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Teaching the Characters of The Canterbury Tales

By Shelia Odak

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales can be a hard text to teach to students of any level. One of the best ways I have found to present this work is to pick out some of the more popular tales and let groups of students teach the stories to their fellow class members.

Letting the students take charge of presenting selections from The Canterbury Tales has resulted in creative and memorable presentations that make this work more fun for the entire class. The following is a breakdown of how I present the assignment.

Selecting the Tales to Teach

Because this work is so long and complicated, I choose some of the more well-known tales to teach in class. These usually include The General Prologue, The Pardoner’s Tale,The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, The Wife of Bath Prologue, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, and The Knight’s Tale, which I break into two sections.

Lesson Instructions

Divide the class into groups of three or four. Each of the groups is assigned one of The Canterbury Tales. The group is then responsible for teaching the class that tale. Each group has a set of tasks that must be completed during the presentation, and the group members will be graded on these tasks.

Procedures for the Presentations

Each group must do the following:

  1. Create a set of at least five discussion questions for the class. The questions will be handed out at the beginning of class. The class members will have a few minutes to write answers for the questions (no more than 10-15 minutes). The group is then responsible for leading a class discussion about the questions. This discussion period will last at least 10 minutes.
  2. Present an organized summary of the assigned tale. They should not simply read the summary off a piece of paper, though they can use notes. They must be able to talk in detail about their assigned tale. The summary should illustrate their familiarity with the story. The group must also use some sort of visual with the summary. I specify that they are not allowed to draw a poster because I am looking for something more creative. For example, when I have given this assignment, students have done everything from creating a short film to dressing in costume and reenacting a tale. This should also last at least 10 minutes.
  3. Give an analysis of the story. This can include a discussion of the type of character featured in the tale (what kind of life that person would have led, what his/her job was all about, etc.), as well as the symbolism and themes found within the work. This component should also use some type of visual (again, not a poster). A PowerPoint works well with this section. This should last about 10 minutes.

Further Instructions

Explain to the students that they should not simply copy Sparknotes, and that doing so will result in a 0. They may use online sources to gather information, which they must document during the presentation, but they should present ideas from many different sources and do so in a unique way.

The Grading Policy

Evaluate each group on the following components:

  • The discussion questions: Were the questions well thought out, and were the group members ready to discuss them?
  • Whether or not all group members participated equally in the presentation.
  • How well the group handled questions and comments from the audience.
  • The organization of the overall presentation.
  • The engagement with the class: Was the group able to keep the class interested and discussing the text?
  • The group’s familiarity with the tale.
  • The use of visuals: Did the visuals enhance the presentation? How creative were they?