It’s not easy to make Middle Ages poet Geoffrey Chaucer appealing to high school students.
Iambic pentameter isn’t high on the fun list either.
Yet students in a humanities class at Evergreen High School that combines 11th-grade world history and world English tried a contemporary approach.
English teacher Amy Graham asked students to create a 60-line Chaucer-esque poem that talked about a group of people at the school, similar to the stories Chaucer tells in “Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer wrote in iambic pentameter, which means each line of the poem must have 10 syllables, and each two lines must rhyme.
Then the students took a pilgrimage around the school — just like the pilgrimage in “Canterbury Tales” — to recite their tales. They covered everything from school athletes and teachers to nerds, jocks and the popular kids.
After the pilgrimage, the students had a potluck feast in their classroom and voted on the best tale. Junior Danny Golden won for his tale about a stereotypical football player deciding who would be his stereotypical girlfriend.
Bringing Chaucer to life is one of many projects that Graham and her colleague, history teacher Alayna Bloom, have concocted to get students interested in both history and English.
“Combining the two allows students to make stronger connections and go deeper into both the history and literature components,” Bloom said. “Plus we try to link what they are studying to more contemporary cultural developments.”
For example, students read the “Allegory of the Cave,” a work by Greek philosopher Plato, and looked at parallels with the movie “The Matrix.”
“If you understand the literature, it will help you understand the culture of the time period,” Bloom said.
This is the first year that Bloom and Graham have taught the combined course. Students get separate grades for world history and for world English, and the classes are taught back to back. Some days they spend more time on the history piece, while others are more heavily focused on English.
Recently, students wrote a paper about the bubonic plague that hit Europe and North Africa during the Middle Ages. Graham graded the writing component, while Bloom looked at the historical aspects.
Bloom says she got the idea from classes she took at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The university offered interdisciplinary classes that she felt were able to connect the dots for students.
Graham said the class has helped her look at different pieces of literature to teach in the class to keep it closely aligned with the history.
As far as they know, EHS is the only high school in Jefferson County offering a course in this manner.
The Chaucerian poems got mixed reviews from students. Some thought they were difficult to write, given the strict parameters of iambic pentameter. Others found them pretty easy.
Junior Nick Pierce said writing 60 lines of Chaucer-like poetry was difficult, but his poem about different groups at school taught him that he could learn to do it.
Junior Lucas Snuffin enjoyed writing his Chaucerian poem about runners.
“It allowed me to get creative,” he said.
Some of the introductions in the Chaucerian poetry:
Here in the lunchroom they are together,
To eat and laugh and escape cold weather.
Groups of friends and cliques all scattered around
The noise created will likely astound.
— Ande Hesser
Many decades ago, the world agree
Teachers were a must; it was a decree.
It all began with the priests and preachers.
Many saw these men as strange and bleaker.
But as time went on, their importance rose.
Education was trending, that we know.
— Linsey Crouse
Let me tell my opinion of a group.
All they do is run around in a loop.
With their new shoes, shining flash white with gloss,
Man, they truly think that they are the boss.
— Lucas Snuffin