‘The Canterbury Tales’ comes to life at CHS

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Cullman High School students show off their “Canterbury Tales” projects, which feature everything from sock puppets to piñatas. (Cullman City Schools)

CULLMAN, Ala. – One of the great English literature classics came to life recently at Cullman High School, as literature students were tasked with telling a story from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

But telling stories that date back to the late 1300s and are written in Middle English is no easy task. So, the students got creative in a few ways that would’ve probably made Chaucer himself chuckle if he were still around.

Students were broken into groups and tasked with adapting one of the Canterbury Tales’ 24 different stories, which included both a summary for the rest of the class and a presentation to convey the tale to their classmates. Students took the concept and ran with it, with groups pulling out everything from real-life piñata’s to makeshift puppet shows to tell their tale.

“Within the guidelines provided, the kids have considerable creative leeway to teach their assigned tale. Each group has to become experts on their one tale and then teach it to the others who haven’t read it,” Denise Burroughs, English and literature teacher at Cullman High School, said. “A couple of groups chose to tell the tale through a puppet show (one group made paper bag puppets and one group made sock puppets). The piñata — completely the kids’ idea — was actually a very clever and school appropriate metaphor for part of ‘The Miller’s Tale.’”

Burroughs noted that projects like this, which create space for students to think outside the box and get creative with how they approach an assignment, is one of the best ways to get students to truly engage with and care about the material.

“Students become much more invested in internalizing themes and ideas when they are given choices to express their learning in ways that interest them. I am always amazed by the creativity and depth of thought they convey when they are given the freedom to delve into a text from the vantage point of their own passions,” she said. “Especially with my AP students, I incorporate several big projects throughout the year. Sometimes they are required to work in groups to foster cooperation and collaboration. Other times, they may choose to work on their own or with others.”

Burroughs noted the students had fun with the project, laughing and encouraging one another along the way. But most importantly, they conveyed a clear knowledge of the material they were interacting with, teaching students that even stories that pre-dated our modern version of English itself can still be as entertaining as ever.

“I believe these literary classics are still as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago. These authors were exploring in their time periods the same issues we deal with in contemporary society,” she said. “What it means to be human has not changed since the beginning of time; we all experience love, hate, joy, fear, discomfort, frustration, social injustice, pain, laughter, etc. The students seem to enjoy these works because they can relate.”