will need to be reminded that these clips were not created for YouTube exposure or designed from the glamour of a Hollywood studio. The clips were created as “resources for scholars, teachers, students, and performers to explore contemporary performance of medieval narrative.”[4] Essentially the clips provide medieval stories to be shared with the modern-day classroom through the art of performance. (See Appendix D for suggested Teacher’s Guide.)

Since my classroom is comprised of fifth grade students ranging in age from ten to eleven years old, it is my recommendation that all lessons regarding the use of the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website be conducted at school and not be given as homework assignments. The lessons should be completed within the confines of the classroom to ensure internet safety and to maintain well-defined parameters. My school has a policy regarding acceptable internet use that all students and their parents are required to sign at the start of each school year. This policy provides the framework of what is considered proper and safe conduct while using the internet. I also prefer to be present when students access the web to ensure they are using the correct web address and to troubleshoot any unforeseen technical glitches.

Performance dramatization is a very useful classroom tool for learning medieval history. It can help students of all ages to think and discuss real issues that affected people in the world during a different and difficult time period. Fortunately, with the opportunity today to use a variety of technological aides, such as the Performing Medieval Narrative Today website, teachers like myself can help their students expand their critical thinking beyond the traditional curriculum.

[Appendices A-D below]

Appendix A

Grade Five History
Lesson Plan
Medieval Performance
Ellen O’Malley
Trinity School, New York

Medieval Performance
Monologue Assignment

Objective: To use literature and performance to provide middle school students with an alternative way of better understanding life in the Middle Ages from a young person’s perspective. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz can be a starting point for teachers as they introduce and teach students about medieval times.

Assignment: Each student will be assigned a character from the 2008 Newbery Medal winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. The assignment is to prepare a first-person narration in the character’s voice. Students can memorize the entire script or some of the lines, bring in props, and dress in costume. Most importantly each student should be familiar with the character’s script and be able to present to the class with confidence and poise.

Appendix B

Grade Five History
Evaluation Form
Medieval Performance
Ellen O’Malley
Trinity School, New York

Medieval Performance
Monologue Assignment
Evaluation Form

Name of Student_____________________________ Homeroom___________________
Evaluation of Monologue Presentation Date______________

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

Character__________________________________________

Narration Skills
Voice Projection Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Fluidly of Speech Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Eye Contact Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Body Gestures Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Facial Expressions Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Connection with the Audience Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Preparation
Costume and Props Poor Good Very Good Excellent
Familiarity of character and script Poor Good Very Good Excellent

Teacher’s comments:

Appendix C

Grade Five History
Student Response Sheet
Medieval Knights: History and Performance of Arthurian Literature
Ellen O’Malley
Trinity School, New York

Questions to Consider Before Viewing Video Clips

What does literacy mean? Did you know that many people in the Middle Ages could not read or write?

Who could read and write during medieval times?

What was the role of the medieval minstrel?

How does music influence our everyday life?

Literacy

What might it be like to be non-literate—where you wouldn’t read stories, but only hear stories being told or see stories performed?

How might your childhood be different if you and almost every single person around you were non-literate?

Minstrel Entertainment

What would it be like to have minstrel performances as your main source of entertainment? No movies, no televisions, no Wii, no iPods, and no computer games?

What would you enjoy about having live performers as your main source of entertainment?

How is experiencing a story that is performed for you different from your most common experience of reading a story by yourself?

Musical Influence in Storytelling

How can music add to the telling of a story?

What instruments do you recognize when you hear medieval music?

How does medieval music sound to you? Funny? Sad? Scary? Happy? Weird?

Appendix D

Grade Five History
Lesson Plan Medieval Knights: History and Performance of Arthurian Literature
Ellen O’Malley
Trinity School, New York

Teacher’s Guide
Medieval Knights
History and Performance of Arthurian Literature

Objectives:

– To introduce middle school students to medieval knights and the legends of King Arthur.

– To provide a multidisciplinary approach both to learning Arthurian legends through performance and to asking a wide variety of global questions that impact students’ learning and thinking today.

SMART Board presentation plan (click to view PDF version):

Slide 1: Cover page, including lesson title, teacher’s name, and lesson objectives

Slide 2: Title: King Arthur and Medieval Knights

Slide 3: The Man behind the Legend: Picture of the world map and factual information about the British leader Arturius

Slide 4: Image of the Knights of the Round Table

Optional Lesson Objective: Instruct students about online encyclopedia resources. Click icon to demonstrate how to use World Book Online <http://www.worldbookonline.com>.

Slide 5: Image of King Arthur. Click icon to explore information about the training and weaponry of medieval knights. <http://library.thinkquest.org/10949/fief/medknight.html>

Optional Lesson Objective: Instruct students on Note Taking Skills using the Cornell Method. (See Slide 21)

Slide 6: Discussion questions exploring the Code of Honor

Slide 7: Discussion of modern-day heroes

Slide 8: Review the meaning of the term “legend”

Slide 9: Homework Assignment: Write a paragraph about your hero

Slide 10: Knights of the Round Table, Arthurian Legends. Click icon for more informative background. <http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/roundtable.html>

Part II Interdisciplinary Lesson: Learning Arthurian Legends through Performance

Slide 11: Introduce the website Performing Medieval Narrative Today <http://www.nyu.edu/pmnt>. Click picture for homepage. Instruct students that they will be viewing a series of clips of performances to help them understand the interdisciplinary connection of using dramatic performance and literature to comprehend Arthurian legends. After students view four clips, each student will be asked to answer reflective questions.

Slide 12: Interdisciplinary questions to explore before viewing clips

Slide 13: Clip title: “Gawain: Green Knight’s challenge.” Click picture image and view video clip. <http://mednar.org/2012/06/18/gawain-green-knights-challenge/>

Slide 14: Clip title: “Wedding of Gawain: What do women want?” Click picture image and view video clip. <http://mednar.org/2012/06/13/wedding-of-gawain-what-do-women-want/>

Slide 15: Clip title: “Yvain: Yvain fights boldly, defeats Count Alier.” Click picture image and view video clip. <http://mednar.org/2012/06/13/yvain-yvain-fights-boldly-defeats-count-alier/>

Slide 16: Clip title: “Silence: Minstrels arrive.” Click picture image and view video clip. <http://mednar.org/2012/06/18/silence-minstrels-arrive/>

Slide 17: Reflective questions about literacy after viewing Performing Medieval Narrative Today video clips

Slide 18: Reflective questions about minstrel entertainment after viewing Performing Medieval Narrative Today video clips

Slide 19: Reflective questions about musical influence in storytelling after viewing Performing Medieval Narrative Today video clips

Slide 20: Blank

Slide 21: Sample Cornell Note Taking Template

[1] Avi, Crispin: The Cross of Lead (New York, Hyperion, 2002); Karen Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy (New York, Harper Trophy, 1994).

[2] Laura Amy Schlitz, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (Cambridge, MA; Candlewick, 2007).

[3] Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase <http://www.nyu.edu/pmnt>.

[4] See the About page of the Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase.

Ellen O’Malley is the fifth grade dean and history teacher at the Trinity School in New York City, where she resides with her husband, John, and their children, Johnny and Annie. She holds a BA from Providence College, and a MA from both Lesley University and Teachers College of Columbia University.


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 2, Fall 2012  http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2012/Fall2012Culture.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies