Teaching Chaucer to Year 7

There are many things I did not think possible when I began teaching. The above didn’t even cross my mind. I studied The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when I was in year 12, and the wonderful Mrs Grinham made us love it (it was hard to dislike anything she taught; she sat at her desk, book in hand, and seemed to simply chat to us in the lightest, richest voice I ever have heard, interspersing literary gems with nuggets about knitting, baking and her grandchildren. I think it was looking at Mrs Grinham in her perfectly tailored clothes and perfectly shaped bob that made me think “I’d like to be like that one day”).

But teaching Chaucer to year 7? How we had struggled with the language and spent the first three weeks entirely blank-faced, as Mrs Grinham patiently explained the intricate meanings of each Middle English word.

So when my colleague, Ms Moran, told us last year she was teaching Chaucer to year 7, I personally thought she was having a laugh.

A word about Ms Moran: you know how people say watching a great teacher is like watching an artist? Ms Moran is probably the Monet of teachers. I have literally never seen a better teacher in my life. Oh, and you know people say: “but no-one is outstanding in every lesson.” Well, she is. I’ve sat next to her in the English office for nearly three years and 100% of her lessons are pure pedagogical genius.

She’s rolled out her scheme of work to the rest of the department for this year and we’re all giving it a go. As I’ve said previously, our department rarely works in tandem with each other. We’re encouraged to teach what we love, so our classes are usually experiencing very different topics at different times in different ways. Yet every year the whole of year 7 have a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, from our school in Southwark. Sound familiar? Almost irresistible for us English teachers. The RS department was keen to enlist English in making year 7 feel like modern-day pilgrims, and give the trip that cross-curricular dimension.

Obviously, the language is hard for them. The first lesson begins with a fifteenth century text of “The Prodigal Son”, a text our Church of England girls (the very vast majority) are familiar with. This eases them into Middle English, of which they explored only odd lines. The first lesson was a run-through of the pilgrims, with some lines from the opening, which they were scared of. Yet the challenge of those words really excited the students; with enough group work, one child suddenly “getting it” rippled through the class.

By the third lesson (after, I will mention, some extremely thoughtful chunking by Ms Moran of the lesson content), my students were quoting from the original text of the Portrait of the Miller to support their points about him. They were even able to explain the ideas behind some of the words. It was a complete joy to hear one student saying “this one’s my favourite line!” and explaining why.

Our pilgrimage to Canterbury was sadly less Chaucerian than we might have hoped. There were three modern coaches, for example; no horses; and a number of electronic pacifiers to ensure we teachers weren’t unduly subjected to mass-singing (though some did break out on the way back).

Of course, many did talk to each other. I wonder if any told stories? When our all-girls school coach was passed by a coach containing members of a male cricket team, there was immense excitement of some would-be wives of Bath.

At the Cathedral, our tour guide (a volunteer, and allegedly nearing 80, though looking and sounding far younger) took a small group of us around the Cathedral, using stories to engage his group. The students were especially excited by the “ghost of Thomas Becket” seen from a certain angle. In the afternoon, they settled onto the grass around the Cathedral to begin to plan their own pilgrimage story, complete with moral aspect.

So far, so good. This experience has taught me that there isn’t really a limit on difficulty of text. Properly supported, students will enjoy and learn with any text. Why not make it a great one?

Although my aim of teaching Beowulf in its original Old English may be a step to far…

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